Phat Diem Cathedral: What Does a Cornerstone Site of the 20th Century Tell Us?

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If you are interested in history and culture, when it comes to Ninh Binh, you should not miss Phat Diem Cathedral Complex. Let’s find out more about this mighty building and its construction!

Today, when you visit Ninh Binh, the very thing that you should not overlook is the mighty Phat Diem Cathedral, a building that brilliantly combines Eastern royal architecture with Western religion. There is a lot more to discover behind the chiffon of its history and construction. In this article, we are going to take a look at the main milestones of the cathedral’s history since its groundbreaking entrance until today.

phat diem cathedral ninh binh
Phat Diem Cathedral

Who Built the Place?

Father Six (Pere Tran Luc) took responsibility for the cathedral’s construction, both its architectural design and engineering issues, after a council agreed to build this great building. He tried to apply the essence of the Vietnamese architecture to this cathedral, making it a pagoda holding Jesus’s statues and teachings.

Many controversies surround the life of Father Six, an extraordinary scholar. Some accused him of having supported the French in their first attempt to invade Vietnam. Some praised him for his tremendous contribution in building Christianity in Vietnam, spreading faith in God and, most importantly, encouraging people in his town to live their life kindly. Let the shadow of the past rest in peace. We admire him for his very last demand right before his death: he wanted to rest in the middle of the cathedral’s entrance path, so that everyone would step on him as they walked by.

The Timeline

1828: The name Phat Diem was born

Scholar Nguyen Cong Tru – an extraordinary mandarin alive in the Nguyen Dynasty – headed North from Hue capital under the demand of the king. He discovered this area of Ninh Binh province and named it Kim Son district (meaning the district of the Golden Mountain) and Phat Diem town (meaning the town that creates beauty).

1875 – 1899: 24 years of heavy construction

In 1875, the Bethlehem cave (named after the cave where Christ was born) was constructed first to test the durability of the foundation. After its success, the complex construction began.

There are hardly any religious sites in Vietnam that took over two decades to finish. At the beginning, Kim Son district was covered in swamps, making it almost impossible to construct any major sites. For almost a decade, people needed to move tons and tons of stone, wood and sand, from about 200 kilometers away, into the site to stabilize the ground. Afterward, regardless of the very bad infrastructure conditions (the roads back then were like trails), countless ironwood trees were transported to build the cathedral. Imagine the substructure of this cathedral. Up to roughly a million wood piles were pressed twenty to thirty meters deep into the ground! What a construction of the century!

phat diem church ninh binh
Inside the cathedral | Photo: Instagram @hung.nguyen.dinh128

This site has three human-made stone caves, five chapels (one of which is made totally from stone), one main church with a bell tower (known as Phuong Dinh), a big lake, and countless incredible decorative features. Its architecture particularly resembles a typical Eastern temple and follows the shape of the word “Vuong” (king) in Chinese. A calming lake sits in the front and a small hill rests in the back of the site, representing good Eastern architecture.

Let’s walk through the main parts of the cathedral:

  • The Gate: from outside, you can see a cross placed upon a lotus flower, located in the top part of the main gate, similar to Buddha’s meditating pose. The gate has three entrances made totally from stone, resembling the traditional Eastern main gate.
  • The Lake: with the size of four hectares, the rectangular lake is located right in the front of the cathedral. A few isles make their restful home on the lake, with an islet in the middle containing Jesus’s statue.
  • Phuong Dinh (the main church): construction finished in 1899, making it the last building led by Father Six before he passed away. The Phuong Dinh main entrance faces south, is 25 meters high, 17 meters wide, and 24 meters long. All three floors are made from stone. In the middle of the ground floor, you can find a 4.2 by 3.2 meter by 0.3 meter stone, which was said to belong to the king of the Ho Dynasty (1400 – 1407). On the second floor, you can find a big drum only used on Sundays or during main ceremonies. It is on this floor that you’ll find four towers, with four saints with facial features reminding us of the Eastern Mandarins. On the third floor, there is a huge bell made in 1890, which is said to echo ten kilometers far.
history of phat diem cathedral
Photo: Instagram @indochinastrings
  • The cathedral: construction finished in 1891. This main cathedral was officially named Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Before entering the church, you can find a stone plate on your right, on which a poet enumerated gratitude for Saint Maria. While it only took three months to build this cathedral, the preparation took place in the previous decade. Wood was commandeered from Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, and Son Tay. Stones were chosen from Thien Duong mountain, 30 kilometers away from Phat Diem town. Precious stones were transported from Nhoi mountain, 60 kilometers away. I still can’t imagine how people transported 20 tons of stone over a long distance with their rustic means of transport of the time!

