SAIGON (1954-1960)/ 12. Case Study: Religious Institutions in Bien Hoa

Temporary churches in refugee camps.  "Đồng bào miền bắc di cư vô miền nam 7/10/1954"
Temporary churches in refugee camps. “Đồng bào miền bắc di cư vô miền nam 7/10/1954”

The huge influx of Catholic refugees to the South directly implied an increase of churches in refugee camps. The Diem government discouraged the dispersal of refugees into the South population, attempting to settle the influx into distinctive entities, usually in areas away from high concentrated population; Bien Hoa had a light population until refugee’s arrival. Churches were fundamental to the North’s fundamental structure; which is a complete contrast to how the South treats the church.

It is no wonder that the building of a church for the refugees was a communal priority and the task of the priest, not only because of how they treat Church as their symbolic structure but also pressure from Diem’s government to prevent dispersal. The communal leader needed to ensure that resources were available to do so by negotiating with external parties like the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and COMIGAL1. When the Catholic refugees realized that they would not be returning to the North anytime soon, it became a communal responsibility to ensure that the church could be built. It was not merely a place for them to worship the God but also marks as a focal point of the community for communal gatherings, and was also a sign for communal prosperity and stability.

A Catholic Journalist once commented that:

“…why is it that every parish and sub-parish must have a church, even when they are only a few hundred meters apart? Why can’t two or three parishes come together in one church?… But why is it that priests need to compete with one another, to lay claim to something better than the other parish priest?”2

The rationale behind the proximity of the one church to another and seemingly in competition is that each parish represented an individual northern community that probably had different geographical and cultural practices. Despite that they are now physical neighbours, they had a strong rationale behind the provision of individual churches to represent each individual group of northern Catholics3. The temporary churches were tightly packed because of how each of them wanted to be situated along the main road, and eventually led to narrow but deep characteristic of different communes. As village groups left as a part of the resettlement organized by the government, the number of churches decreased accordingly, since most of the churches built were rudiment and temporary. This directly reflects in the number of churches around the Bien Hoa area in 1968 after the transmigration phase, in which vastly decreased but still maintaining a proximity to the nearby community.

Edited map of Bien Hoa, 1968.  "Bien Hoa"
Edited map of Bien Hoa, 1968. “Bien Hoa”

Schools on the contrary, were also a type of religious institution where American-curriculum schools were approved by the Minister of Education as a part of the later stages of the resettlement program. The Bien Hoa map of 1968 also illustrates a vast number of educational institutions around the area. As Burcham mentions, “This was the first school in South Vietnam that applied the American-Vietnamese curricula with a Bible teaching program”4, does not merely illustrate the humanitarian efforts of the Americans trying rebuild the community within South Vietnam, but might also bring in political implications to strengthen the loyalty of refugees in the South.

La San Taberd School in Saigon, South Vietnam.  "Education in Vietnam"
La San Taberd School in Saigon, South Vietnam. “Education in Vietnam”
Saigon Catholic Church. "Cathedral de Saigon"
Saigon Catholic Church. “Cathedral de Saigon”


  1. Hansen, Peter. “Bắc Đi Cú: Catholic Refugees from the North of Vietnam, and Their Role in the Southern Republic, 1954–1959.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2009), pp. 223
  2. Hansen, pp. 359
  3. Luce, Don, and John Summer. “Vietnam: the Unheard Voices.” Vietnam: the Unheard Voices, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1969, pp. 111
  4. Burcham, Ralph. Vietnam: Triumphs and Tragedies: Our Mission Story. Place of Publication Not Identified: Xulon, 2007, pp. 121

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