Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, also known as the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, is one of the most famous and iconic architectural landmarks in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. With a history spanning over 150 years, this cathedral has become a popular destination for visitors from around the world. In this article, we will explore the history, unique architecture, and notable features of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.
History of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral has a history dating back to the French conquest of Vietnam in the late 19th century. Construction began in 1863, and after two years, the building, initially named “Saigon Church,” was completed. In 1895, two bell towers were added, reaching a height of 57.6 meters. The cathedral also featured a bronze statue of Pigneau de Behaine in front, which was destroyed in 1945. In 1959, a statue of Our Lady of Peace was installed, and the cathedral was officially named Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was designated as the Saigon Chief Cathedral in 1960 and granted the status of a basilica in 1962, becoming Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.
Architecture Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Material and Architecture
The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral showcases the influence of the neo-Romanesque architectural style. This architectural style emerged in the mid-19th century and drew inspiration from the Romanesque architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries. The neo-Romanesque buildings featured simplified arches and windows compared to their historical counterparts.
During the construction of the cathedral, all materials, including cement, steel, and screws, were imported from France. The exterior of the cathedral was constructed using bricks from Marseille, giving it a distinctive pink hue. The cathedral remains unpainted, showcasing the natural color of the bricks. A notable feature of the cathedral is its 56 stained-glass windows, crafted by Lorin of Chartres Province in France. These stained-glass windows add to the beauty and charm of the cathedral.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is 93 meters long and 35 meters wide at its widest point. With a dome height of 21 meters, it can accommodate up to 1,200 people. The cathedral’s foundation is designed to support ten times the weight of the entire structure. Unlike other churches of that time, it lacks a fence or surrounding walls.
Inside, the cathedral features two main rows representing the 12 apostles, with a monolithic marble altar adorned with intricately carved angel figures. The walls are adorned with 56 stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes, along with round rose pictures and multi-colored cow eye windows, following Roman and Gothic architectural styles. Electric lights illuminate the cathedral at night, creating a sacred atmosphere. During the day, the interior allows natural light to permeate, evoking a sense of security and holiness. The cathedral also houses a historic pipe organ, one of Vietnam’s oldest pianos, handcrafted by foreign experts. Unfortunately, termite damage has rendered the organ non-functional.
Originally, the two bell towers of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral stood at a height of 36.6 meters and lacked roofs. Inside, the towers were dimly lit, and the floor was poorly lined with small wooden pieces. However, in 1895, architect Gardes designed two additional rooftops to cover the 21-meter-high bell tower, resulting in a total height of 57 meters. The cathedral houses six bells, all suspended within the two bell towers. These bells were crafted in France and brought to Saigon in 1879.
The bells are controlled electrically from below. On weekdays, the cathedral rings the bells at 5 am and 4:15 pm. On holidays and Sundays, the church usually chimes the bells three times. Only on Christmas Eve are all six bells rung, creating a resounding melody that can be heard from up to 10 kilometers away.
The square in front of the church
Paris Commune Square in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 is a significant square between Notre Dame Cathedral and Nguyen Du Street. It is the starting point of Dong Khoi Street. At the center of the square stands a magnificent statue of Our Lady of Peace, sculpted by G. Ciocchetti in 1959. Made of Italian white granite, the 4.6-meter-tall statue portrays Our Lady holding a globe with a cross, gazing towards the sky as a symbol of prayer for peace in Vietnam and the world. Within the stone pedestal, there is a cavity that houses a silver box containing prayers for peace, contributed from different parts of Vietnam. The statue and its accompanying prayers represent hope and unity for a peaceful future.
Situated between the two bell towers of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is a remarkable feature—a grand clock. This clock, crafted in 1887, stands as a testament to exquisite craftsmanship and durability. Despite its age, the clock remains fully functional, ticking away with precision. Weighing a staggering 1 ton, this timepiece adds a touch of antiquity and elegance to the cathedral.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is during the dry months from December to April when the weather is pleasant, neither too hot nor too cold. This period is perfect for enjoying the sunset and sundown, typically occurring between 3 pm to 6 pm. The cathedral is open every day during mass times, allowing visitors to experience its tranquil ambiance and attend religious services if desired.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is a remarkable testament to the architectural and historical heritage of Ho Chi Minh City. With its stunning design, rich history, and notable features such as the bell towers and the clock, the cathedral continues to captivate visitors from around the world. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an architecture lover, or simply seeking a serene place to reflect, a visit to Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is a must when exploring the vibrant city of Saigon.