A Pilgrimage to Phat Diem

by Michael McKittrick, Apr 13, 2020 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Dedicated to men of letters, Hanoi's Ngoc Son Temple is among my favorite places to visit in Vietnam. Immensely popular with the tourists and the locals, I decide that a blazing hot afternoon in the early summer will be a fine time to escape the usual throng of visitors and make my solitary pilgrimage to the Temple of the Jade Mountain.

Baking in the early afternoon sun, the streets surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake are quiet; people still outdoors having sought places of comfort under shade trees bordering the water. Off Dien Tien Hoang Boulevard, the motorbike parking lot is empty, the "Flood of the Morning Sunlight" bridge leading to the island shrine deserted. But sharp eyes are watching as I purchase my temple admission ticket and a packet of paper-wrapped joss sticks; they see that I am a foreigner.

"Carte postale, Monsieur? Souvenir?" Two children, young girls carrying cardboard boxes of postcards, tourist maps and a few paperbacks slide up beside me. "Souvenir, Monsieur?" "Chao chau. How are you today?"

"Oh . . . I remember you. Mister . . . Mister Michael. Buy a postcard?" She is twelve, maybe thirteen, and switches from French to English with an ease that never fails to amaze me. Like the girl with her and the other children who make a living selling souvenirs to the tourists, she carries a laminated ID card that explains her affiliation with the orphans' organization. I think I have already bought every postcard that she has to sell.

"When I come out of the temple. All right? Your name is Lien, yes?" "Yes. I remember you . . . from America. We'll wait, Mr. Michael." The girls take up a position by my motorbike, and are still there when I return. Remembering my interest, Lien holds out packets of cards depicting scenes from the French-colonial period, then produces more colorful ones depicting Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay. I have packets of them all, sitting on the desk in my hotel room.

"Mister Michael, a book maybe? In English." My eyes rest on the thin green spine of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I've read it at home, but perhaps I should read it again, now that I'm here. "Ten dollars!" The usual opening bid.

Flanking either side of the Three-Passage gate leading to the temple are huge, inscribed Chinese characters symbolizing Luck and Wealth. But for the one, I might have even less of the other in my pocket. I know it is more than Lien or her friend is likely to have in theirs. "One-hundred-thousand dong." We make the deal, the girls smile happily, waving as I ride off with Mr. Greene's novel resting in the basket of my motorbike.

Before falling asleep for the night, I've finished most of it. Set during the early fifties, during the Resistance War, I find the character of the jaded, outraged journalist just a bit too English. Pyle, the earnest, quiet American, is chillingly portrayed; his bumbling, horrific attempts at statecraft presage the later American adventure in Vietnam with a prescient knowledge that has made this work a literary classic.

Greene's melancholy account of the battle at Phat Diem piques my interest in this one-time Christian enclave located in Ninh Binh Provence. In the morning, I ask my hosts at the Win Hotel to arrange a car for my travels to the southern tip of the Red River Delta.

What luxury! An air-conditioned Toyota! I made my last trip from Hanoi to Haiphong on a motorbike and though I'd rather travel on my own, you really see very little when traveling that way. For safety's sake, it is imperative that you keep your eyes glued to the road ahead at all times. Should you consider renting a motorbike during your stay in Vietnam, be sure you bring along a valid international driver's license and a cast-iron determination to survive traffic and roads that are both harrowing, and at times, outright dangerous. Sitting in the passenger seat of Mr. Sang's Toyota, I can relax and take in the grand unfolding vistas of the delta as we head south along National Route 1.

"There is an undeniable beauty in the almost boundless uniformity of this immeasurable green carpet, comparable for its extent and color with Virgil's liquid plain, and on which there stand out here and there and from distance to distance, like gigantic ostrich feathers, the graceful, willowy plumes of the bamboos, the tuft of a soaring areca-nut tree, the fan of Mandarin palm, swaying to the breeze, almost black against the background flooded with the gold and purple of the setting sun; or again, like Chinese shadows on the clear horizon, the outline of some youngster perched on a buffalo and slowly making for the neighboring village . . ." L. des Charmettes' vivid description of the delta, contained in a 1939 edition of The Madrolle Guide: Indochina, still rings true, but there is more to see along the way to Phat Diem.

Redbrick kilns with sloping sides stand out on the plain. They manufacture tile and bricks in the traditional way, with the carmine-tinged clay of the delta. Kneaded into biscuits for cooking stoves, round pies of charcoal dust plastered on the kiln walls dry in the sun. Impressed in the center, each holds the distinctive handprint of its maker.

There are too many military cemeteries along the road, the straight lines of their tombs a somber counterpoint to the geomantic-directed burial sites of long ago that dot the fields. Everywhere, people are out and about: heading off to school or factory, working in the fields, herding flocks of waddling ducks to ponds, carrying loads of paddy to collection points and filling the roadside markets with flashes of color and sound.

We make several stops alongside the markets for drinks and because I want to take a closer look. We reach Ninh Binh Town in time for the noonday restaurant crowds. It seems Mr. Sang is unsure of the way from here on and he asks directions from several of our fellow patrons as I finish my lunch of rice and fish.

There is a rocky crag overlooking Ninh Binh Town; they say that the beautiful woman who shed tears for the young lieutenant fallen on its summit was once a concubine to the last of the Nguyen emperors. How to explain to Mr. Sang? His English is nil, and my spoken Vietnamese rudimentary, at best.

