When European explorers began to search for new territories they took with them their religion, Christianity, often Roman Catholicism. In the case of Vietnam, the Europeans were the French, Spanish and Portuguese, all Catholic peoples and the first contact they had with South East Asia was in the 16th Century. An early visitor to Vietnam was a Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, who met and impressed the Trinh Lords who reigned in the North. The result was that he was allowed to set up permanent missions in three cities, Hanoi, Danang and Hoi An, a coastal city often included in Vietnam tour packages which dates back to the early Middle Ages.
Alexandre de Rhodes produced the first written form of the Vietnamese language and to that extent he still has a profound effect on Vietnam even today. That did not save him from being thrown out of the country by the Lords who began to feel that he and other Christians had introduced beliefs that were actually threatening the basis of their power. The script that he had produced had been used within the Church but not elsewhere; that was not to happen for centuries, the 20th Century to be precise even though the French controlled Vietnam throughout the 19th Century.
Catholicism did not disappear with de Rhodes expulsion and the Societe des Mission Etrangeres which he created continued to preach and seek converts throughout Indochina. The period just before the arrival of the French was an awful period for Christianity. There was an uneasy peace between Catholics, of which there were many thousand, and rulers. The problem was the doctrine of equality in the eyes of God. That was very unpopular with King Ming Manh at the beginning of the 19th Century. He was a strict Confucian whose suspicion turned to something more ‘’positive.’’
Oppression came in the form of executions and churches being destroyed. That gave the French an excuse to invade, and they did. The Church was reinstated with schools and missions opened throughout the country. The Catholic Church became a major landowner while local Catholics found favour and became an educated class, the elite of the country.
Vietnam began to change in the 20th Century and just as elsewhere in the world there was a movement for independence from colonial masters. In the case of Vietnam, the growth of communism was partly at the expense of Christianity. Communism spread in the north and a communist government took control in the 1950s; Catholics headed south to places like Saigon, today’s Ho Chi Minh City. Those Catholics remaining in the north were tolerated but strictly controlled.
When the country was unified after the Vietnam War under the Hanoi Regime, there were restrictions put on the Catholic Church but these have gradually been relaxed as the Government’s confidence increased; relations with the Vatican have warmed though there is little chance of a Papal visit at this time.
Protestantism was introduced by the Americans in the South and there are thought to be around half a million in Vietnam today. Many live in the Central Highlands though this has been a region of unrest at times.
The Catholic Churches are worth a visit during a Vietnam travel package. The Gothic Church in Hanoiis certainly a landmark in the Capital with others in Hue and Da Lat, replicas of European cathedrals. However, they do not take precedence over the local temples on Vietnam tour packages. The ‘’Stone Church’’ of Phat Diem and its bell tower blends Christianity with the orient, as do many of the religious buildings in the Central Highlands.