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A visit to Saigon's oldest building

By Quynh Tran   May 3, 2017 | 04:54 pm GMT+7

Hiding behind the tall buildings, a two-century old chapel located in the Archbishop’s Palace retains its historical roots in the midst of modern life.

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Located in the imposing French Archbishop’s Palace on the corner of Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Tran Quoc Thao in HCMC’s District 3 is Saigon's oldest building. This tiled chapel was built for Lord Nguyen Anh in 1790, 12 years before he ascended the throne as Emperor Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.

The chapel served as a home for Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine, a French Catholic priest, Born in 1741 and ordained in 1765, Pigneau is best known for his role in assisting Nguyen Anh to establish the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam, following the defeat of the Tay Son rebellion.

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The chapel was originally built on the Thi Nghe Canal, within the precincts of today's Thao Cam Vien Park (Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens). After Pigneau passed away in 1799, it was used as a lodge for other missionaries and a storage facility for military equipment.

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In 1897, Truong Vinh Ky - a famous Vietnamese language and cultural researcher - dubbed the chapel the Tan Xa Palace. When construction of the Archbishop's Palace finished in 1911, it was used as a chapel.

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Tan Xa Palace is over two centuries old and considered the oldest building in Saigon. The building is made entirely of precious wood using joinery that did not require a single nail.

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Although intended as a place of Catholic worship, the chapel followed traditional Vietnamese architecture. 

Originally, it was intended as a place of residence with just a corner for the priest to pray, but it has now been converted into an exquisite chapel with an altar.

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The altar stands in the middle of the house. Most of the original decor have been retained.

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Tables, chairs, cabinets and screens have been well-preserved and are in good condition.

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Door frames carved from precious wood feature dragons, the phoenix and flowers.

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The roof is covered with ornate tiles.

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The top of the roof is glazed with green tiles and sculptures of two dragons and a cross. Some researchers believe that they represent the first combination of the image of Western religions with Eastern beliefs.

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Previous restoration work damaged the pillars, so they now stand on a raised stone floor.

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Some of the lamps have been replaced because the old ones were damaged. Similarly, part of the tiled roof was also replaced in 2014. However, the oldest building in Saigon retains its integrity. Today, the house is a place of worship open on Sundays and weekday mornings.