Better than the famous one! Saigon’s most impressive cathedral.
So you come to Ho Chi Minh City with a checklist of places to visit. Ben Thanh Market. The War Remnants Museum. And of course Notre Dame Cathedral.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
For each of those places there’s another less famous spot that’s even better. OK, the War Remnants museum is a must, but let me tell you about the church that blows Notre Dame Cathedral away.
It’s called Hanh Thong Tay church (pronounced something like “han tong day”), and apparently it’s the only Byzantine-style church in Vietnam. From the outside, it is quite unassuming, and certainly doesn’t seem all that impressive. I’d actually ridden past it countless times and never thought anything of it.
Actually, when I arrived to take some photos on assignment for Oi Vietnam as part of their article in the May issue on Saigon’s heritage buildings, I thought it must be the wrong place. After double checking, I rode through the back gate (as the church was closed at the time, but as it’s about fifty-minutes’ ride from home, I was determined not to let the locked front gate stop me from getting the shots) and parked my scooter by the small door at the rear of the building.
I walked to the door and asked the women who were just inside cutting and arranging flowers if it was OK to take some photos in the main chamber of the church. I was wrapped that my limited Vietnamese was enough to ask even this (and that they understood), but the answer was no. Here’s where I turn on my cute-can-barely-speak-the-language-but-tries-and-seems-nice-and-funny charm and tell them I’ll only be two minutes (knowing full well I’ll be in there for at least 10).
So under the watchful eye of the most senior of the women, I made my way past them into the sanctuary and started snapping away. And here’s where you get to see why I say that this church’s exterior is quite deceptive…
I could describe how impressive the intricately-decorated interior was, but instead, I’ll let the photos tell the story (although they still don’t do justice to the mood of standing in there).
*** A little photographer talk – feel free to skip if you just wanna know about the church ***
I held my breath with each shot, not because it was taken away by what I saw, but because shooting without a tripod in such low light meant I needed every bit of steadiness I could muster. As the shots were for the magazine, I didn’t wanna go too high with the ISO, so I composed my shots, breathed in, braced, and shot. Thankfully despite the very slow shutter speeds, I managed to pull it off, although some of the shots didn’t make it.
Often people talk about avoiding the distortion that a wide-angle lens can bring to images, but I really loved the effect of it in this church. I love the curve of the pillars leading up to the roof and would not feel as much for the images if the lines were all perfectly parallel. It shows that you need to consider the purpose of the photos when deciding which rules to apply. If these images were for a real estate brochure they’d be no good at all, but my job was not to show it accurately, but to show it in a striking way. And honestly, the architecture and design in this place would look striking no matter how you shot it!
*** End of photographic talk ***
Hanh Thong Tay church is located in Go Vap district, which is about 40mins from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s relatively close to the airport as the crow flies, so it’s pretty convenient… if you’re a crow. I’d dare say a large part in this church being rarely-visited by tourists is the location, and also its absence from guidebooks like Lonely Planet (at least I never noticed it in my copy), but apparently it’s quite a significant church architecturally and historically.
I could Google some info to give you about the church’s history and unique features, but if you’re interested, you can do that yourself just as well as I can. I’ll just stick to doing what I enjoy most – sharing pretty pictures to try to communicate what it’s like to stand in my shoes and see what I see before me.
Alternatively, you can download a copy of the May issue of Oi Vietnam and read the article on some of the heritage buildings in Saigon, as besides this one, there are quite a few other spots well worth checking out in there as well.