Notre Dame Cathedral

After the first French colonising force arrived in Viet Nam in the mid-19th Century, it took only 21 years before the country had a cathedral to match the hulking Gothic edifices of France itself. The cathedral is supposed to represent the glory of the French Empire. Yet, as is always the case with colonisation, this attempt to import French traditions into Viet Nam transformed the colonisers’ culture in the process. Even though the cathedral is built in a Western architectural style, it has a uniquely Eastern aspect. The resplendent Governor’s Palace, completed in 1875, symbolised the regime’s political power in Asia. And five years later, the Duc Ba (Our Lady’s) Cathedral was inaugurated, and became the spiritual and cultural crucible of the French presence in the Orient. Several architects put forward design proposals for the cathedral, but in 1877 the authorities selected Mr Bourard, who was famed for his religious architecture.He envisaged, and executed, a basilica-like structure with a square plan. The church is composed of two main central bays with two sidereal corridors, with tall pillars and light coming in through sets of high windows, and a semi-circular shrine.The style follows a Roman pattern, although the outside contains some modifications: the cathedral’s vaults are Gothic, and a modern steel skeleton supports the whole building. In 1894 a pointed minaret was added to the bell tower, at the behest of an architect named Gardes, who was also responsible for the Xa Tay Palace, the building that now houses the Municipal People’s Committee. The cathedral is a lot smaller than those in France, but it was the largest in the French empire. The interior is very large: the principal shrine and two additional bays are 93m long, and reach 35m in width at one point.The semi-circular shrine at the rear seats a choir during services, and there are five chapels.The walls are made of Bien Hoa granite, combined with red tiles from Marseilles, all without coating. Red tiles from France were also used on the roofs, but they were later replaced with tiles of equal quality from Phu Huu. Natural light streams in through stained-glass windows which were made by the Lorin company from the French town of Sartre. The whole building is well-ventilated thanks to a system of air-holes placed above and under the windows.The belfry is 57m high. For a long time it was the highest structure in the city centre, and was the first thing an arriving traveller would see when approaching the city by boat.The cathedral bells weigh a combined 28,850kg.In 1885, the floor was taken apart and new pillars were added, because the original foundation could not bear the cathedral’s weight. Stepping inside the cathedral, tourists see a line of Chinese characters eulogising the Jesus’ mother, “the innocent and unblemished Virgin Mother”, and stained-glass portraits of Vietnamese believers amid Asiatic plants.On the square in front of the cathedral, there is a statue of the Virgin Mother made of white marble, symbolising peace. All told, it’s an unusual building: a Western architectural and religious style that has been transplanted into, and adapted to, the East.The colonisers were trying to impose French beliefs and customs onto Viet Nam; but once that culture arrived on Asia’s shores, it took on a life of its own.The cathedral is seen as a unique synthesis, adding an unmistakable Oriental flavour to an ancient Occidental recipe.

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