A day in Cholon

A day in Cholon

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Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown but it's far more than just a traditionally Chinese settlement.

Travelfish says:

For centuries it was a powerhouse that dominated export and import, its industry driving development for the entire region. To this day, the atmospheric neighbourhood has its own distinct characteristics and residents still speak Chinese dialects. A visit is a must, and here is our take on how to spend a day exploring Cholon.

Pace yourself. : Cindy Fan.
Pace yourself. Photo: Cindy Fan

Before there was “Ho Chi Minh City” there was Saigon and Cholon, two distinct areas. While the French did their administrative stuff in Saigon, west of the river was where the money was made. Cholon literally translates as “big market”.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the late 17th century, with additional waves of immigrations and settlement, Chinese from different provinces fuelling growth throughout the centuries. They were powerful players in Saigon’s world of trade right up until the end of the Vietnam War.

On a slow burn at Mieu Nhi Phu temple. : Cindy Fan.
On a slow burn at Mieu Nhi Phu temple. Photo: Cindy Fan

Today Cholon is spread over District 5 and 6 and it is the largest Chinatown in Vietnam. We recommend starting early, departing downtown no later than 08:00 to arrive at the first stop, Binh Tay market (Cho Binh Tay). (Note: if on your own motorbike, we suggest you park at Mieu Nhi Phu temple at 264 Hai Thuong Lan Ong St for 5,000 dong and then walk 750 m west to the market).

Binh Tay market is one of the city’s largest wholesale markets. First established in the 1870s, it was rebuilt and expanded in 1928. The pale yellow building with clocktower and striking Chinese features is an architectural treasure but unfortunately it is in bad need of repair. When we saw it in June 2017, it had been closed for renovations/fenced off for quite a spell with no sign of any work being done. Vendors are now set up outside the building, sprawling in all directions. The maze of stalls and streets does make navigating all the more exciting.

Classic building. : Stuart McDonald.
Classic building. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Being a wholesale market, each vendor usually specialises in one thing, be it towering stacks of conical hats or heaps of dried sea cucumbers. Sections are divided by the kinds of goods being sold—one area for dried fruit, another for haberdashery. People buy things in bulk to sell at their own stall or shop in the city.

Back on Thap Muoi St (the street along the northern side of the building, the same side as the clock tower), walk east about 400 m to Go Cong St and turn left/head north 140 m to find Cha Tam Church on the lefthand side.

Officially St. Francisco Xavier Church, it became known as Cha Tam for Father Tam, who became the church’s first priest when it was inaugurated January 10, 1902. When he died in 1934, he was buried at the entrance and his grave marker is still visible.

Within the walls of Cha Tam. : Cindy Fan.
Within the walls of Cha Tam. Photo: Cindy Fan

Cha Tam is most famous for its connection to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. On November 1, 1963, he along with his entourage were forced to flee Gia Long Palace (now Ho Chi Minh City Museum) via secret tunnels during an attempted coup. The next day, Diem and his brother decided to surrender and went to the church to pray. Upon exiting, they were arrested and during transport to Saigon, were assassinated. Today there’s a plaque at the pew where they had sat.

Directly in front of Cha Tam Church is Tran Hung Dao. Walk down this street, heading east for 300 m through Soai Kinh Lam market or “fabric street”, the shops piled high with rolls of material, from wildly colourful patterns popular with the grandmas to glittery silky fabric for a bride-to-be’s ao dai.

Turn right (south) on Phung Hung and pop down less than 100 m to Nhi Phu Temple (Mieu Nhi Phu) at the corner of Hai Thuong Lan Ong. It is one of the oldest temples in Cholon, built around 1765. (Note: if you have parked your motorbike here, skip this and leave it to the end).

All sorts of beauty. : Cindy Fan.
All sorts of beauty. Photo: Cindy Fan

Nhi Phu temple is also known as Ong Bon Pagoda as it is dedicated to Ong Bon, a god based on a 14th century Chinese diplomat who travelled from China to Cambodia and wrote an extensive report on Angkor Thom. As our guide explained to us, he is considered a god of wealth and happiness. On special festival days, so much incense is burned and the air so full of smoke that the neighbouring school is closed for the day.

Head back north the way you came, up Phung Hung St for 250 m, turning right/walking east on Lao Tu St. It’s another 250 m (crossing wide Chau Van Liem St) to reach On Lang Assembly Hall (also known as Quan Am Pagoda). Dating from the late 18th century and built by people from Fujian province, the temples is now divided by the road thanks to French city planners. Find the pond on one side, the hall on the other.

A bowl of pretty patterns. : Cindy Fan.
A bowl of pretty patterns. Photo: Cindy Fan

Those who have already visited Hoi An should be familiar with Chinese Assembly Halls like On Lang. They were community centres based on the system known as bang, a tribal system based on the province of origin. Each group set up their own schools and places of worship and were given a relative amount of freedom and self governance so long as the bang leader kept his members in line and everyone paid their taxes.

