Last Christmas, the Rev. Peter Phuc fulfilled a lifelong dream: He went to Rome. With nine other priests he spent three weeks visiting churches and museums, though he didn't make an official visit to the Vatican, with which Vietnam has no diplomatic relations.
His eyes sparkle with the memory of his first foreign trip, which speaks to the lighter touch exerted by Vietnam's communist rulers on his faith. In 1980, when he was ordained at a closed-door ceremony, Roman Catholic priests ran the risk of being labeled subversives and sent to labor camps. None were permitted to travel overseas to study.
Today, his 19th-century cathedral is packed with worshippers on Sundays, and Catholic seminaries are expanding. New churches are mushrooming in this corner of northern Vietnam where Catholicism has sunk deep roots. Fr. Phuc is amazed at the rapid growth. "In the past 10 years, almost every year a new church is built. I can't keep track," he says.
Religion is still a sensitive subject in Vietnam. The US accuses it of violating the rights of believers, particularly ethnic minority Christians in rural highlands. Vietnamese officials say they respect religious freedoms and point to recent legislation that bans forced conversions and gives equal protection to all faiths.
"Vietnamese citizens have the freedom to choose their religion. All religions are equal under the law," says Nguyen Thi Bach Thuyet, a member of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
Of the six official religions recognized by Vietnam, Catholicism ranks second behind Buddhism. It has between 5 million and 7 million followers, concentrated mostly in the south, and is reportedly becoming more popular among young urban Vietnamese who are enjoying the fruits of the country's rapid economic growth.
Despite a steady thawing in relations, the government continues to keep close tabs on the Catholic Church. It insists on vetting clergy appointments and priesthood candidates, and as recently as 2001 imprisoned a Catholic priest, since released, after he sent written testimony to the US Congress on religious freedom in Vietnam.
Leaders of other faiths remain behind bars, says the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan agency, which designates Vietnam a "country of particular concern." They include the elderly leaders of an outlawed Buddhist sect imprisoned in 2003 and accused of possessing "state secrets," a capital offense.
By contrast, Catholics are enjoying greater freedom in Vietnam. Some say the country's economic liberalization is helping by opening the country to a free flow of ideas and information that is part and parcel of a modernized society. "Integration into the world means opportunities for dialogue with each other, it brings us together," says the Rev. Joseph Dang, secretary of the Vietnam Bishops' Council at Hanoi's cathedral.
Vietnam has yet to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, though both sides have exchanged visits and say dialogue is improving. Vietnam is among a handful of prominent countries with Catholic populations - such as Russia and China - that have broken ties to the Holy See.
In an unprecedented move, a senior Vatican emissary was invited to Vietnam in November. At a packed service at Hanoi's cathedral, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe led the ordination of 57 new priests and also met with Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan. Cardinal Sepe hailed the visit as historic, telling Italy's La Stampa newspaper that in Vietnam "there are many signs which instill confidence" for a Catholic revival.
Church leaders in Vietnam say the visit could eventually pave the way for an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI, something his predecessor tried and failed to do. "Until now, I hadn't dared to dream of this," says Fr. Dang. "But there are still many steps to take before any [papal] visit."
For many here, Catholicism is still associated with the French colonizers whose rule crumbled in 1954, prompting Vietnam's division. At that time, nearly 1 million refugees fled to southern Vietnam, the majority of them Catholics. Phat Diem's cathedral, a curious Sino-Vietnamese-French structure with tiered pagoda roofs, became a rallying point for departing families. Today, about 15 percent of the local population is Catholic, say provincial officials.
Those who remained behind after 1954 clung to their faith, despite the strictures of communist rule. At a church in nearby Gia Xuan, elderly worshippers recall how, for decades, overworked priests bicycled between parishes to give services. Mass was canceled when US warplanes bombed the area, but the church never closed its doors. Then, in 2004, a full-time priest was finally appointed to this parish of some 3,000 worshippers.
Nguin Thi Sau, a stooped retired farmer in a lilac blouse and black scarf, says that before the war the church had two priests and was always packed. She spends most afternoons inside its cool stone walls. "I come here and I read my Bible. Then I go home," she says, fingering her prayer beads.
Phuc says he was surprised to find out on his trip to Rome that church attendance was falling across Europe. He hopes that Vietnam's next generation - the majority of its 83 million people were born after reunification in 1975 - won't follow this trend.
"Our youth are at a crossroads between East and West. They need the advice of their elders. If they stumble, who will rescue them?" he asks.