While Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country, Ho Chi Minh City happens to be home to a large Catholic community and where better to find them than at the spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral.
Across the street from the Saigon Post Office, and a block from the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, officially known as Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, sits as one of the city’s few true landmarks.
Finished on Easter Sunday of 1880, the cathedral’s red brick helps it stand out against the city that has grown up around it. It was built with materials from France; for example the bricks are from Marseille. The building’s focal point is its twin 58-metre bell towers, which were actually 1890s add-ons. Each tower is home to six bells that still ring to this day. My favourite thing to do at the cathedral is to have a walk around the perimeter of the building. Most people only take time to look at the front but I think the sides and rear are equally impressive.
The garden in front of the church is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary as well as a flock of pigeons. Unknown to most is the fact that this is the second statue to fill the spot, the first being a bronze Bishop of Adran that was removed in the 1940s. This area is commonly full of tourists snapping pictures of themselves and the surrounds.
The Virgin statue actually prompted controversy in October 2005 when many people claimed to see it shed tears. Although the Catholic Church of Vietnam refuted the claim, that didn’t stop the thousands of visitors that flocked to the garden to see a miracle. It got so crowded in the following weeks that police were forced to stop traffic surrounding the cathedral.
Once you’re done with the outside, if you get the chance, hop in and take a quick look inside. This is easier said than done as the cathedral can be closed to visitors at seemingly random times. The best time to go inside is during Sunday mass, which starts at 09:30. The church is still in use and you get to see it in full action, filled with worshippers and Gregorian chanting. The interior is much more subtle than the elaborate brickwork outside but there are some pretty cool stained glass windows to your immediate right and left when you enter.
Is it the most impressive cathedral in the world? Probably not. If you’ve seen the best of Europe’s cathedrals then this may not be the most exciting thing to see in the city. But, for the area, and certainly the city, it’s pretty neat and besides the church, the surrounding area is great for people and traffic watching. This is the place where college kids come to hang out and have coffee, couples take their wedding photos, and an endless stream of motorbikes and cars pass along the busy streets. Plus, there is no cost to have a quick look inside and take a walk around the outside (minimal cost for a café su da across the street). Lastly: if you’re lucky, you might see a miracle.
By Angela Schonberg.
Last updated on 28th December, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.