My family regularly goes to Vietnam, but never for this this long, and never with my entire family. This trip is going to be the biggest I'm going to take and possibly the last for a long time. The last time I travelled to Vietnam I was a senior in high school, and now I am a senior in college. Without long summer vacations between school years, who knows when I'll be able to make a trip of this magnitude again?
My entire maternal side of the family is here this year to celebrate the life of my grandmother, who passed away three years ago. In Vietnam, the period of mourning lasts three years, and this trip is our way of commemorating the end of mourning. One of our first stops was to the Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang, to request a mass for my grandmother.
The history of the basilica starts in the 1790s, during a period of Catholic persecution under the emporer Cảnh Thịnh. It's said that a group of Vietnamese Catholics hid in the La Vang forest. Many of them were sick or injured, and they would seek refuge and pray under a tree every night. A vision of the Virgin Mary wearing the traditional Vietnamese áo dài appeared, holding Jesus Christ in her arms. She told them to use the leaves of the trees as a tea to cure their illnesses, and that anyone who came here to pray would have their prayers answered.
Word spread about the visions, and in 1820, a small chapel was built in honor of Our Lady of La Vang. Since then, the chapel has grown, been destroyed, and rebuilt several times, first during another wave of Catholic persecution from 1830-1855, and again during the Vietnam war. Today, only a small part of the church built in 1928 remains.
Although the Vatican has not officially recognized the events in La Vang as a Marian apparition (the appearance of the Virgin Mary), Pope John Paul II has expressed the importance of Our Lady of La Vang, as well as hopes that one day the church will be rebuilt. Pope John XXIII also made the church a basilica in 1961. A new church is currently being built in the style of ancient Vietnamese buildings, and people still come to the basilica from all over the world to pray to Our Lady of La Vang.
Although the church is still in progress, there's plenty to see around the area. A beautiful set of gold stations of the cross line a square, where a statue of the Virgin Mary sits in front of a wall of Vietnamese martyrs.
The wall shows the 117 Vietnamese martyrs who were canonized by Pope John Paull II. Some of their names are known, and some aren't, but they all have a single Feast Day on November 24.
Aside from the central statue of Our Lady of La Vang under the trees, a smaller statue also stands to the side of the area, where visitors can light incense and pray.
The basilica of La Vang is an often underlooked destination in Vietnam, and it has a strange beauty in its broken elements. I'm already excited for my next trip to Vietnam, where I hope to see the new church in all its glory.