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An Unlikely Pilgrimage: La Vang, Central Vietnam

May 27th, 2008

I KNEW I was in for a bit of an adventure when even the locals did not know where we’re heading. “La …Vang?” the puzzled look on Tran, a well-mannered hotel executive in Hanoi said it all.

A friend had invited me to join her on a pilgrimage to Vietnam. Not one to refuse an unusual offer, I said yes.

I’ve heard of popular Catholic pilgrimages to Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal, but a pilgrimage to La Vang in communist Vietnam? The idea was tantalizing enough to pique my interest.

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The quirkiness of the email from our tour guides got me even more curious.

“We’re very happy to meet you at Hue Airport. We both are old, have white hair, wear glasses, put on light blue shirts and black hats. These are our features by which you may recognise us at the airport. Now would you give us your features: dress, hat, and so on…May God Bless you in your travelling tour.”

Basilica of La Vang, VietnamNow if your idea of a pilgrimage were about visiting grand basilicas and religious monuments, buying religious souvenirs and soaking in the atmospheric presence of thousands of fervent pilgrims, you would be sorely disappointed.

La Vang was really quiet on non feast days. I saw less than a dozen local pilgrims at the marian shrine. A family of four recited the rosary in Vietnamese; a young couple lit candles at the shrine.

Only a war-battered steeple and front edifice of Our Lady of La Vang Basilica were left standing. The basilica was destroyed by a bomb during the war between the North and South Vietnam in 1972. Government authorities have yet to grant the Catholic Archdiocese of Hue permission to restore the basilica.

La Vang does not have the usual facilities for foreign pilgrims.

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There are no tourist hotels, fanciful restaurants, tour buses. You may have your meals (homecooked Vietnamese fare) at any of the two local restaurants and buy religious souvenirs from a few token shops.

For a night’s stay, you might be able to get a bed in the spartan but clean dormitories for pilgrims at the Catholic La Vang Pilgrimage Center. Or just spend the day in La Vang and head back to your hotel in Hue.

On major feast days, La Vang, the national shrine for Vietnamese Catholics in and outside the country, would be packed with tens of thousands of local pilgrims.

Our Lady of La Vang Marian shrineThe Marian shrine in La Vang was a grim reminder of the communist persecution of Vietnamese Catholics from 1798 to 1886 where 117,000 Christians were killed. Many from the nearby Quang Tri village fled to the deeply forested jungles of La Vang. The Virgin Mary appeared to the Catholics praying at the huge banyan tree in the jungle and promised to heal them and answer their prayers. She told them to brew a tea from the leaves of a fern the jungle for the sick.

In 1802, a chapel was built at the apparition site. In 1962, Pope John XXIII declared the church a Minor Basilica of La Vang.

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Empty of touristy facilities, you could spend a quiet day without distraction at the Marian shrine. Or wander about the nearby village and buy souvenir momentos from a small shop run by Catholic nuns. After the walk, have a cup of the special La Vang tea in the local restaurant.

Be sure to carry an umbrella or stick with you to ward off stray dogs.

And stay away from the swarm of extremely persistent child and elderly beggars. Give them some spare change and a while later, they’ll come after you again.

Getting there

Well, you either drive there yourself or book a cab for a day trip to La Vang. The Marian shrine is 60 km from Hue.

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