Temples of Vietnam

Phát Diệm Cathedral – Nam Định

Phát Diệm Cathedral – Nam Định

Phát Diệm Cathedral

Phat Diem is a unique Roman Catholic cathedral located just over 30 km from the famous Ninh Binh tourist area and is 120 km far from Hanoi. Taking nearly 25 years to build, the complex was completed around 1899 and has stood the tests of time to remain an amazing structure well-worth a visit if you are travelling nearby.

If your timing is right you can investigate the 20 Ha area’s peculiar buildings and gardens without barely any others, although during holidays and weekends it sees a large influx of local visitors. Daily mass is still held at 5 am and pm respectively.

An old cathedral with a statue of jesus from across a small lake
Looking up at the front of the Phat Diem complexin Nam Dinh, Vietnam

Founding Father Six

The complex was designed by Father Peter Tran Luc also known as Father Six (Cu Sau). Tan Luc was born with the name Trần Triêm in My Quan village of Thanh Hoa Province who before joining the Catholic diocese was a devout Buddhist. He mastered both Chinese and Latin and taught as a professor before becoming an ordained priest in 1862.

Father six’s life and spiritual journey is what made the cathedral such an interesting creation – it’s a combination of both Gothic European , Oriental and Buddhist architecture along with sprinklings of traditional Vietnamese folk art.  Tan Luc passed away in 1899 whereupon 40 000 Catholics attended his funeral. His tomb can be found in the front yard of Phat Diem cathedral, the place where he devoted so much of his life.

A view from the rear of Phat Diem Cathedral looking towards the front of the complex
Hand carved wooden doors and pillars at Phat Diem Cathedral
Hand-carved wooden church doors that are over a century old


The Cathedral is constructed entirely from only stone and ironwood- Father six sourced the majority of materials from neighbouring provinces. Some of the ironwood pillars came from 200km away deep into Nghe An. A mountain in Thanh Hoa province, with a journey stretching over 60 km, provided the most valuable slabs of stone.

Laying the foundations of Phat Diem was a feat in itself; originally the ground was an alluvial floodplain of reeds, mud and soft sediment. Lengths of bamboo were driven 20 to 30 metres deep down into the mud before piles of dirt, sand and rocks were added on top to be compacted down. This process was repeated over many years until the foundations were deemed solid and some of the sourced materials had arrived.

It was built in a time before modern equipment therefore to lift the massive pillars and blocks of stone, earth ramps were built and the materials were hauled up by buffalo – there are reports elephants were also used.

Heavy-duty grunt work was indeed required – trees weighing up to 7 tonnes and stone slabs at up to 20 tonnes were hauled to and around the site by rudimentary means. The bell in the bell tower measures 1.90m in height, 1.10m in diameter, weighs nearly 2 tons and in quieter times could be heard for 10 kilometres.

Inside a small chapel at Phat Diem cathedral 30km from Ninh Binh
Inside a large chapel at Phat Diem Cathedral, a motorbike tour destination with Viet Tracks

History of survival

It survived French colonial cannon fire in 1952 with only minor damage to its roof and supporting structure. 30 years later in 1972, 8 bombs were dropped by American forces from a B52 bomber along the length of its grounds destroying the west wall as well as some of its convents and schools. Remarkably the cathedral itself managed to come off without a scratch although the bombing led it to tilt to the northwest 20 centimetres – somehow it self-corrected and became level again 7 years later!

A rectory at Phat Diem cathedral, Nam Dinh, Vietnam
Bridge to a cave with an altarin Nam Dinh, Vietnam, a motorbike tour destination