Ho Chi Minh City, the most bustling and vibrant city of Vietnam, is no longer strange to the domestic and international tourists. Visiting this city is a wonderful discovery for people who want to explore the combination of modern life and old cultural values. Not only is Ho Chi Minh City attractive for its various means of entertainment but this city is also famous for the architecture that have become the symbols of Ho Chi Minh City. If you have a chance to Ho Chi Minh City, it is a great idea for you to visit Cha Tam Church, a unique church of local parishioners.
I. History of Cha Tam Church
Cha Tam Church, or Saint Francis Xavier Parish Church, is the first church for the Catholic parishioners of the local Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century, this church has witnessed the up and down in the history of Saigon, the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, or the Far-East Pearl as the French called at that time.
1. Who is Cha Tam?
Cha Tam is the Vietnamese name of Priest Pierre d ‘Assou, who contributed the most in building this construction, and also the first vicar of this church. He was born in Macau (China), then grew up in Hong Kong, so he had a wide knowledge about the language as well as the culture of Chinese people.
At the end of the nineteenth century, when Priest Pierre d ‘Assou was serving in Saigon Cathedral, the number of local Chinese and Vietnamese Catholics had been decreasing dramatically, and they did not have any place to pray. Realizing that situation, Admiral Lagrandière, the Governor of South Vietnam at that time, gave an order to build a church with the hope that the Chinese Catholic community would recover and develop again.
Thanks to the delegation of Bishop Jean Pierre, the archdiocese of Saigon, Priest Pierre d ‘Assou was in charge of building the church. He organized a donation, which many people, including Catholic and non-Catholic, local residents and Chinese merchants, were willing to donate to build the church.
2. The Construction of Cha Tam Church
In the center of Saigon, Cha Tam found a three-hectare plot of land to build the church, which had been owned by nine Chinese. Because this land had been fallow for about 20 years, he had to overcome a lot of difficulties to find the owners as well as to buy this plot.
On December 3rd, 1900, right at the feast of Saint Francis Xavier, the church began its construction according to the architectural design of Father John the Baptist Huynh Tinh Huong. Two years later, on January 10th, 1902, the church was finally inaugurated, and a solemn dedication of the chancel was conducted with the participation of many priests, parishioners and government officials.
Along with the church in the plot, a kindergarten, a boarding house and some houses for renting were also built by Cha Tam at that time, so that the local Catholics had a place to stay.
3. Some Historical Events
In 1934, Priest Pierre d ‘Assou passed away and he was buried at the wall near the church entrance. After that, Cha Tam church witnessed the deterioration and the decrease in the number of parishioners. It was not until 1952 that the situation was solved by the priests from China. In the following years, some other churches for Chinese were built in Saigon as well as the South of Vietnam. Up to present, Cha Tam Church has played an important role in administering the Catholic church for the Chinese in South Vietnam.
On November 1st, 1963, a military coup broke out, President of Republic of Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem and his political adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu had to shelter in a house of a Chinese near the church. The next morning, they came to Cha Tam Church to pray then gave themselves to the coup faction, but both of them were killed on the way from the church to the General Staff.
II. Highlights of Cha Tam Church?
The grounds of St. Francis Xavier Parish Church are divided into many distinct constructions such as surrounding yard, house of charity, houses for rent, kindergarten, community house, school and meeting hall; each of which assumes different purposes.
In the center of the front yard is the statue of Mary Mother put in a traditional Chinese-style house; behind it are two reliefs, one depicts 120 Chinese Martyrs and the other depicts 117 Vietnamese Martyrs. Saint Francis Xavier is worshiped in a yellow and white house designed in Gothic style on the left of the front yard; and on the opposite side is the statue of Jesus Christ on the cross.
In the parish grounds, there is a house of charity in yellow, which was established more than twenty years ago. This is the place where more than 100 free meals are given to the lonely elderly and the poor in the nearby area everyday, and also the place where free medical appointments are organized every week. Next to the charitable clinic is the houses for rent in white, in which a lot of plants and flowers are planted on pots and put on the balconies.
There is a small kindergarten named Thien Loc on the left of the church; and on the right is a yellow three-floor house called Francis Meeting House, which includes eight classrooms and a big hall for up to 400 people.
The entire church is the harmonious combination of Chinese philosophy and Western architecture. The Gothic architect like many other churches and the traditional Chinese feature make it a unique appearance in comparison to many others in nearby areas.
