Preserving Vietnamese churches: The trees and the forest

By Martin Rama   May 29, 2019 | 10:10 pm PT
A few days ago, all those who care about Vietnam’s heritage sighed in relief at the news that the demolition of the magnificent Bui Chu Cathedral had been suspended.
Martin Rama

Martin Rama

This change in plans responded to the emotion and sadness voiced by many people, of all religious beliefs. And it happened thanks to the good will of Father Vu Dinh Hieu, the Bui Chu archbishop. Alas, the suspension may only be temporary, and meanwhile much of Vietnam’s heritage remains at risk.

For example, the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral of the northern Nam Dinh Province is scheduled for demolition on June 1. Its wooden ceiling, from the late 19th century, is truly a jewel. Crowning tall pillars, this wooden ceiling looks like an upside-down vessel magically sailing toward the heavens. The lack of resources to build the new church may hopefully delay the demolition. But beyond the specific date, the Nam Dinh cathedral may soon suffer the same fate as Tra Co and Trung Lao churches.

It should be possible to mount a campaign to save the Nam Dinh cathedral, as was done with the Bui Chu cathedral before. But trying to protect one piece of heritage at a time, while necessary, may not be enough to make a qualitative difference. Jumping from one campaign to the next feels like trying to save one tree at a time, when the fire rages and an entire forest could be burned to ashes.

Moreover, these campaigns unfairly single out one person or authority, when in reality the problem is systemic. Father Vu Dinh Hieu was extremely patient with the noise around Bui Chu Cathedral. But I personally feel guilty for the stress he might have endured with all the pressure on him. There has to be another way, one that makes everybody agree on a better approach.

One extraordinary heritage "forest" of Vietnam is the string of churches, chapels and cathedrals that grace its northeast. This region is the cradle of Catholicism in the country. It is also a relatively poor region, where parishioners go to church by foot or by bicycle, and where their meager savings are the only resource available for maintenance and renovation work. The churches of Vietnam’s northeast are like their parishioners, simple and modest, but also warm and strong.

From an architectural point of view, these churches have a very distinctive style. On the surface, they resemble the many 19th-century churches that populate France’s small towns and rural areas. Designed by architects with a Beaux Arts training, they incorporate decorative elements from the Roman, Byzantine, Gothic and Baroque styles.

However, in Vietnam they are often more cheerful, less rigid, than their French cousins. And they often incorporate traditional Vietnamese techniques and decoration, in a way that makes them reminiscent of pagodas. The most extreme example of this East-West fusion is of course the Phat Diem cathedral. But to different degrees many of the churches of Vietnam’s northeast reflect the same remarkable blend of cultures.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to know how many of these churches, chapels and cathedrals are still standing. By one informal account, there could be up to 400 of them in Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh Provinces alone.

Not much is known about their condition either. Some are almost intact while some are in a bad state of disrepair. Some have been demolished and replaced by new structures. Others have been "renovated" in ways that have made them lose much of their character.

A first step towards protecting this extraordinary heritage forest is to have a clear sense of its extent and condition. Through this article I want to invite everyone who cares about the churches of Vietnam’s northeast to contribute to a major crowd-sourcing initiative.

Inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province. Photo courtesy of Nha tho dong bac - Churches of northeast Vietnam Facebook page

Inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province. Photo courtesy of "Nha tho dong bac - Churches of northeast Vietnam" Facebook page

The Facebook page "Nha tho dong bac - Churches of northeast Vietnam," which I manage, allows anyone to submit photographs, stories, and any other relevant material concerning the extraordinary religious buildings of this region. Initially the focus will be on Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh Provinces, but the scope will be extended at a later stage. In parallel, a detailed map is being prepared, in which all the churches in these two provinces will be geo-referenced.

With everybody’s contributions, over one year or less it should be possible to assess the importance of most of these churches, chapels and cathedrals from a heritage perspective. There would also be a wealth of information available about their history and that of their communities. Photographs, stories, sketches and poems would highlight what makes each of them special.

A resource like this, available to anyone, could serve multiple purposes.

For those committed to preventing the destruction of heritage, it would identify the most magnificent trees in the forest and point out which ones are at greatest risk. This information should help focus preservation efforts where they make the biggest difference. It should also help act early on, rather than when disaster is imminent as is the case nowadays.

For those in the tourism industry, the information in this platform could help design attractive travel packages, targeted to visitors with different interests and means. The accumulated information would also support the preparation of brochures and the training of tourist guides at low cost. Greater numbers of visitors would create jobs and bring income to local communities. Tourism would also raise awareness about the heritage value of many of these churches.

More ambitiously, this platform could be a first step towards protecting the most wonderful trees in this heritage forest. It is unfair to ask relatively poor villagers to defray renovation and maintenance expenditures on behalf of the often-richer urban Vietnamese and foreign visitors who care about heritage. Proper funding for preservation needs to be mobilized from other sources.

In Vietnam, provincial governments allocate funds for the maintenance of shrines and communal houses, with the amount of resources transferred varying depending on cultural significance and heritage value. However, there is no equivalent mechanism for the maintenance of churches, chapels and cathedrals.

The proposed platform could help the government and the Catholic church think of arrangements that effectively protect heritage without imposing a burden on the villagers. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound, as there are important precedents to build upon.

Sixteen of the nearly 70 wooden chapels of the island of Chiloé, in Chile’s far south, joined UNESCO’s World Heritage list at the turn of the century. None of these buildings, taken individually, qualifies as outstanding architecture. Like the churches of Vietnam’s northeast, the Chiloé chapels are simple and unpretentious. But taken together they are a remarkable example of cultural fusion between European and local traditions.

Similarly, India and Nepal share the Buddhist circuit, a route that follows in the footsteps of the Buddha from his birthplace in Nepal to the locations in India where he attained enlightenment, gave his first teachings, and died. The circuit is the result of a collaboration between the government of India, the Buddhist monasteries involved, the private sector and the World Bank. Its goal is to increase pilgrimage and tourism flows, while at the same time enhancing the protection of religious buildings.

I was moved by the emotion and sadness that were voiced when the demolition of the Bui Chu Cathedral seemed imminent. I also felt immensely grateful that the demolition was suspended. I do not know whether this suspension is temporary or permanent. But I have no doubt that the Bui Chu episode created a new momentum for heritage preservation in Vietnam. I would like to build on this momentum by inviting everybody to dream of a next, bigger step: to save the forest, and not only its most magnificent tree.

*Martin Rama is a Senior Advisor at the World Bank and a project director at the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The opinions expressed are his own.

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