A little corner of Paris in Hanoi.
“Let’s meet outside the ‘big church’ near the lake,” I said. What a surprise I received when I arrived. On previous visits to Hanoi I had somehow managed to miss St. Joseph’s Cathedral. I must have been too busy being dragged around the ‘big’ tourist spots or losing my way in the maze of streets of the Old Quarter. But, this time, determined to find the ‘big church’ I arranged to meet a friend there to do some sketching together. I was early so I was able to soak in the unexpected atmosphere of this quiet corner of the city for a little while.
As soon as I entered the secluded square, which is dominated by the modest facade of the church, I was transported back 20 years to a misty evening spent in Montmartre in Paris. The church bells marked the quarter hour. There is something about the scale of the buildings, the layout of the streets and the crooked trees that is reminiscent of that romantic quarter of Paris that was the haunt of so many artists. Here, there are the same muted colors of green, gray and brown, and I began to imagine that this collection of streets and bars in Hanoi could easily be the center of a modern day art movement for the talented young artists of Vietnam if they wished.
The church itself is rather underwhelming in size. It is styled on the massive Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. It was built in the 1880s on the site of the demolished Bao Thien Pagoda, an ancient and sacred meeting place which, coincidentally, had been constructed about the same period as the Paris cathedral.
In front of St. Joseph’s is a charming railed garden that is home to a small statue of the Virgin Mary – Queen of Peace. But I suspect that this corner of Hanoi has not always been a haven of tranquillity. There must have been some unrest when it was declared that the old pagoda was to be demolished to make way for the invading French. Hearts would have been broken as 700 years of tradition and community was so wilfully destroyed. Later, in 1954 the church and all its property were confiscated. It was over 40 years before the church was, once again, permitted to reopen for services. Maybe it is the fear of more conflict that caused the church and the little Madonna to both be surrounded by protective railings.
Today, this square is peaceful. The street that leads to the church (nha tho) has a collection of international restaurants, local cafes and shops housed in two slightly faded rows of pretty shophouses, some of which have been there for many years. My friend says that nothing much changes in this neighborhood where he founded his business nearly 20 years ago. The bells chime the hour with the same flat two-tone sound that can be heard at every church in France, big or small. It all adds to that haunting feeling that I could easily be walking those cobbled streets of Montmartre once more.
A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget is currently offering art classes and sketching tours in Hoi An until the summer. For more of Bridget’s work including news of her upcoming book visit brushwithasia.blogspot.com.