This is the first in a series about the most popular tourist sites in Ho Chi Minh City. This one looks at the beautiful Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral which sits regally at a major intersection in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1.
After reviewing my series of self-guided walking tours around Ho Chi Minh City, I realized that readers, without input from a tour guide, might want more info about the major sites. So here you are.
The Role of Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon Life
Vietnam has almost 6 million Roman Catholics and is second only to the Philippines in the whole of Asia. Travel around the country and you’ll find many beautiful catholic churches. One of the most iconic is the imposing Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon.
Still standing tall after almost 150 years, a major war, and ongoing renovations, this beautiful church still holds regular mass for the faithful.
The Many Names of Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral
This stunning church has had many names over the years.
The French Colonists who established the cathedral in the 19th century gave it the simple title ‘The Church of Saigon.‘
But a lot has happened to this Ho Chi Minh City icon since then, and its name has evolved to something far more grand.
The Vietnamese know this Saigon church as Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn. Good luck pronouncing that one if you don’t speak the local language. It translates to Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. But it was a while before Notre Dame achieved its Basilica status.
In 1959, the church gained its name ‘Notre Dame Cathedral.’ It then became ‘Saigon Chief Cathedral‘ in 1960 when Pope John XXIII established the Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam.
In 1962 the church got another promotion when the Pope anointed it. The new name became the wordy ‘Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.’
But the name is now officially Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. Even more of a mouthful!
This last title refers to the church’s dedication to the Virgin Mary, whose statue takes pride of place at the front of the church.
Where Can You Find Ho Chi Minh City’s Notre-Dame Cathedral?
Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City sits in the heart of District 1 at Number 01 Cong Xa Paris Street, Ben Nghe Ward. (At the top of Dong Khoi Street.) The church is right opposite the Saigon Central Post Office with its stunning French Colonial architecture.
On the other side of the building, you’ll find 30/4 Park which leads up to Reunification Palace (AKA Independence Palace.)
At the back of the church, you’ll find one of Ho Chi Minh City’s favorite Shopping Malls, Diamond Plaza, and a few blocks north, you’ll find the War Remnants Museum. Nguyen Du Street which runs along the south end of the park, continues past the side of Independence Palace and the lovely Tao Dan Park.
The large avenue that runs behind the cathedral from Independence Palace, is Le Duan. This street is the usual site of official government parades on national and independence days.
If you walk south, a few blocks south to Lý Tự Trọng Street, you’ll find the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (Museum of Ho Chi Minh City.) And a further block south, you’ll find the gorgeous People’s Committee building and Municipal Opera House. (Check out my self-guided Walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City for all the locations.)
The Cathedral’s central location among other popular sites makes it a convenient inclusion for any walking tour around Ho Chi Minh City’s major tourist spots.
Who Built Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral and Why?
French architect J.Bourad designed the current building in the 1870s. The previous Catholic church that provided religious services for French colonialists had been severely damaged by termites, and they wanted the replacement to be something special.
All the construction materials were imported for the church from France, including the bright red bricks from Toulouse that still retain their vibrant color until today.
The first stone was laid in 1877 and it took almost three years to build. The blessing and completion ceremony was held on Easter Sunday in April 1880.
The Soaring Bell Towers
The striking twin bell towers that raised the height of the cathedral to an impressive 58 meters weren’t added until 1895. They house 6 bronze bells weighing a hefty 29 metric tonnes. The crosses that top the bell towers rise a further 3.5m and weigh around 600kg. At the time they were the highest structures in downtown Saigon. Luckily during the construction of the cathedral, the foundations were designed to hold over 10 times the weight of the structure.
When completed, the cathedral was thought to be the most beautiful of all those in the French Colonies, and I can see why.
What’s so Special About the Statue in Front of Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral?
Directly in front of the cathedral is a beautiful square with well-tended flower garden beds and an imposing statue of the Virgin Mary – Our Lady of Peace (Regina Pacis).
The statue was made from granite in Rome and was shipped out to Vietnam in 1959. In October 2005, the statue created havoc when it (allegedly) began to weep. Thousands of worshippers gathered in the square to see the supposed miracle and traffic in the area was totally disrupted.
