Ornate it’s not. Sensitive to its surroundings? Not really. Worth seeing? Yes.
Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral is a great big gothic edifice – a keepsake of medieval European style that clanks against the Asian architecture of its low-rise neighbours.
Like Notre Dame in Paris, two square-faced bell towers cut a sombre silhouette against a blue sky, sandwiching the nave’s matching monochrome fascia. A stone cross, a lonely statue, a simple clock and a solitary stained-glass disc are the only adornments.
When its hefty arched doors first swung open, on Christmas Day 1886, maybe St. Joseph’s gleamed in single cream – but now, decades of dirt have sullied its public face with grubby grey tones, giving the Cathedral a solemn air.
The only decoration, out front at least, is a bronze statue of Regina Pacis – the Queen of Peace – that stands before a bouquet, clipped shrubbery and clover-like crosses on an iron surround.
In and out
St. Joseph’s holds Mass twice a day, except on Sundays when they manage to squeeze in seven sessions. The front entrance is only used for Mass, with a side-door used at other times.
Behind the church is a mural of the Three Wise Men, a small grotto featuring the man himself, and a golden frieze a little rough round the edges. The Cathedral’s walls are less discoloured here and the atmosphere is more peaceful.
Stepping inside, chunky pea-green pillars peter out to a delicate vault roof, and flimsy sunshine, dyed by svelte stained-glass, streaks across functional pews and a cool stone floor.
Switching to the long aisle of the nave, and spinning around, the Cathedral suddenly shrugs off its grave austerity with a luxurious backdrop of red and gold hugging the central altar. The red is traditional Vietnamese lacquer, a layered painting technique.
In 1872, Jean Dupuis – a maverick French trader attempting to bring arms to China – attacked and seized the Citadel of Hanoi, backed by a gang of mercenaries. French colonialism had reached Hanoi.
The French lieutenant Francis Garnier was sent north, ostensibly to restrain Dupuis, but in fact to assume control of the city for the French authorities. This laid the ground for the first church on the site of today’s Cathedral. Bishop P.F. Puginier, another Frenchman, ordered a wooden church be built here – and so it was in 1873.
The French lost Hanoi in 1875, with Garnier killed by retaliatory Vietnamese action. But, seven years later they were back. French forces recaptured the city, the wooden church one of the many casualties of war. It rose again, greater and grander.
Bishop Puginier Phuocappealed to the French colonial government for the 200,000 Francs required for construction, the money to be raised via a lottery. Twice he was rebuffed, but he didn’t give in. Maybe to shut him up, the bishop was finally given permission to run two lotteries, one in 1883 and a second in 1886. This money, together with other funds, paid for the Cathedral to be finished in 1886.
Pope Innocentius XI announced Saint Joseph as the Patron Saint of Vietnam and so Hanoi’s new Cathedral was dedicated to him. The inauguration ceremony was held on Christmas Day 1886.