Those visiting the central province of Phu Yen never forget Ghenh Da Dia (Da Dia Reef), a masterpiece of nature that has become a symbol of the province.

The great simplifier: A statue of Blessed Andrew of Phu Yen outside the church. VNS Photos Le Huong

They also honour a man who helped to develop the romanised Vietnamese script, distancing it from centuries of introduced Chinese characters. 

The volcanic lava reef consists of hexagonal columns of basalt that attract up to 6,000 visitors a day.

The stone formation was formed during the eruption of volcanoes in Van Hoa (Son Hoa) highlands 30km from the site.

The eruptions took place about 200 million years ago. The red hot lava ran into the sea and was turned into huge crystals. The site measures 50 metres by 2,000 metres.

Standing on black stone columns and letting the waves wash my feet was one of the most relaxing moments I experienced on a recent vacation to the site. I felt so small in front of the greatness of nature.

Many children jumped back and forth on the tops of columns with screams of joy, while young women lost themselves taking photos at the spectacular scene.

The stone site has remained unchanged throughout centuries despite waves lapping the giant stones every single minute.

Another site rarely missed by tourists when visiting Ghenh Da Dia is Mang Lang Church.

I have spent lots of time admiring the architecture of Roman Catholic churches, important relics left by the French throughout Viet Nam in the 19th century. These include the Stone Cathedral in Sa Pa, St Joseph’s Cathedral in Ha Noi and the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in HCM City.

Mang Lang Church is among the most popular destinations in Phu Yen.

It is situated in An Trach Commune, Tuy An District, 30km to the north of Tuy Hoa City. Documents say the church was built in 1892 by a Frenchman called Joseph de la Cassagne, whose Vietnamese name was Co Xuan. He was also the first priest in the locality.

An old man, who looks after the church, told me that 100 years ago, there were hardly any residents here. The area was surrounded by wild trees. There were a lot of trees with oval-shaped leaves and purple flowers called Mang Lang.

The jungle of Mang Lang has disappeared over the time, but the name of the precious wood has remained in the name of the church. Actually, one can find a table made of this wood inside.

Tourists can gaze at gothic domes and Vietnamese features in delicate engraved patterns on the main wooden doors.

In the complex are various sculptures of Blessed Andrew of Phu Yen (1624-1644), who is known as the "Proto-martyr of Viet Nam".

According to catholic.org website, he was baptised in 1641 and was a dedicated assistant to Jesuit missionaries and was arrested in the purge of Christians launched in 1644. After refusing to abjure the faith, he was put to death in Ke Cham, Quang Nam Province. Andrew was beatified by Pope John Paul II on March 5, 2000.

A surprise to tourists is a man-made grotto dug inside a hill next to the cathedral. The grotto hosts a prayer hall and exhibition areas which houses a book titled Phep Giang Tam Ngay (or Cathechisms Divided into Eight Days) written by priest Alexandre de Rhodes (local name: Dac Lo), a French Jesuit missionary and lexicographer.

Latin and Vietnamese

The book is the first one printed in the Romanised Vietnamese language, which led Viet Nam away from centuries of using the Chinese script. It was printed in Latin and Vietnamese in 1651 in Italy.

A scientific conference held last year in Dien Ban District, central province of Quang Nam, confirmed that Thanh Chiem Palace (1602-1883) in that area was a cradle of Vietnamese romanised script and that the Portuguese priest Francisco de Pina (1585-1625) was the founder of the modern writing system of the Vietnamese language.

The book Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present written by Ben Kiernan says that in 1615, a group of five Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese Jesuit priests and lay brothers established the first Catholic mission in Dang Trong. Two years later, Francisco de Pina, joined them and became the first Westerner to master the Vietnamese language.

In 1620, the French Jesuit Alenxandre de Rhodes arrived, studied Vietnamese under de Pina, and then moved with a Portuguese confrere to Dang Ngoai, where he spent most of the years 1627-33, the book said.

De Rhodes was said to continue uncompleted research on Francisco de Pinau and to have perfected the romanised Vietnamese script based on Pina’s work.

A dictionary of Vietnamese script-Latin-Portuguese, written by de Rhodes, was believed to have been printed in Rome in 1651.

Leaving Mang Lang Church, I felt moved. I was so lucky to visit such a beautiful land with so much valuable historic treasures. 

Frozen in time: Da Dia Reef with crystallised rock running to the sea.

Pastel interior: The architecture of Mang Lang Church is simple but attractive.

Former jungle: The church used to be surrounded by a jungle of Mang Lang Trees.

Delicate: The carved dome at the church.

Peaceful invite: The prayer hall.

Cavelike: The prayer hall. It looks like a natural grotto.

Marriage centre: A couple take wedding photos outside the church. 

Le Huong

VNS