Complaints about the condition of Bui Chu Cathedral prompted Culture Minister Nguyen Ngoc Thien to order an investigation last year, and the Institute for the Preservation of Monuments came up with two options for saving it, the Than Nien daily reports.

The first involved repairing the 134-year-old cathedral in the northern coastal province of Nam Dinh, generally regarded as the cradle of Catholicism in Vietnam, but the other meant demolishing it and building a larger near-copy.

The cathedral has been renovated twice since 1974, but its wooden pillars are now worm-eaten, broken roof tiles are letting in the rain, and subsidence is endangering the bell tower and walls.

The institute said fixing these problems would be a major undertaking and require annual maintenance, so it leaned towards demolishing the cathedral and replacing it with a longer-lasting and roomier building.

This would "preserve the typical features of the original cathedral, while meeting community demands for a larger space at an affordable cost," it said.

But a group of independent architects examined the building in May and insisted that repairs would involve less work than the report suggests, and petitioned the prime minister to this end, the Tuoi Tre daily reported.

The ensuing public outcry led the local Catholic diocese to announce a stay of execution for the building, but architects are still wary - the building still needs urgent attention, and the ultimate decision is in the hands of the culture ministry.

The architects' group wants the government to list the building under the Cultural Heritage Law, which gives legal protection from demolition.

Relatively few churches have this level of protection, and Martin Rama, a World Bank advisor who heads Vietnam's Sustainable Urban Development Centre, has added his voice to the call.

'Architectural gems'

He says colonial-era churches and mosques are "architectural gems thanks to their combination of French Beaux Arts and traditional Vietnamese aesthetics, and their destruction is a loss to humanity".

He also thinks the UN should consider listing them as World Heritage sites, the Nguoi Lao Dong daily reported.

Meanwhile, architect Nguyen Ngoc Hoai Nam of the Yeu Di San (Love Heritage) group has a pragmatic solution - repair the cathedral, and build a new one next door as well.

"This preserves the old building, while providing a more spacious area for the increasing demands of the local community," he told Thanh Nien.

By Martin Morgan - BBC News - June 25, 2019