A short-lived epiphany inside a cathedral in Hai Phong


I spent a day in Hai Phong, a port city around 90 kilometers from Hanoi, last Sunday. We visited a classmate of Chi Le who is also studying at Hanoi Foreign Trade University, one of the more popular schools in Vietnam. The bus ride took us around two hours to reach the place, but not before we got lost in our motorbikes looking for the bus station located in the far end of Hanoi.


Hai Phong is a bustling city because of its location near a good natural harbor, allowing it to build a state-of-the-art international port system. However, according to my friend, the city is a boring one as it lacks culture, which Hanoi is overflowing of, she added.  Which I immediately countered by saying that the city is too big for us to be able to figure whether it indeed is boring, and beside comparing it with Hanoi, which has millennia of colorful history, is unfair to Hai Phong.

The first things I noticed when we reached the house of Chi Le’s friend are the images of Jesus Christ and other icons displayed in the living room, quite unusual for a country like Vietnam where majority of the people practice ancestor worship or Buddhism. Like the Philippines where hybridity of religious symbols is taken as ordinary fact of faith, Vietnam also don’t give much attention to the unusual coming together of Catholicism and the local culture. The central figure inside the house is a Madonna and child placed inside a glass casing. The Virgin Mary wears an ao dai, the national costume for women in Vietnam and a head dress which is a version of non, and below them is a white rabbit that looks rather similar to Bugs Bunny.

Even though just five meters away from the house is a Catholic chapel, Duong, my friend’s friend, brought us to the biggest Catholic church in Hai Phong whose design reflected the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France. The inside of the church is as impressive as the altars of the majestic churches in Iloilo. I felt like I was inside Jaro Cathedral.


I said a short prayer. It was the first time I felt the comfort one feels inside a Catholic church, for a very long time. I’ve never gone inside a church for almost a year, and it felt so good to be physically inside and just feel the magnificence of the cold stone surrounding me. My faith on my god, I must admit, is not strong. If I’m asked where I will go in case I die right at this moment, I would not know what to reply, or I might rationalize things and deny the existence of both heaven and hell. This all because I am uncertain of my faith, if it exists at all.

I’ve been thinking of re-evaluating my spiritual life for I felt that it is where I am found wanting, but reasons for not doing so abound–lack of time, loopholes in the Catholic doctrines that are non negotiable, my mind in constant flux, and other things I couldn’t bring myself to write here. But I know, one day it will just come.

However yesterday, while being inside that church gave me a feeling of relief. I felt my burdens were temporarily eased and I stopped worrying for a while. I felt being born again.

I solemnly confessed all my inner struggles directly to my god and asked for some certainty, which I badly need at this point in my life. I’ve been living an uncertain life for the past years, for now what I am asking is to have something clear and tangible. I felt I was born again that day; although the experience was ephemeral, the five minutes was worth the wait of a year of not entering any church.

It was like an orgasm that is the culmination of nearly-eternal sexual abstention.


Iloilo ang banwa ko

I first heard my mother singing this song to my little sister as a lullaby. For me then, it sounded so sad, so melancholic. She sang it as if she’s been far away from home for so long a time that only being physically present in the place could her longing be quenched. And indeed she was.

Iloilo ang Banwa ko ginahingadlan
Matam-is nga pulong ang akon gin mat-an
Dili ko ikaw bulagan banwa kong nahamut-an
Ikaw ang gintuna-an sang kalipayan

Ilonggo ako nga tunay nga nagapuyo sa higad sang baybay
Manami magkiay-kiay sa tagipusuon bug-os nga kalipay

The other person I heard singing this song was a Japanese student from Tokyo University. She was taking up Philippine Studies with concentration on Hiligaynon and the culture of Iloilo. I was surprised because she could memorize the lyrics and sang it with almost perfect accent. Even though my parents were both in Iloilo, and I spent four years as a student and a year as an instructor in the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, my accent when I speak the local language is still heavily Cebuano. In some times, some Ilonggo even mistook me as Tagalog.

I must say Iloilo charmed me. I learned to love its hot and humid atmosphere and even basked under its unforgiving sun. I love its rocky shores and how the breeze blowing from its seas burned me and bestowed on me my brown skin.

Belfry of Jaro Cathedral

Man is wired by evolution to seek for the place where he was born. It’s like an instinct such that of green sea turtles: they always go back to the exact spot where they were hatched and in that same spot lay their eggs that will continue the whole cycle. The same is true for me or for anyone who traces his root in that small patch of land in the heart of the Philippines. Iloilo has this charm that only the experience of being in the place can explain. It has this warmth that a bowl of hot La Paz batchoy can give meaning to. It has this grandeur that the churches of Molo, Miagao, San Jose, or Jaro Cathedral can expound on. It has this life and love that only an Ilonggo can let you feel.

Jeepneys along Calle Real

A walk along Calle Real will bring you back to the late Spanish era when sugar barons built impressive houses matched with intricate facades and imposing columns. These proud structures are remnants of once ruling borguoisie and the booming sugar industry that ended as soon as the second world war was concluded.

Skyline of Iloilo City

Museo Iloilo that houses artifacts and contemporary arts by Ilonggo artists

Iloilo City is not a big city in terms of land area, roughly 70 square kilometers, but it’s an urban jungle of its own that will give a newcomer a harrowing experience of its circuitous and narrow roads. Friends of mine who have been to Iloilo City told me that the city has come to a dead-end as far as growth is concerned because it simply cannot expand. And I concede. Iloilo City is one of those few Philippine cities that have maintained its unique charm. Not that is has economically stagnated, it has remained loyal to its identity. It’s a hybrid city of urban growth, cultural dynamism, and rather conservative atmosphere. This narrow strip of land boasts seven big universities that rival other good universities in the country. Its people are one of the most literate and educated in the nation.

Iloilo shaped me as individual. It was in one of its sleepy towns, in Miagao, where a big chunk of my intellectual growth took place. It has made me aware that a big world out there is awaiting for a young man like me; nevertheless, it also made me realize that the bigger challenge to conquer is how to allow dreamers like me, young students, make their own yearnings possible.

And, true to its epithet as the “City of Love” (which I used to think as very funny if not downright pathetic), it’s also where I found the love of my life.

Language has its limitation. And it has reached its limit when it attempted to describe with words this city. As for me, a man who dreams to be a citizen of the world, I may have reached countries that once I was only able to picture out in my mind, and cities I thought I could only visit in my imagination, I still would want go back to that small city in one of the islands in the Pacific and hear a Latin mass in one of its churches, eat a bowl of batchoy in Tienda Lapaz, buy 12 pieces of the most delicious bibingka in the world for 20 pesos (0.50 USD) in Tanza, or just watch a Jaro-CPU-Ungka jeep pass by.

I have not anymore heard my mother sing that song for quite a long time. After all her children, five of us, left for Iloilo to get our college degrees, and our youngest sister whom we plan to have her high school also in Iloilo, she stopped singing the song. But like any Ilonggo, I know that she also one would want to go back to that beautiful city one day.

And maybe by that time Iloilo and banwa ko will not anymore be as melancholic as I remember her singing it.

Photos courtesy of Bernardo Arellano III, a former schoolmate in UP Visayas.