East meets West at Phat Diem Rock Church

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The Phat Diem Rock Church boasts an impressive mix of Eastern and Western styles

Time races by in our busy city lifestyles and visiting historic sites in the countryside is often something we never get around to.

I had wanted to visit Phat Diem Rock Church for a long time, and on one especially sunny afternoon, I finally took a bus going down National Road 10 headed towards the church.

From Ninh Binh Town, I traveled 28 kilometers, passing emerald rice paddies and other beautiful countryside scenery before reaching my destination.

The Phat Diem Rock Church complex covers an area of 22 hectares in Phat Diem Town, Kim Son District, in the northern province of Ninh Binh.

The Phat Diem church is referred to as the Rock Church because it is built entirely of rock. It took 24 years (1875-1899) to complete this architectural marvel. Father Tran Luc, who designed and supervised the construction, is laid to rest in a tomb in the front yard of the church, in the Phuong Dinh Building.

Over 112 years old, the Phat Diem Rock Church complex boasts a unique mix of Western and Eastern architectural styles, with many of the buildings reminiscent of Buddhist pagodas. There are no Western-style stained-glass windows, common to many churches in Vietnam.

Like most other visitors to the complex, I first stopped at a pond in front of the main church. This pond is in keeping with the traditional Eastern style, which often includes a body of water in front of the main structure.

The church gate is always open, allowing visitors to take a leisurely walk around the complex at any time. Each structure in the complex has its own unique architectural features, making for a fascinating stroll.

At the Phuong Dinh Building, there are two staircases leading to the bell tower of the church. I was free to climb the tower to witness the ringing of the bell. It is said that the bell can be heard from a dozen kilometers away.

Inside the main chapel of Phat Diem Rock Church

Walking past Phuong Dinh, I came to the main chapel, which was built in 1891. It has five doors made of rock displaying elaborate carvings in high-relief. The main church is 74 meters long, 21 meters wide and 15 meters tall. There are six rows of ironwood columns. Those in the middle two rows are 11 meters tall, have a circumference of 2.35 meters and weigh seven tons.

The side doors are always open, so visitors are free to take pictures whenever they like. The wooden columns, beams and benches create a quiet, peaceful atmosphere.

Another notable structure in the complex is the Mother's Heart Church built in 1883, that has a length of 15.3 meters, a width of 8.5 meters and a height of six meters. The other structures in the complex are the Saint Rocco, Saint Giuse and Saint Pero churches.

It was easy for me to enjoy the stress-free atmosphere of the complex, especially on the carpet of grass in front of the Phuong Dinh Building, where visitors can relax and take pictures.

There is a souvenir shop on the small road to the left of the church. In addition to Christian-themed gifts, visitors can also find other items like hats, bamboo souvenirs and candy.

I had a chat with the owner of a shop across from the church who moved there from Hanoi about five years ago. He said there are many churches in the district, usually one in every neighborhood. He said at one time almost all the local residents were catholic, but now only about 75 percent are.

A free guide service is available and visitors are allowed to visit the church at any time, even during mass.

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