Ho Chi Minh

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral: A Vatican Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City

The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnamese spelling: Nhà thờ Đức Bà) is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in Vietnam. In 1962, it was officially named Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception (Vương cung thánh đường Chính tòa Đức Mẹ Vô nhiễm Nguyên tội) by the Vatican. 

This magnificent red-bricked cathedral started out as the humble Saigon Church. Its construction began in 1863 under some missionaries, but in 1877 things changed. The architect Jules Bourard decided to base the design on Notre Dame de Paris incorporating neo-Romanesque and Gothic styles. 

Amazingly, all materials were imported from France. Bricks came from Toulouse, tiles from Marseilles, stained glass from Chartres, and the six bells inside the two towers were imported in 1895.

Currently, the cathedral is still undergoing its 4th renovation which started in June 2017. Although closed to visitors, people still gather for the mass inside the cathedral every day.

Things to See in the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

Things to See in the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica
[ image by Alice Hamilton ]

On the door leading to the inside of the cathedral is a sentence in Latin saying ‘DEO OPTIMO MAXIMO BEATIEQUE MARIŒ VIRGINI IMMACULATŒ’. It can be translated to ‘God bestowed upon Maria with Immaculate Conception’. 

In the alcove right above the door is a pipe organ which is one of the two oldest in Vietnam. The organ was made completely by hand but is now unusable due to damage from termites.

The clock was made in 1887 in Sweden and installed in the facade between the bell towers. The precision mechanism uses a dual clock mechanism with a smaller clock in the attic. It needs to be wound manually with a wheel every week, but can no longer chime due to a worn-out spring.

In front of the cathedral is the Paris Commune Square (Quảng trường Công Xã Paris) with a statue of Our Lady of Peace in the middle. Carved by G. Ciocchetti in 1959, the official title of the statue is Regina Pacis.

Our Lady of Peace holds a globe with a cross on top while stepping on a snake. On the pedestal is a sign saying ‘REGINA PACIS – ORA PRO NOBIS – XVII. II. MCMLIX’— ‘Our Lady of Peace – Pray for us – 02/17/1959’.

Interesting Facts about the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral  Basilica

Interesting Facts about the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral  Basilica
[ by Oscar Saunders from Flickr ]

1. Behind the altar are three tombs carved directly onto the cathedral’s floor. The tombs preserve the remains of deceased bishops of the cathedral namely,  Isidore Colombert (1838-1894), Jean Marie Dépierre (1855-1898), and Marie Joseph Dumortier (1869-1940).

2. In 1876, there were three projects bidding for the location of the cathedral. One of the other contenders was the Saigon Opera House. The winner was randomly selected twice and both times the church came out tops.

3. The foundation can withstand up to ten times the weight of the whole cathedral.

4. The cathedral doesn’t have a surrounding fence which was typical for churches in Saigon at the time, and to this day the cathedral stands as a traffic island.

The History of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

The History of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica
[ by manhhai from Flickr ] 

The First Church

Right after colonizing Saigon, the French built a small church on the foundation of an abandoned pagoda. In 1863, Admiral Bonard initiated a reconstruction and the result was a wooden church by the Big Canal or Charner Canal (now Nguyen Hue Street). He named it Saigon Church. 

The Second Church 

In 1876, the blueprints of a neo-Romanesque and Gothic style church by the architect J. Bourard won the bid for the construction of a new church. There were over 17 other contenders. The three suggested locations were the present-day French Consulate, the location of the original wooden Saigon Church, and of course the present location.

The Construction

The first brick: In 1877, Bishop Isidore Colombert laid the first brick of the church.

The opening:  On Easter Day 1880,  the opening consecration ceremony was held in the presence of Governor of South Vietnam, Le Myre de Vilers (the South Vietnam Government financed the entire project). 

The bell towers: Admiral Duperré oversaw the construction over the entire three years and in 1895, two bell towers were added.

Our Lady of Peace and the Basilica

In 1958, Priest Giuse Phạm Văn Thiên of Saigon Parish ordered a statue of Our Lady of Peace. It was made out of eight tons of Italian white Carrara marble from Pietrasanta, about 500 km away from Rome.

