Vietnam’s southern hub isn’t just glittering skyscrapers and Vietnamese street food. On the outskirts of the city’s bustling central districts, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown has more than a few secrets in store.
Travellers to Ho Chi Minh City can find destinations aplenty in the city’s historic downtown, from shopping to countless cafes and street eats. Yet, some of the city’s most fascinating sights and sounds are found further afield. Saigon‘s Chinatown (otherwise referred to as Cho Lon or District Five) is just one of these gems on the outer limits. Home to some of the city’s most intriguing architecture, culture and people, a journey to Saigon’s Chinatown promises one of the most unique travel experiences in Vietnam‘s southern hub.
If Walls Could Talk
Unlike many of Saigon’s central areas, Chinatown boasts one of the most intriguing collections of architecture in the urban metropolis. The buildings’ virtually untouched facades are distinct from neighboring districts, whose own historic buildings have disappeared in the face of Saigon’s speeding development. Encapsulating the city’s countless cultural influences and rich history, Chinatown’s architecture is incredibly complex and varied, and has a certain mismatched and worn-out charm from decades of French, Chinese and Khmer influence.
The streets that connect downtown Saigon and Chinatown are unusually lush and green, and throughout the entire district, overgrown terraces and tree-lined roads are common. Blocks of grey and slate blue pervade the district’s overwhelmingly pagoda-yellow hue, and flaking paint off of aging residential buildings add to the area’s air of mystery. Chinatown has all but avoided the fervent renovation that downtown Saigon has endured in recent years, so many of the area’s homes stand abandoned and in captivating disrepair.
Perhaps some of Chinatown’s most beautiful built testaments to culture is the Thien Hau Padoga, built by the district’s Chinese minority for the Goddess of the Sea. Although still a popular spot for tourists, the pagoda is far enough outside of the city centre to avoid the crowds, and offers a sense of peace and communion with the local visitors.
Culture and Chaos
Although District 5 is regularly referred to as Saigon’s Chinatown, the district is actually home to a diverse populous of Chinese, Singaporean and Khmer people. It is also one of the world’s most dense urban districts, with officially over 40,000 people per square kilometer. Consequently, the traffic and chaos of District 5 rivals even that of the hectic heart of the city. Yet, along with the staggering hustle and bustle is the excitement and colour of the local markets from which the district draws its name Cho Lon, literally meaning “big market”.
The district’s biggest is and most central is Binh Tay Market, a labyrinthine collection of stalls and shopkeepers selling anything and everything that money can buy. An adventure into the depths of the marketplace is not one for the faint of heart, and emerging with a souvenir would require a solid grasp of bargaining know-how. Regardless of its challenges, the market is a key spot on a trip into District 5.
Shopping in District 5 can be a tourist destination all its own, since the area is home to some of the city’s most incredible antique bargains. Although quoted prices and testaments to an item’s authenticity should always be taken with a grain of salt, truly priceless pieces of history can be found in unmarked antique shops. Many of the wares come from the district’s abandoned homes, so it’s not unusual to find long lost family photos and scrapbooks among the antiques.
Unlike District 1 ‘s antique street Le Cong Kieu, District 5 ‘s shops are scattered, and are best perused with a long and winding walk along the streets. The same can be said for most spots in the district — the most interesting corners of District 5 are still relatively undiscovered by guidebooks, and can only be found by stumbling upon them.
For many, a day in Saigon’s District 5 is like visiting a city all its own. A journey outside the city’s downtown borders and along District 5 ‘s boulevards is certainly an adventure that no traveler to Ho Chi Minh City should ever pass up.
Buffalo Tours offer a wide range of customised tours in Ho Chi Minh City, from walking along the streets with an expert guide to getting hands-on in cooking classes! Our travel experts can help you build an unforgettable journey in Vietnam.