Built between 1863 and 1880 by French colonists, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is the most impressive cathedral in Vietnam. Modeled on Notre-Dame de Paris and built with materials shipped over from France, the cathedral is the religious center for Vietnam’s 6.2 million Catholics.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon has gone by various names over the years. It began life in 1863 as Saigon Church, built by French colonists shortly after France conquered and began to colonize Saigon. Saigon Church was a simple wooden construction with a bad case of termites, which caused so much damage it had to be rebuilt.
A design competition was held, which was won by French architect Jules Bourard, an expert in religious architecture. His plan was about as French as it gets: to build a smaller version of Notre-Dame de Paris, mirroring the famous cathedral’s form in the Romanesque and French Gothic style.
Bishop Isidore Colombert laid the first stone in October 1877, and the completion ceremony was held in April 1880. Most of the materials used in the cathedral’s construction had been shipped over from France, including bricks from Toulouse that gave the cathedral its distinct red color, as still seen today. Two bell towers were added in 1895, breaking with the design of Notre-Dame de Paris but adding greatly to the dramatic impact and the height of the cathedral, which now reached up to an impressive 198 feet tall.
In 1959, a statue of Our Lady of Peace was installed outside the church, made with granite in Rome. After the statue ceremony, Saigon Church became more commonly known as Notre-Dame Cathedral. In 1960 it earned the official title of Saigon Chief Cathedral, and two years later was anointed by Pope John XXIII, gaining basilica status and earning its current title of Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.
The cathedral last hit the international headlines in October 2005. According to some fervent witnesses, the statue of the Virgin Mary, located just outside the cathedral, began to cry. Apparently, a tear streaked down her right cheek, staining her granite countenance and causing thousands of people to flock to the cathedral to see this unconfirmed miracle. Traffic ground to a halt all around the cathedral and the police were called in to maintain order.
The stain remained for over a week, and hundreds of people came to see it from across the country each day. The Catholic Church in Vietnam, however, could not confirm that the statue of the Virgin Mary had indeed shed any tears.
Know Before You Go
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is located in the heart of Saigon’s chaotic District 1, not far from Saigon Post Office and Reunification Palace. It is currently undergoing a massive renovation project that began in August 2017 and is expected to last until June 2020. While currently closed to tourists, it does still hold a mass every Sunday, in both Vietnamese and English, at 9:30 a.m. Or, you can just take a look at the cathedral's impressive architecture from the surrounding grounds.