In early 1951, flush with their victory on the northeastern border, the PLA launched a series of attacks against the French forces holding the Delta of Tonkin. All along the Day River, the fighting was fierce with clashes at Ninh Binh, Yen Mo, and Phat Diem. Pointing to the crag, I say, "Phap chien-si&" I can't remember the word for killed, and so I draw my finger across my throat in the universally understood gesture. Lt. Bernard de Lattre, the only son of the French commander, the famous "Le roi Jean," Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny, died up there.

Understanding, Mr. Sang agrees that there was terrible fighting all around this area.

It is a very peaceful country now; indeed, it is a beautiful, almost magical country. The increasing numbers of dark-spired European-style churches that dominate the surrounding landscape of flat paddy and small village lend a certain sense of unreality to this fertile corner of Asian delta. The road leading to Phat Diem is dusty and unpaved, but lined with imposing church buildings and numerous graveyards sprinkled with Christian crosses.

Before liberation, down in Ho Chi Minh City, there was a statue of Pigneau de Behaine in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. A Jesuit warrior of the eighteenth century, Behaines's connection with the ensuing period of colonialism rendered his presence in the city of Bac Ha superfluous, but here, on the grounds of the seminary, several monuments carved in antiquated clerical garb grace the lawn before the bright yellow facade of the compound's church.

Other than a group of boys cooling themselves off in the grotto pond there is no one else about. It is very warm and anyone with any sense is probably resting in the comfort of the buildings' shade. After the boys ask for a photograph'the older ones strike a serious pose, the younger ones smile'we return to the coolness of our car. Mr. Sang wants to be back in Hanoi by this evening.

A little more than a mile outside of Phat Diem we reach what I think will be an impassable barrier. From sampans moored in the adjacent canal, a group of workers is unloading cobblestone-sized rocks and placing them on the roadway. A difficult job of road building, I think, and look at the stretch of stone and tell Mr. Sang that I can walk the rest of the way. He demurs and after I get out of the car to lighten the load, he slowly pushes his Toyota onto the stones and begins to bounce forward. He hasn't had the car very long and I don't think he knows what could happen to his wheel alignment, not to mention his oil pan. Walking beside the car, sometimes giving it a push over a particularly huge stone, I am drenched with sweat by the time we get past the new stretch of road.

Not a large town, at first it seems odd that Phat Diem is not dominated by its massive, Sino-Vietnamese styled cathedral. Driving along the canal beside the main street, we pass a wooden-roofed bridge, an elegant piece of work from the nineteenth century. Fishermen with bowed dip nets and lines look up from their work to see who is passing in the once shining but now dust-covered Toyota; I am still looking for the cathedral. Mr. Sang points ahead and I spy the curved roofs of the bell tower.

There are few hills in the delta; the Phat Diem Cathedral stands on flat ground, tucked behind a cluster of buildings, its grandeur not visible until you actually arrive at the cathedral compound. Then, it is really something to see. Constructed in 1891 under the direction of the redoubtable Father Tran Loc, the granite, marble and wooden structure is a full eighty by thirty meters, soaring sixteen meters into the air, but it is only part of a larger, fantastical array of ecclesiastical buildings. There are several smaller chapels, oratories, outbuildings, an immense, rock-built grotto for the Virgin and a barred shrine that contains a gilded mandarin's sedan chair holding a statue of the Blessed Mother. All the buildings are constructed in the hybrid Asian style of architecture.

In front of the cathedral, overlooking a huge pond where a larger than life-sized marble statue of the Sacred Heart stands upon a manmade island, the upturned tiled roofs of the bell tower's three belvederes soar even higher than the church. The mortal remains of Father Loc lie under an inscribed slab at the base of the tower. A dozen small children are playing quietly in the tower's shade.

The whole effect of the sprawling compound inspires more awe than reverence. I blink, in the stark rays of the afternoon sun washing the dusty courtyards. Mr. Sang seems bemused by it all. More tourist than pilgrim, a handful of visitors amble through the grounds, snapping photographs. Inside, the cathedral is dark and cool, lit only by shafts of light flowing in through open sections of the wooden side panels. The soaring interior woodwork lends one the feeling of being inside a well-crafted ark. Lining the nave, massive lim-wood pillars hold up the thick beams of the roof. The pews are simple, unadorned wood. Perhaps it is the dim light, but only behind the granite slab of the main altar does the interior decoration seem to match the grandiose design of the building's exterior: colorful, intricate ecclesiastical designs lead to a line of figures painted high on the wall, their placid European faces gazing benignly down toward the faithful. It is a quiet and comforting place.

At a house adjacent to the compound, you can buy souvenirs of your visit: rosaries, statues, pictures or other religious bric-a-brac. Because Phat Diem is noted for the fineness of its reed and bamboo weaving, I look for more secular examples. Down the street from the cathedral, numerous stalls carry beautiful arrays of baskets, hats and decorated mats. So many are attractive, but I need something easily transportable and settle on a small lidded basket. The weave of the basket is so tight I think it would hold water, and with the name Phat Diem dyed onto its side, it is just the thing for a craftsperson friend at home. After a drink and a short rest in the shade of the stall, it is time to go.

As we drive away from the compound, I feel no special sense of grace for having visited this holy place, but as we pass the bell tower, a child shyly emerges from a pillared opening and lifts her hand in a tentative goodbye. Waving my own in reply, I realize that I do feel very happy.

Suggested Reading:

Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1991.

Nguyen, Khac Vien. Vietnam, a Long History. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers, 1987.

Originally published on 7/1/98