No hunchback in the bell tower
An architectural symbol of French colonial power, Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnamese: Nha tho Duc Ba) is a Saigon landmark and the most important church in the city.
Officially known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Notre Dame sits on Cong xa Paris square (also home to the historic Saigon Central Post Office), traffic circling around it like a protective moat. Designed by Parisian architect Jules Bourard, construction began in 1877 and took three years to complete to the tune of more than 2.5 million francs, an extravagant sum at the time.
It featured high-quality materials made in France including the distinctive red brick, roof tiles and 56 stained glass windows. Six bronze bells, also cast in France, and the striking spires on top of the bell towers were added in 1879, bringing it to 57.6 m high.
Don’t expect the Notre Dame of Paris, though it does have some similar elements. The interior is relatively simple and over the years, the cathedral has fallen into disrepair which is why as of July 2017, Notre Dame Cathedral is closed to tourists as it undergoes badly needed restoration work. Construction is expected to last until late 2019. Church service will continue, open only to worshippers.
To those lamenting not being able to enter, visitors were strictly limited to the front vestibule to begin with, and Notre Dame was always best appreciated from the outside, at all angles to admire the mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. For the next few years, it may be obstructed by fencing and scaffolding but perhaps take a cue from the Vietnamese, who are happily able to turn any backdrop into a photoshoot or a good selfie. It remains a must see on a day of sightseeing District 1.
The small garden in front of the church is another popular spot for tourist photos. Take a look at the statue of the Virgin Mary, placed here in 1959. In 2005, people claimed to see it shed tears prompting thousands of visitors to see the miracle. It became so crowded that police were forced to stop traffic surrounding the cathedral.
Mass is only open to worshippers. Sunday mass is held at 05:30, 06:45, 08:00, 09:30 (in English), 16:00, 17:15, 18:30. Weekday mass is at 05:30 and 17:30.
Other noteworthy churches in Ho Chi Minh City include the historic Cha Tam Church and Cho Quan—the city’s oldest church, both in Cholon. While both of these can be easily visited in your wanderings of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown, Cha Tam is arguably the only one really worth going out of your way for.
More than a century old, picturesque Cha Tam Church, a sunny yellow building with white trim and a 38 m bell tower, is best known as the setting for a Shakespearean moment in the country’s history.
The official name is St. Francis Xavier Church, though it is commonly known as Cha Tam for Chinese-born Father Pierre d’Assou aka Father Tam. He was the church’s first priest when it was inaugurated on January 10, 1902. Upon his death in 1934, he was buried at the entrance and his grave marker is hard to miss as you walk in.
Cha Tam is most well-known for its connection to Ngo Dinh Diem, the controversial pro-Catholic, anti-Buddhist President of South Vietnam. A divisive leader, it was his persecution of Buddhists that led monk Thuch Quang Duc to self-immolate in protest against the government, a photo that shocked people worldwide.
Following a coup on November 1, 1963, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu fled Gia Long Palace (now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum) through a secret underground tunnel he had had constructed. He escaped to Cholon.
The next day, after Diem and his brother decided to surrender, they went to Cha Tam to pray. Upon leaving, they were arrested and during their transfer to Saigon, were assassinated, both shot and stabbed. There’s a plaque now at the pew where they sat.
The church should be included on any exploration of Cholon.
Cho Quan Church, located off a busy intersection in Cholon, is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest and largest churches. While the original chapel dates back to 1720; unfortunately, the church hasn’t had an easy time with staying intact. Cho Quan has been razed four times. The first in 1731, then twice by Tay Son forces in 1775 and 1782, before King Minh Mang’s forces had a go at it in 1834. What stands today is the result of a construction from 1882-1896. Thankfully it’s been standing ever since.
The current church has undergone several renovations and much of the turn of the century charm is gone. The proper upkeep does have an upside though as Cho Quan Church is one of the only churches in the city that allows people into its tower which offers views over the surrounding district.
Opening hours posted on the gate say open daily 04:30-11 & 13:30-21:00 but we suspect there would be limited visiting hours on Sunday due to mass.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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