2.1. Outside Cha Tam Church
The main gate of this church is a triple-arched entrance, which is a symbolic structure of China. It takes inspiration from the image of dragons and the Sun, but two carps and a Christian cross are used instead. The gate is quite narrow in the colors of red and dark green; below the tiled roof in the center is the name of the church written in Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese.
From the gate, you can see the interior of Cha Tam church with high arches, ventilation windows and a soaring bell tower, which are common images of Gothic cathedral architecture. A closer look will show you the familiar features of Vietnam in the buds of lotus on the cylindrical pillars from low to high. This geometric combination is based on the principle of Yin and Yang, the Five Elements in the Yi Ching. The philosophical details of Chinese Vietnamese skillfully blend into Western European architecture, creating an incomparable beauty among the churches in Ho Chi Minh City.
Father Huong while designing the exterior of the church in Western architecture but hidden in it the value of ancient Chinese philosophy: From the lower to the upper floor, there are two corridors on each side; the four windows of the central tower overlook four directions; the upper floor has an octagon with eight windows and the above roof is divided into eight sides; this entire architecture abides the Yin and Yang rules of the Yi Ching.
2.2. Inside Cha Tam Church
When entering this church, you can see the symmetric architecture that can be easily realized in any Catholic construction. The nave of Cha Tam Church is built with typical Gothic style in the vault, the cylinder-shaped pillars in green and white, and wooden furniture; all the things match together, creating the acquainted feeling when coming into a sanctuary.
However, the interior of Cha Tam Church is still exclusive with the extraordinary decorations. Above the central cross is the Chinese seal character “Phuoc”, which means “Blessing”. On the two sides of the cross are four pillars in vermillion, the color which cannot be found in any Gothic structure. On the two pillars in the center are inscribed parallel sentences in Chinese, which advises people to be kind to others.
III. What to Do at Cha Tam Church?
1. Taking Beautiful Photos
The unique and solemn appearance of Cha Tam Church makes it an ideal place for you to take wonderful photos to add in your Ho Chi Minh City tour album. The church is surrounded by a tranquil garden where there are various kinds of colorful flowers and green trees. The yellow wall outside the church as well as the community house are good views for you to have gorgeous photos.
2. Doing the Charity Work
The charity house in the grounds of Cha Tam Church always welcomes you to give a hand. Here you can help the local parishioners to prepare lunch and give the meals to the poor and the elderly. This activity makes you be filled with compassion and live more responsible in society.
3. Discovering the Neighborhood
Cha Tam Church is a part of Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City, around it are many temples and pagodas, all of which are typical for the Chinese and Vietnamese architecture and culture. Beside visiting Cha Tam Church, you can go for a walk in the nearby area to explore the life of Chinese community there.
4. Enjoying Local Food
In Chinatown, there is a famous street named Den Nam Ngon or “Five Lights”, where you can find the typical dishes of Chinese and also local cuisine. In addition, this place is not far from Kim Bien Market, where you can find mouth-watering dishes with competitive prices. It would be a great idea for you to try stewed porridge, sweet soup made of fruits and compote, beef offal, dumpling, popiah (a kind of sweet spring roll), hu tieu (a kind of noodle) and so on.
IV. How to Get to Cha Tam Church?
The church is located near the intersection of Hoc Lac Street and Tran Hung Dao Street. It is about six kilometers from Ben Thanh Market, so you can take a taxi or a Grab bike and you will reach the church in 20 minutes.
Besides, you can choose to go by bus with a cheaper price, about 10,000 VND. Some buses that go across Cha Tam Church are buses number 05, 54, 56, 68,103 and 139.
V. Tips on Visiting Cha Tam Church
There are some minor but necessary tips for your visit to Cha Tam Church:
- It would be better to visit the church on special occasions such as at Christmas, at weekend or some special ceremonies of Catholicism.
- Keep eye on your belongings. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are not only pickpockets but also street robbery.
- The weather in Ho Chi Minh City is quite hot, so remember to bring a hat or umbrella.
- Avoid going out at rush hour. It is a nightmare of locals and will waste you a lot of time.
Cha Tam Church is worth a visit to contemplate the exclusive architecture that you cannot find anywhere. Possessing a blend of European and Asian styles and an important part in the Chinese Catholic community, the church has contributed to the city’s fascinating culture, and become one of the must-to-visit destinations in Ho Chi Minh City.
Keyword: Cha Tam Church, A Catholic Trait Inside Ho Chi Minh City