In 1959, Cardinal Aganianian visited Saigon from Rome to hold the Marian Days and bless the statue. Later the same year, the Vatican anointed and conferred it the title of Basilica, hence the name Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. 

The cathedral had gone through three renovations in 1895, 1903, 1959, and is currently going through the fourth started in 2015. During this period, the cathedral is not open for visitors, only the everyday mass.

The Architecture of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Before the Bell Towers
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Before the Bell Towers
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

Materials: All the materials were imported from France. The cathedral has a total of 56 colored glass window panes by Lorin from Chartres— a province in France.

Tiles were from Marseille with the line ‘Guichard Carvin, Marseille St André France’ printed on them. There are also some tiles with ‘Wang-Tai Saigon’ possibly indicating the restoration made after the damage from WW II. 

Design: The interior of the cathedral comprises the main aisle distinguished by the arched ceiling, the sanctuary is at the end of it, the two auxiliary aisles, and the two aisles of prayer stations. The prayer stations have statues of the saints and the 14 Stations of the Cross.

There are two rows of 12 pillars representing the 12 Apostles. The altar is carved out of jade with six angels at its base. The base also has three carvings depicting the Miracles of Jesus. 

Left WingAltarRight Wing
Our Lady of FátimaSeatsSt. Joseph
Christ the KingSeatsDivine Mercy
St. AnnaSeatsSt. Patrick
St. TheresaSeatsVirgin of the Passion
St. MichealSeatsVietnamese martyrs
Our Lady of LourdesSeatsSt. Antoine of Padova

The windowpanes are colorful demonstrations of Bible stories. Unfortunately, most of them were damaged during WW II and only four remained intact, the rest are restorations.

The two bell towers house six bells that, when sound together, can be heard from 10 km away. From the front, the right tower hangs four bells Sol, Do, Re, Mi, and the left one hangs La and Si. They are sounded using an electrical mechanism, with the addition of manual paddling to jump-start the Sol, Si, and Do.

Visiting the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

Inside the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Inside the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
[ image by Nguyễn Hoàng Anh ]

The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica and Surrounding Locations

Best time to Visit the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

During the current period (2020) of renovation, the cathedral is not open for visitors meaning you can walk around sightseeing and taking photos. Mass is still held inside the cathedral every day, and there is Mass on religious holidays like Easter and Christmas.

  • Monday – Saturday: 05:30 – 17:30
  • Sunday: 05:30; 06:45; 08:00; 09:30 (in English); 16:00; 17:30; 18:30

Tips for Visiting the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

  • Formal clothes are recommended for Mass. This would mean at least a collared dress shirt or an appropriate blouse, no short pants or skirts, and no jeans.
  • Follow any instructions during the visit.
  • Do not bring luggage along (backpack is fine), food or drinks, and animals into the building.

What’s Around the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

One of the best ways to see the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica is with an expert and informative guide. Tours often include a number of places in one morning or in the day. If you’re crafting your own itinerary, here are some of the best places nearby:

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, Ben Thanh Market, Central Post Office, and the Independence Palace are all within a few blocks of here. One or more of these locations are often included in city tours.

How to get to the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

How to get to the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica
[ by vietnam-lt from Pixabay ]

On Foot: If you’re in District 1, walking is actually the most convenient way of getting to the cathedral and other destinations around. 

Grab: This is the equivalent of Uber in Vietnam. Grab Car is cheaper than taxi, and Grab Bike is really convenient if you’re by yourself. You only need a phone number to receive SMS and an Internet connection. For more information, see their English homepage

Bus: With Google Maps, just enter your location and destination and choose the Public Transportation tab. Each bus has a course number. Google Maps will indicate the bus to take, where to get off, and additional walking distance. For detailed information on the bus number and route check out busmap.vn. One-stop tickets usually cost around 7 000 VND.

Taxi: You can easily find taxis along the street or ask your hotel front desk to call one. Major taxi companies also have English smart apps for your phone. Search your app store for Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi companies.

Private Motorbike Tour: Suited for one or two people and small groups, these tours are very reasonably priced. Each guide will be in charge of one person and fill you in on each location. You can find these tours on websites like Tripadvisor. 

Motorbike Rental Services: You can find many bike rental services through online searches or via Tripadvisor.  You will need your passport and international or local driving license. It’s best to also purchase insurance.

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