On Saturday we took a trip to two most fascinating places of Vietnamese religious identity in northern Vietnam – the Catholic cathedral in Phat Diem, and the new Buddhist pagoda complex at BaiDinh. The Phat Diem cathedral is an excellent example of what the Vietnamese do best – absorb foreign cultures, whether Chinese or Western, and adapt them to their own situation. A cathedral with a drum that is beat and a bell that is rung to announce mass. A rock garden to remember the garden of Gethsemane. Mary dressed in an ao di – though curiously looking very western. A stone church with symbols of Chinese ‘double happiness’ and stone-etched flowers that reflect Vietnamese symbolsof the four seasons. ‘Bamboo’ pillars made of stone, and a curved roofline arching upward like the proverbial Vietnamese stork. A quiet lake in the pattern of traditional Vietnamese garden graces the front.
The church took 24 years to construct and was built on low-lying marshland, so the foundation required 30 million bamboo stakes to be driven into the ground to firm it up.
Bai Dinh pagoda complex is a soaring spectacle to the confidence and emerging religious identity of Vietnam. Constructed from 2003-2010, the 1000 acres of land are a tribute to the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. Enormous Buddhas fill three large temples, and thousands of tiny little Buddhas fill the walls. 500 Buddhas in all shapes and sizes line the walkway to the top of the hill, where a very happy looking Buddha looks over a 14 tiered pagoda and the countryside beyond. Money for this enormous complex was given by private donations and a local company that has apparently done very well.
The idea that communism has pounded the life out of religion in Vietnam is certainly outdated. Churches, both ‘above ground’ and ‘below ground’ are full and alive. New churches, Protestant and Catholic, are seen sprouting up all over the countryside. The Vietnamese, ever practical and yet full of spiritual beliefs, have found new ways to combine their own and outside ideas.