Just around the corner is one of Cholon’s most beautiful pagodas. From On Lang, continue to the end of the road and turn right on Luong Nhu Hoc St, then at the next intersection turn left, heading east on Nguyen Trai St to find Thien Hau Pagoda, decorated in exquisite ceramic friezes and ornaments including a pair of dragons fighting over a pearl on the rooftop. The pagoda is dedicated to Thien Hau Thanh Mau, goddess of the sea, protector of fishermen and sailors, but like all temples, within are shrines to other deities. If there’s only time to see one temple in Cholon, make it Thien Hau.

A coil or two at Thien Hau. : Cindy Fan.
A coil or two at Thien Hau. Photo: Cindy Fan

A mere 50 m west of Thien Hau Pagoda, at the southeast corner of Nguyen Trai and Nguyen An St, hopefully there’s the street vendor selling sup cua, delicious egg drop soup with chunks of crab and chicken. We found her around 11:00 in the morning and it was one of the best we’ve ever had. It’s just a woman, her cart and a few plastic stools, a cup for 10,000 dong.

Finally, continue west a few metres until Luang Nhu Hoc St and turn left, heading south for 200 m. This is the area of Chinese traditional medicine. Find shops with mortar and pestle, old scales and apothecary drawers full of pungent herbs. Those suffering from an ailment can consult the traditional medicine doctor who would prescribe a bespoke mix of dried ingredients to be brewed for hours into a truly nasty tasting drink. Bottoms up.

Time to stock up on your traditional remedies. : Cindy Fan.
Time to stock up on your traditional remedies. Photo: Cindy Fan

This itinerary without distraction will take half a day and some stamina. By the afternoon, it will likely be too hot to be moving around outside comfortably—most locals are taking a siesta at this point. But let this itinerary be a guide. We’ve mentioned three out dozens of temples and assembly houses. Part of the fun of Cholon is getting lost in narrow alleys, stealing glimpses of ordinary people’s lives and homes, often just a nook in the wall. Admire the holdouts of retro architecture and the few remaining faded shop signs. There are entire streets devoted to selling one thing, aquariums and fish to wedding supplies and cigarettes, just to name a few. And you never know what kind of mobile vendor will walk by.

A guided tour is the most efficient and informative way to see Cholon, and most motorbike tour companies offer a Chinatown programme covering historic sights or street food.

Plenty of smiles. : Cindy Fan.
Plenty of smiles. Photo: Cindy Fan

We tried Saigon Free Walking Tours two times, including their Chinatown tour. The non-profit organisation is run by students of Hoa Sen University, as a way for them to practice their skills. Tours are free except there’s a nominal 70,000 dong fee to cover the motorbike transportation costs. It excludes entrance fees and if there are any food stops involved, it’s a civilised gesture to pay for your guide’s drink or snack as well. A tip is also appreciated.

We had reservations at first. There are many similar free tour organisations throughout Vietnam and the general concern is over the quality and that students volunteer for the tip money. Our Chinatown guide was lovely and though the information delivered is a bit scripted, we were lucky in that she was confident and flexible enough to customise our trip. The regular tour includes Binh Tay market, Cha Tam Church, Thien Hau Temple and Quan Cong, but when we told her we like exploring little laneways and street food, she happily took detours and sought out food vendors for us that we would have never been able to find on our own.

The level of guide can vary more than a professional company and there is a learning curve with language and guiding skills. Have realistic expectations—it’s a free tour after all, and it can be a nice little cultural exchange. Booking is done through their website. Book in advance, as much as a week if possible.

There is always a gecko. : Cindy Fan.
There is always a gecko. Photo: Cindy Fan

For a professional experience, Back of the Bike Tours is a small, groovy company and their Ho Chi Minh half day programme (morning or afternoon) includes both District 1 sights and Cholon. It is US$50/1,145,000 dong per person. We didn’t see Cholon with Back of the Bike, however, we did do their evening street food tour and it was great. Our guide spoke clearly, was positive, enthusiastic and fun and overall it was a well-run, personal experience. Recommended.

We didn’t try it so we can’t vouch for it but the concept certainly has us intrigued. Urban Tales is a self-guided murder mystery tour, where the case of Dr Lam’s murder sends you on a search for clues through Cholon. A vintage car delivers you to Dr Lam’s apartment where you’ll be given a map and clues, then off you go like Sherlock Nguyen plunging down alleys to investigate, interacting with local actors along the way. This could be an entertaining activity for older kids. Tour runs from 08:45-12:30. Adults cost 990,000 dong, children under 12 years old 750,000 dong.

For do-it-yourselfers, Tim Doling’s book Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, available locally in Ho Chi Minh City, provides a history of Cholon and many its temples.

Back of the Bike Tours: T: (028) 2221 5591 http://backofthebiketours.com/
Saigon Free Walking Tours: T: (0122) 806 4730 http://saigonfreewalkingtours.com/chinatown/
Urban Tales: 362 Tran Phu, District 5. T: (028) 6654 1430 http://www.urban-tales.com/

Reviewed by

Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.

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These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.

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