Explore Nam Dinh, a picturesque off-the-tourist-trail destination. Words and photos by Zoe Osborne.
You’ve heard of Ninh Binh, you’ve heard of Ha Long Bay, but the large and beautiful region of Nam Dinh is not yet a staple on Vietnam’s tourist trail. This is perhaps because of the lack of exotic cave systems or backpacker hostels with two-for-one beer deals, but it is not for want of value. Nam Dinh province has a fascinating religious history and one of the most bizarre skylines in Vietnam, and in terms of tourist traffic it is practically untouched.
I stumbled across Nam Dinh through a friend who has distant family connections to the place. We started chatting and flew up to Hanoi a few weeks later with my boyfriend for an impromptu road trip to “somewhere near the coast” just past Nam Dinh town.
Catholicism is said to have first come to Vietnam through Nam Dinh Province and a significant proportion of the nation’s recorded 5,658,000 Catholics still live there.
But the kind of Catholicism practised in Nam Dinh is distinct from the rest of Vietnam and in fact the rest of the world. The province is divided into roughly 18 well-established clans of specific sub-denominations that coexist within meters of one another. Catholicism here is mixed with a variety of other religions depending on the clan, and is as much tied to identity as it is to faith. Not unlike Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues, the Catholics of Nam Dinh are a community of competitors.
As a result, the entire region is peppered with hundred of unique churches and pagodas, each a symbol of its clan’s wealth and steadfast faith. Some of these beautiful, imposing buildings are decades old, propped up by pillars of black-red hardwood and painted with ancient Vietnamese characters. Others are still being built.
We rented motorbikes in Hanoi, got out a map and made a beeline for the center of Nam Dinh with a camera and a hundred questions. Our mission? To document, enjoy and understand as many incredible churches as possible.
Leaving Hanoi was a bit of an adventure in itself. We are all Ho Chi Minh City locals and had never been in the North before, and we somehow managed to find our way onto the CT01 only to find it was a no-motorbike zone. A few terrifying U-turns later and we were on our way, driving on the QL1A parallel to the CT01 towards Nam Dinh city.
From here, the drive was an exciting mixture of scenic, invigorating and very, very hot. We shared the road with heavy trucks for the first few kilometers as we left Hanoi, but as we moved out into the provinces the traffic slowly dissipated.
We took a left turn off the QL1A just before Phu Ly and wove our way through a large, abandoned development complex. It was a ghost town. We rested in the shade, dance music blasting from literally the only house for miles around. Someone was celebrating the weekend.
As we pulled up to our guesthouse on Thinh Long Beach later that night, the sun had already set. We stayed opposite the beach in a friendly, bright purple guest house for about VND300,000/night per room. Waves brushed the shore and the sea breeze washed our dusty faces clean.
We set our alarms to wake up for sunrise the following morning and hopped on our motorbikes at 5am for a 20 minute drive up the coast to Nha Tho Do Hai Ly. This now ruined church was once one of Nam Dinh’s finest, perched on a little pirouette of land jutting out into the sea like some kind of elaborate spiritual lighthouse.
Today, it is sadly crumbling and, perhaps sadder still, is surrounded by a rabble of bia hoi-style restaurants, somewhat ruining what must have once been an awesomely isolated spot.
But bia hoi or not, this place retains a kind of ethereal charm that attracts people from all over the country. The church itself is as rustic as they come, and as the sun first touches its walls it lights up in a brilliant, beautiful orange. Children play in the shallows on the beach and parents strole along the edge of the water. Fishermen pebble the beach with their boats and fishing poles and if you get to the church before the sun, you can watch them bring in their catch.
Most of the other churches in Nam Dinh are well-maintained, and as we drove inland from Nha Tho Do Hai Ly we passed tens of spires and elaborate front walls, even on the tiniest of paths. The area behind the coastline in this part of the province is a maze of pretty little laneways just wide enough for a motorbike to pass, occasionally opening out into great white plains of salt-farming land, right next to the sea.
About 30 km from Thinh Long Beach, we stopped at a magnificently elegant square lake right next to the road. A church sat behind it, bright yellow and beautifully mossy, and children played in its open courtyard.
According to the caretaker of Thach Bi parish church, it had been around for generations and was built and used by one of the local clans. On Sundays it was an important meeting place for its Catholic congregation, but during the week it belonged to the children.
As we left and turned back onto the motorway towards Nam Dinh town we counted more than ten churches in our range of view. Looking back, it would have been well worth us budgeting a week on the beach at least – there was just so much to see and so many interesting people to meet. This is the kind of place where you travel by talking to people and the kind of place you make a point of coming back to.