Located in the heart of the city, Notre Dame Cathedral is a “must-see” place for travelers, Vietnamese and foreign alike, on their tours to Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City. The elegant and ancient church represents not only a religious work but an architectural masterpiece of immense cultural and historical value.
In the early years of its colonial administration in Vietnam, the French Government intended to build a church when planning the construction of the city. In August 1876, the Saigon Bishop launched a contest for designing a cathedral. Architect J. Bourad’s design surpassed 17 others and was selected for construction m 1877, which was completed in 1880. He himself was the successful bidder and directly supervised the work.
Notre Dame Cathedral front side, Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), Vietnam
All necessary materials, from cement to steel rods and screws were brought from France. Especially, the tiles to cover the facade ordered from Marseille (France) were without any mortar coating, and always maintain a rosy-red brilliance, with neither dusts nor moss and lichens. Hence, the church’s overall radiance and resplendence against the background of the shady green perennials.
With a length of 93m, width of 35.5m and its height of 57m (from the ground to the bell tower), the cathedral, not as large as it may look, commands a great appeal, not only for its classical beauty of Romanesque gothic architecture but also for its original interior and uniquely rare antiquities.
First, its set of six huge bells, with a total weight of 28,850 kg, sounding the six musical notes, so, la, ti, do, re and mi, were manufactured in France and carried over to Saigon in 1879. In the tower on the right are hung the four bells so, do, re and mi, and in the tower on its left, the two bells la and ti.
The decorative designs on each bell are very delicate, and the so bell is among the biggest in the world with a weight of 8,785 kg, diameter of 2.25 m and height 3.5 m (up to its hanger). The so bell, like the bass in the choir, resounds only once a year on Christmas Eve.
Notre Dame Cathedral backside, Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), Vietnam
To sound the bell, it is necessary to have three or four robust men to stamp the starter that it can swing as high as its hanging bolt, then turn on the three-phase electric device for the motor to go on. On Sundays and at festivities, three bells are tolled, but on week days, only one bell is, the mi or the re, at 5am and 5.30 pm.
Despite the lack of the bell fa, when the five bells sound together at the same time, it is a marvelous concert, with low and high melodies unlike any other church bells. The melodious tunes can be heard as far as 10km as the crow flies.
The giant clock under the vault between the two bell-towers is another rare antiquity. An R.A., it was made in Switzerland in 1887, weighing more than 1,000 kg. This rough old-timed apparatus has told exact time for 125 years now, however, its sounding device is not operating due to its old spring.
The Cathedral’s interior is composed of the central nave and two aisles, with two chapels attached. All its ornaments and decorative patterns are in the Romanesque and Gothic style, elegant yet solemn. Its high altar is made of monolithic marble featuring engravings of six angels supporting the canon table and the pedestal of three compartments, each being a carving describing a religious relic. Each chapel, stained glass window, or vault is a work of art and all these are engulfed in gentle light that gives you a sense of holy peace and devotion.
In front of the cathedral lies a large park, with two paths cutting each other to form huge cross. In the centre of the park stands a marble state of the Blessed Virgin, 4.2m high, weighing 3.5 tonnes. Her arms embrace the globe with a cross, her feet stamp on a snake, expressing a wish to bring peace to all humanity. For this very reason, the statue is also called the Virgin of Peace.
A work of art by artist G. Ciocchetti, it was displayed in 1959, hence its name of the Notre Dame de Saigon (its maiden name used to be the State Church, which had been erected and managed at the expense of the French Government).
In 1960, the Vatican Holy See established the Vietnamese Religious Orders, with three bishop residences in Hanoi, Hue and Saigon. This cathedral then bore the name of Saigon Bishopric Cathedral, and in 1962, the Vatican promoted it to Basilica, hence its full name Basilica Notre Dame de Saigon.
For 125 years, Notre Dame has been not only a place for the Catholic congregations to perform services and celebrate ceremonies, but has also turned into a homely icon of the Saigonese as well, a favorite destination for visitors to this southern city which features abundant sunshine all round the year
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