There are five nine-meter tall entrances leading into the cathedral, all are made from stone. You can find sculptures of six angles, beneath each of them is a sentence reminding people of the right attitude when praying: “When you pray, brothers, do believe that everything you beg for can come true”; “Let’s pray and ask for things the way a tax collector and a leprosy patient do”; “Let’s prepare your spirit, don’t challenge your God”; “How fearsome this place is: this is the God’s House”; “Brethren, do let the door open to you; do forgive if you have any resentment towards anyone”; “Brethren, let’s wake up and pray to stay away from temptations”. 

Photo: Instagram @jason.darejourney
  • The stone chapel: the chapel was constructed in 1883, the very first completed construction site in the Phat Diem complex. Everything in this chapel is made from stone, from the floor to the roof, from the column to the edges of the windows. Inside, there are a lot of beautiful sculptures, most noticeable is the sculpture of the Vietnamese four precious plants: Cedrus tree, Bamboo, Chrysanthemum, and Ochna tree. These trees represent characteristics of a Confusion gentleman. Cedrus tree symbolizes the spring and long-lasting life. Bamboo symbolizes the summer and honesty. Chrysanthemum symbolizes autumn and wisdom. Ochna tree symbolizes overcoming aggressive winter, and elegance.
  • The Saint Phero Chapel: this church was built in 1896 to preserve parts of the bible. An interesting fact about it is that it was built from jackfruit wood.

Visit the Cathedral and you will also witness many small hills hugged together peacefully inside the campus. Here’s a secret, they weren’t there in the beginning. The hills were created during construction!

1925: The statue of Saint Maria was sent to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.

1939: A two-floor bell tower was built in front of the stone chapel.

1954: Christ’s Tomb cave was renamed to Belem cave.

1972: The historic B52 bombing battle that horrifically swept Hanoi away in 1972 did heavily destroy parts of the complex. Christians in Phat Diem town and neighboring areas stood together to recover the saintly complex.

1994 – 2000: The whole site underwent heavy reconstruction to ensure its safety and long life. The original design was strictly followed as if to express absolute respect towards the predecessors.

Over a hundred years have passed since Phat Diem complex was completed. Today, the complex is recognized as a national heritage site, and has been proposed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Yet, regardless of the name, the cathedral stands still, after ups and downs and even the horrific bombing battle, as if to reassure people of their faith and compassion that Christ had sacrificed his whole life to teach the people.

How to Get There

From Ninh Binh city, take the 28-kilometer route to Phat Diem Cathedral. The road is relatively straightforward, but have your 4G always available in case of hiccups. From Ninh Binh city, you just follow the National Road No. 10, until you see on your right The Civil Committee of Kim Son District. From there, you can ask the locals to show you where to find the cathedral, you’re almost there. Before you depart, I suggest eating a large meal to tide you over. If you take a taxi, it will cost around 25 USD.

Address: Phat Diem Town, Kim Son District, Ninh Binh Province
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: 7:00 AM – 9:30 PM
Website: Phat Diem
Dress Code: Polite apparel is required

If you are interested in cultural and religious sites of Vietnam, check out the Marble Mountains of Da Nang and the Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel in Ninh Binh.

Wondering where to stay, eat and what to do in Ninh Binh, check these articles out.

If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do, and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the 4U Trip!

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