The Churches of Saigon

06/12/2019 09:54

Ho Chi Minh City is home to over 200 churches that add to the city's architectural diversity.

Christian churches make impressive contributions to the architectural landscape of Saigon. These churches are no longer merely reserved for religious purposes but have become highlights in the urban space as architectural heritages. With over 200 churches under 14 deaneries, Ho Chi Minh City is home to many diverse styles of churches. More than 10 of these churches have stood for over 100 years.

                                                         
                                                   Huyen Sy Church


                                                          
                                              Tan Dinh Church

Christian churches make impressive contributions to the architectural landscape of Saigon. These churches are no longer merely reserved for religious purposes but have become highlights in the urban space as architectural heritages. With over 200 churches under 14 deaneries, Ho Chi Minh City is home to many diverse styles of churches. More than 10 of these churches have stood for over 100 years.

Urban highlights

When the French planned out Saigon, they created the city’s boulevards in a grid formation with vantage points from large squares that were occupied by symbolic structures of urban institutions, such as the Opera House, Norodom Palace (the present-day Reunification Palace), the Hôtel de Ville (the present-day Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Head office), the old train station, Ben Thanh Market, and Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. The latter formed the end point of Rue Catinat (now Dong Khoi). Among these structures, Notre Dame Cathedral held the most significant position, thanks to its wide surrounding space and its superior height compared to surrounding structures.

In addition to a total height of 60.5 meters, the Cathedral's bricks boast an eye-catching red color. The structure was finished with fine architectural details. Inaugurated in 1880, this Cathedral became the city’s community center. The square in front of the Cathedral faces the surrounding boulevards and the adjacent post office, thus creating a complete whole, as in a European city.

Other churches were built near densely populated areas, such as Nga Sau Church (also known as The Church of St. Jeanne d'Arc, inaugurated in 1922), located opposite Da Trach Park. Overlooking a junction where major roads meet in District 5, this church forms a central point in flowing traffic. Similar to Notre Dame Cathedral, Nga Sau Church was set apart from the surrounding blocks of buildings. As a result, the Church looks particularly grand even though it is not too large. Streets lined with rows of Hopea odorata trees seem to blend well with the Gothic church tower to form a unified, well-planned whole.

Saigon's churches often chose warm colors like brick red, pink, orange, and other bright colors, as in Tan Dinh Church, to make themselves stand out under the tropical sun, against a background of blue sky and the cool shades of evergreen trees. Their bold colors help them to dominate the urban space.

Eclecticism of East and West

Although these churches typically embody foreign concepts from the West, they have been rooted in the local nature, environment, and culture. The brick red of Notre Dame Cathedral is connected to the surrounding pavement, creating a smooth transition into the tropical urban space. Tubular tiles similar to Chinese roof tiles seem to spread warmth from the patterned walls and stained glass windows to the pavement, creating a harmony without losing the structure's outstanding sophistication.

Meanwhile, Cha Tam Church (also known as St. Francis Xavier Parish Church) was inaugurated in 1902 in Cho Lon, home to a large ethnic-Chinese population. The Church incorporated typically Asian features such as a triple-arched entrance gate, where a statue of Our Lady stood. This was designed in the local style of a classic Asian bell tower. The name of the church was embossed in Chinese characters on a Gothic-style wall.

Built by the uncle of Queen Nam Phuong in 1921, Hanh Thong Tay Church (53/7 Quang Trung, Ward 11, Go Vap District) has a Byzantine architectural style, modeled after a cathedral in Ravenna, Italy. This style is unusual for Catholic churches in Vietnam. Inside the church there are statues of martyrs and stained glass windows with Vietnamese-style patterns. In general, Western-style decorations are accepted as a given in churches thanks to the elegance and solemnity of architectural styles that hark back to ancient Greek – Roman monuments, which are regarded as a common cultural heritage of humanity.

Many Saigon churches built post-1954, when many Catholics moved to the South from Northern Vietnam, have incorporated arched roofs similar to those found in Phat Diem Cathedral in Ninh Binh. This was a reaffirmation of distinctive cultural features. New churches show a diversity in their expression of distinctive national features. New materials such as reinforced concrete with large glass panes have allowed for the construction of bigger cathedrals with more diverse styles.

The cultural richness of these churches has helped to secure their place in the lives of Saigon people. Songs about a Catholic girl or the sounds of bells on Christmas Eve have become treasured memories thanks to churches that play them through the seasons in this tropical city.

Truong Quy
Photo: Shutterstock

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