Cathe­dral Christ­mas in Viet­nam

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Jan For­rester

IAM blinded by the lights and trapped in a con­gre­ga­tional crush wait­ing for mid­night mass to be­gin on Christ­mas Eve in Phat Diem Cathe­dral.

It is Viet­nam, 1993. Viet­namese work col­leagues sug­gest we travel to the Catholic heart of north Viet­nam in Ninh Binh prov­ince, a few hours south of Hanoi. It is a flat Red River delta land­scape of rice pad­dies scat­tered with Euro­pean-de­sign churches.

In­trigu­ingly, an in­vi­ta­tion to cel­e­brate Christ­mas Eve has been is­sued to the for­eign com­mu­nity by state au­thor­i­ties, a way of show­ing the coun­try’s new open-door pol­icy is ex­tended to the tem­ple and cathe­dral as well as the econ­omy.

I don’t see many for­eign­ers in the cathe­dral. Is this a for­eign boy­cott or botched Viet­namese com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Both are pos­si­ble.

The lo­cal wor­ship­pers are dressed in their best: old men in white shirts, lumpy coats and trousers with fray­ing hems; women in scarfs, now and then a man­tilla, over long, dark dresses. Only young girls sport a splash of colour.

My col­league, Tuan, tells me this is the first time he has been inside a church. And this is no or­di­nary church but an 80m-long Sino-Viet­namese ar­chi­tec­tural fan­tasy of gran­ite, mar­ble and wood set amid ponds, a lake, grot­toes and chapels, and dom­i­nated by a bell tower with pagoda-like roof.

In TheQui­etAmer­i­can Gra­ham Greene’s jour­nal­is­tic al­ter ego, Thomas Fowler, watches a night bat­tle be­tween un­seen Viet Minh and the French mil­i­tary from this bell tower.

Nearby in the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice the line of bishops’ por­traits stops in 1954, when a half-mil­lion north­ern Chris­tians moved south af­ter what was sup­posed to be the tem­po­rary par­ti­tion of Viet­nam fol­low­ing the end of French rule.

A French stu­dent tells me he will sing with Viet­namese friends in the choir, at the back of the nave and up a set of rick­ety stairs.

I won­der if the or­gan will sur­vive the ser­vice, as there are huge bits miss­ing. The or­gan pumps up to an­nounce the en­trance of the clergy draped in old fin­ery, and chat­ter­ing dies as the mass be­gins.

My Viet­namese is ba­sic and Tuan gives me brief up­dates while I look around at the rows of women (far more fe­males than males), some teary eyed.

A teenage girl reads from the Bi­ble, a wall of gold lac­quer shim­mer­ing be­hind her. Then the choir at the back of the cathe­dral breaks into Si­lent­Night . In Viet­namese it is both strange and deeply familiar: a song of birth and peace in a coun­try that has lost mil­lions in war.

The French boy sings with­out a song sheet and voices fill this huge cav­ern held up by 48 iron­wood pil­lars. The cathe­dral was hit by US bombs in 1972, though its wounds are now barely vis­i­ble.

Tuan is trans­fixed as the priest de­liv­ers the ser­mon. Af­ter the mass I find out why. He holds his hand on his heart as he tells me: ‘‘ It was about a poor, young mar­ried cou­ple. At Christ­mas the wo­man sells her long hair, her great pos­ses­sion, to buy a watchchain for her hus­band. She does not know he has sold his watch to buy her lovely hair combs.’’

The priest has told the most fa­mous story by Amer­i­can writer O. Henry, The GiftoftheMagi . ‘‘ It is about what we are pre­pared to give up when we love,’’ Tuan says as we stream out of the warm cathe­dral into a chilled, ink-black Christ­mas morn­ing, breath­ing in the mo­ment and wish­ing chuc­mung­giang sinh to all around us.

Fir trade: Fes­tive in Ho Chi Minh City

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