St. Joseph’s Church, Hanoi – the odd one out

St. Joseph’s Church screams I am French with all its mighty. It definitely stands out, not just because it bears resemblance to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – in the same Gothic-Revival style – but also because its austere grey contrasts so much with the colourful surroundings, particularly the live red that was everywhere – in the streets to welcome the Lunar New Year and in any other place of prayer. And lest forget – this is also a remembrance of French colonialism in Vietnam.

Its construction started in 1884, being one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in what at the time was classified as French Indochina. It opened its doors in December of 1886, and it was named after the saint patron of Vietnam (for the westerners of course). This is the oldest Church in Hanoi – even though the first catholic missionaries arrived from Portugal and Spain in the 16th century.

In general, missionaries from the west didn’t have much impact in converting the faith of locals when arriving in Vietnam. These are lands of superstitious people, but with a much-varied faith that I found quite interesting. In fact, despite the many temples and deities adored, the census has demonstrated that most Vietnamese people claim not having any religious affiliation. As I reflected upon this I wondered – what does having a religion actually mean? Does it mean the same to me as it means to the Vietnamese? I would argue the concept of religion can be different for many people – while in the West we tend to think of praying, adoration and other spiritual practices as elements of being religious, labelling you as belonging to a certain faith, in Vietnam these acts are considered as part of their social life.

To me, these census results made no sense. Everywhere I went, I saw a very much alive spiritual life. Such practices may not belong to a specific religion, but they still exist and show faith in something bigger than human life. I saw Confucian and Buddhist Temples, and I saw how people were frantically preparing to welcome the Lunar New Year with all kinds of little rituals, based on the belief in something bigger. I saw taxis with little smiling buddhas in the tablier. There were altars in every business, food and drink offering, and incense burning everywhere. How can this country claim to have such low adherence to religion?

I quickly found the answer. The government census only considers certain religious organisations and a huge part of people’s practices are heavily influenced by Vietnamese Folk religion, which is not considered an official organised religion. Plus, many may be practitioners of Confucianism, or Buddhism, without necessarily being registered with an organisation. Quickly I found enough proof to disbelieve the census at all – in 2019, the results showed Catholicism as being one of the largest organised religions in Vietnam, surpassing Buddhism. Well, anyone who visits Vietnam will know this is absolutely untrue.

In Vietnam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taomis, with a sprinkle of Vietnamese folk are the most popular religions. But the most notable spiritual practice in Vietnam is that of ancestor veneration. Most families and businesses will have an altar to remember the dead regardless of the religion they may or not be identified with. This practice is considered an expression of iếu thảo, a term for filial piety. Offerings to the ancestors are made during important traditional celebrations, including death anniversaries and Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. People seek guidance and counsel from the spirits of the departed for many important decisions in life, including whether they should open a new business. In one of the tours I was on, the local guide explained to us how even the name of a newborn baby could only be established after the ancestors agree to it. They have their own ways of speaking to the spirits.

Altars with food and drink offerings, burning incense, figures of a smiling Buddha, colourful temples… this is such a contrast to the austerity of the Catholic Church. Which is why Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral seems so out of place. It is said that only about 7% of the Vietnamese population is catholic (again this does not look like a majority to me). Personally, besides St. Joseph’s Cathedral, I only came across other two or three small churches whilst travelling in Vietnam, a very small sample when in comparison to the temples you can find literally in every corner.

The richness of the spiritual life in Vietnam was something that I found splendid. Where there is religious tolerance, there is peace and little space for fanatism. The religion of Caodaism, officially established in the south of Vietnam in 1926, is an amalgamation of different religions – the pinnacle of the spiritual history in Vietnam. It has a strong national political essence and it combines principles from Confucianism, practices from Taoism, and theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism and assumes the same hierarchical organisation found in the Catholic church – with a pope, cardinals and archbishops. Its pantheon of saints includes not only Buddha or Confucius but also Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Cesar and even Joan of Arc. This is an incredibly interesting concept. Government figures estimate there are about 4.4 million Caodaists affiliated with the organisation, but these estimations vary a lot. The UN has a lower number of 2.5 million in Vietnam (2015 numbers).

Personally, my interest in religion is pure curiosity, with a hint of fascination. when I travelled from Hue to Hoi An with a driver, he appeared with a car decorated with a Budha. He made sure to tell me that it was his boss’s car, a believer and told me, with great assurance, that while his mother-in-law was a believer and his family had to respect the ancestors, he truly only believed in himself. This is probably the only religion I identify with as well – the belief that we have strength within us to overcome anything.

Love, Nic


One thought on “St. Joseph’s Church, Hanoi – the odd one out

  1. Some interesting thoughts on religion and identity. The church is really imposing, I remember spending a long lazy breakfast at La Place Cafe, which has a balcony overlooking the church and the square. Sipping coffee, I read about the complicated history you have referenced and feeling so delighted to be in Vietnam. Good times, thanks for reminding me of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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