The magnificent Notre Dame Basilica stands in Bến Nghé, a beautiful square that is also home to the equally wonderful Saigon Central Post Office. The Cathedral’s full title is Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception and its twin Bell towers at 190 feet, dominate the square. This is a decidedly pretty church. Built by the French colonial rulers between 1877 and 1880, it’s red brick walls and white twin spires present a truly beautiful backdrop to the whole area.
The original Church, on the bank of the Charner Canal, was of wooden design and soon became infested with termites. It was decided that a major structure was needed and a design competition was held. Monsieur J Bourard was successful and the first stone was laid on October 7th. 1877. There is a stone on the inside wall commemorating this. All the building materials were imported from France and lend a real air of authentic European design to the building. It was to be called Saigon Chief Cathedral.
The bricks and tiles came from Marseille and despite the legendary traffic polution of the city centre, have remained their rich red colour to this day. The wonderful stained glass windows were manufactured in Chartres and delivered whole, ready for installation. The church was blessed on Easter Sunday April 11th. 1880. The bell towers complete with spires were added later, in 1895. They contain 6 bronze bells that collectively weigh 29 metric tonnes. Fortunately the foundations were designed to carry a building ten times the weight of the Basilica.
In front of the cathedral is a small manicured garden that houses a bronze statue of Pigneau de Behaine, the Bishop of Adran leading the young son of Gia Long, Prince Canh, by the hand. Also here is the wonderful white granite statue of the Madonna. This was built in Rome under the instruction of Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien in 1959. During 2005 a story was reported that the statue was shedding tears. The story gained momentum quickly and thousands of people flocked to see for themselves. The whole of the square was closed to traffic in the mayhem that ensued and for days the city centre was grid locked. A statement from the top clergy in the city that the report was unfounded did nothing to shed people’s belief that it indeed, had.
In 1960 Pope John XXII anointed the building and conferred the status of Basilica. From that day on it has become known as Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.
It really has become the focal point of the city centre. Crowds gather daily and at lunch time many office workers sit in the garden and around the square enjoying their lunch break. It is also one of the most popular wedding photo shoots in the city. It is not unusual to see 5 or 6 wedding parties lined up around it’s walls having their photos taken.
Inside the church its high vaulted ceiling dominates proceedings. Beautifully decorated and impressively furnished it is a delightful place of worship and is held in great esteem by Vietnam’s Catholic community. It can get very busy at times and when it is full, staff have been known to turn people away if they are carrying cameras. The traffic gets business on a Sunday as tour buses bring in holiday makers on tours.