Despite the Catholic Church’s repeated denials of a miracle it took quite a while to convince the faithful and disperse the crowds.
Inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon
The interior of Notre Dame isn’t particularly ornate when compared to many European Cathedrals. However, it does provide a peaceful haven from the busy streets outside and has a reverent atmosphere.
Unfortunately, many of the beautiful stained-glass windows were damaged during the Vietnam War and just a few excellent examples survive.
Devotional tiles line the walls bearing witness to the many faithful in the city. If you want to contemplate the church in peace then go during the week. However, if you prefer to see it in full working swing, then attend one of the lively services on Sunday. You can attend Sunday Mass in English at 9.30 am. One can only wonder at how many prayers have been offered by the faithful for survival, peace, and victory over the years.
What’s Happening with the Current Renovation Project on Saigons Notre Dame Basilica?
The substantial renovation of Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral started in 2017. They are doing work on the cathedral roof, windows, flooring, exterior, and core wooden structure. Basically, almost everything except the pulpit!
Like many church renovation projects (think Notre Dame in Paris and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!), renovation seems to have gone on forever. Originally it was meant to finish in 2020. Then it got delayed to 2023 because of COVID-19. And most recent estimates have it finishing in 2027.
So, unfortunately, if you visit any time soon, most of your pictures will be full of scaffolding and barricades.
Can You Still Visit Saigon’s Cathedral and How Much Does it Cost?
UPDATE 29/11/23: It looks like there’s no entry for the time being EXCEPT maybe for mass. I’ll try to get along on Sunday to find out.
To be honest, I’m getting mixed messages about whether the cathedral is closed to tourists during the ongoing renovations. Some sources say you can. Others not. So, I’ll be staying nearby in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City next week. I’ll check it myself and update the following information accordingly.
Opening Hours: Daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Due to the renovations, some areas may be restricted. Note: Even before the renovations, there were reports that the opening times were a little sporadic. If the front entrance isn’t open, try the door around the left side (facing Reunification Palace.)
Dress Code: While I’m unaware of any formal dress code, this is a working place of worship, so please be respectful. Cover your shoulders and knees. (AND…I shouldn’t need to say this…your chest and abdomen.) When inside the church, be quiet and respect the privacy of any worshippers.
Entrance Fee: There is no entrance fee to visit Saigon’s cathedral, but of course, donations are most welcome.
English-speaking staff sometimes dispense tourist information from 9-11 am.
When Do They Hold Mass in Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral?
To the best of my knowledge, as of November 2023, they are still holding both Vietnamese and English mass at the cathedral, despite the renovations. I’m back there next week, so I’ll check it out and update the following information if necessary.
You can reportedly attend mass at the following times:
- Weekdays (Monday to Saturday): There are two masses per day at 5:30 AM and 5:30 PM
- Sundays: Mass is held at 5:30 AM, 8:30 AM, 9:30 AM (English mass), 4:00 PM, 5:30 PM, and 7:00 PM
Please note that the schedule may vary, especially due to the building works. So make sure you check the latest information before you get dressed up in your Sunday best.
Is it Still Worth Visiting Saigon’s Notre-Dame Basilica at the Moment?
Even if you can’t visit the interior, and despite the scaffolding, a visit to the outside of the Basilica is still worth your time.
Firstly, it’s smack bang in the middle of the downtown of Ho Chi Minh City and all the other popular locations I mentioned above. If you follow my free, self-guided walking tour, you’re going to walk right by. So why not stop a while and admire the impressive structure of the magnificent ‘Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.’
The rich red bricks have retained their bright color and make a striking picture against the often blue sky.
The surrounding grounds also provide some good photo opportunities and the area is extremely popular with local couples for their pre-nuptial wedding album. Time it right and you are likely to see more than one beautiful bride and their entourage on any day of the week. And, don’t forget to take a close look of the lovely statue of the Virgin Mary, she might just be shedding a tear.
If you want to see more of Ho Chi Minh City, then take a look at my free, self-guided walking tours around town.
Free Walking Tour 1, takes in all the popular sites around District 1, including Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral.
Walking Tour 2 goes a little further afield and visits some less visited, but still fascinating sites in central Saigon.
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