Of all the interesting places I visited in Vietnam with Great Rail Journeys’ ‘Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong Delta’ tour, I’m most likely to return to Saigon, perhaps as a stopover en route to Australia or New Zealand.
Our local guide was at pains to point out that the official name Hồ Chí Minh City is a formality which can lead to embarrassment, when disparaging the city insults the political leader, and so Saigon [Sài Gòn] is the customary name to use.
Across Vietnam I repeatedly spotted unmistakably Gothic churches which must reflect the French colonisation, but the only one I had the opportunity to visit, very briefly, was the Basilica of Notre-Dame in the centre of Saigon.
Wikipeda meticulously renders its Vietnamese names Vương cung thánh đường Đức Bà Sài Gòn or Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn as well as the Vietnamese rendition of its alternative title, the Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception –Vương cung thánh đường Chính tòa Đức Mẹ Vô nhiễm Nguyên tội.
Constructed entirely of French materials in a weird combination of Byzantine and Gothic styles from 1877 to 1880, the basilica’s Marseilles bricks and twin spires suggest a jazzed-up version of A W N Pugin’s Cathedral of St Chad, Birmingham.
The towers were in fact additional, built to contain six bronze bells each in 1895. To the tips of the crosses, each tower is 60.5 metres high. At the time of construction these were the tallest structures in Saigon.
Though Christianity is a minority religion in Vietnam, Notre Dame is heavily used. It has survived so many wars and upheavals, and remains a focal point in the city.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.