Ho Chi Minh

Cholon in Saigon or Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City

Cholon (Vietnamese spelling: Chợ Lớn) or Chinatown (Khu phố Hoa) is an area in Ho Chi Minh City with a lot of Vietnamese – Chinese residents. The area spans across Districts 5, 6, and 11, which is west of the center of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Vietnamese-Chinese, otherwise known as Hoa, are an official ethnic group within the fifty-four of Vietnam. They have always maintained their distinct culture and traditions, thus contributing to Vietnam’s diversity.

Things to See and Do in the Cholon or Chinatown

This unique part of Saigon maintains a blend of Vietnamese and Chinese architecture especially with the traditional Chinese red and gold hanging decorations or on the walls. Additionally, the signs for stores, diners, pagodas, and temples are written in both Romanized Vietnamese and Traditional Chinese characters.

View all the locations mentioned in this article

The Streets of Saigon Chinatown

The Streets of Saigon Chinatown
[ by Ethan Hu from Unsplash ]

Hào Sĩ Phường is a peculiar Chinese merchant alley dating back to 1910. It’s located along 206 Trần Hưng Đạo Street, District 5. The houses are essentially the same design, but different in color, thus making the alley look like a colorful lego model. It used to be a favorite photo spot for younger generations until the residents got fed up and put up a no-camera sign.

There are a few lantern streets across Chinatown with the most popular being Lương Nhữ Học Street. If you have a chance to come around the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival, these streets will be lit up with all kinds of lanterns from tradition to modern designs.

Nearby is Hải Thượng Lãn Ông Street which is a unique and interesting place of traditional Chinese medicine stores. If you’ve ever seen such fascinating stores in an old Chinese movie setting, you will be able to see them here for real.

Food in Saigon Chinatown

Food in Saigon Chinatown
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Chinatown is definitely a go-to for the best Chinese food in Ho Chi Minh City. From dim sum, egg noodle dishes, wonton soup, congee dishes, to scallion pancakes, beef offal stew, and tea eggs, it’s all there.

It’s not hard to find family diners and restaurants that have been around for tens of years in the Cholon area. For a complete guide, check out our article about Saigon food.

Shopping Around Saigon Chinatown

Shopping Around Saigon Chinatown
[ by Nick from Flickr ]

Nowadays, Cholon (meaning Big Market) is not a name for any specific market, but an area. However, within Cholon are many markets with the biggest two being Binh Tay Market (chợ Bình Tây) and Kim Bien Market (chợ Kim Biên).

  • Binh Tay Market is commonly mistaken for Cholon because it’s the biggest market in the area. And being the biggest one around, it’s got everything from fresh produce to clothes, and daily necessities.
  • Kim Bien Market is known as Chemical Market by locals. There are chemicals for cleaning, to substances used in making cheap wine and food, to others that are technically not for sale. And it’s also a go-to for retail products at wholesale prices.

Religious Sites in Saigon Chinatown

Religious Sites in Saigon Chinatown
[ by ajik ulinuha from Unsplash ]

Assembly halls like Hội Quán Nghĩa An, Hội Quán Ôn Lăng, Hội Quán Hà Chương, and Hội Quán Tam Sơn are temples worshiping folklore figures built by the local Chinese settlers. Since ancient times, Southern Vietnamese have tended to call religious buildings (besides churches) pagodas or chùa in Vietnamese.

Thien Hau Pagoda (chùa Bà Thiên Hậu) is a shrine dedicated Thiên Hậu Thánh Mẫu or Holy Mother in Chinese folklore. It’s a popular religious site with a very typical Chinese design in Cholon.

Ong Bon Pagoda (Chùa Ông Bổn) is actually Nhi Phu Shrine (Miếu Nhị Phủ). Ong Bon is a worshipable figure representative of the originators of different trades. 

St. Francis Xavier Church (Nhà thờ Cha Tam) was built by Priest Pierre d’ Assou for Chinese – Vietnamese Catholics during the time of French Cochinchina. Cha means Father, and Tam is the Chinese-Vietnamese pronunciation of Pierre. 

The church’s design is a mix of a Gothic church and Chinese temple. This is also the place where the President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem was caught in 1963 before his execution.

Interesting Facts About the Cholon or Chinatown

Interesting Facts About the Cholon or Chinatown
[ by Charlotte Marillet from Flickr ]

1. The name Chợ Lớn (Cholon in old French books), meaning Big Market, came to be because it was bigger than the biggest market for Vietnamese people at the time.

2. If you want to ask local Chinese or Hoa people to take a photo with you, don’t stand in a prime number. According to their culture, the person in the middle will receive bad luck.

3. In case you want to go shopping early in the day, the shopkeepers expect you to bring good vibes and make a good purchase. So, don’t be surprised if they shoo you off if you look like a risk to a good day of business.

4. When looking for a gift for an Hoa friend, you might want to do your research because certain superstitions advise against mirrors and combs among others.

5. Most Hoa people in the Cholon area, similar to Hong Kong, speak Cantonese. However, they’re not really comfortable with outside people speaking it to them. For them, it’s like a private language and you won’t even be able to find any Cantonese classes here.

The History of the Cholon or Chinatown

Since before 1698, there were Chinese immigrants— mostly Ming who opposed the Qing Dynasty— in the area which is now Cholon. However, in 1776, the place became pretty crowded after more Chinese immigrants from present-day Biên Hòa city flooded in to take refuge due to the Trinh – Nguyen Civil War.

Cholon or Saigon Market

Cholon in 1967
Cholon in 1967
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

Growing demands called for a market, and Saigon Market came to be. At the time, the biggest market for Vietnamese was Tan Kieng (Chợ Tân Kiểng) in Gia Dinh Citadel (Thành Gia Định) (1790 – 1859) or Saigon Citadel in English sources.

Saigon Market was bigger in comparison to Tan Kieng, so to avoid confusion, people decided to stick with the name Cholon. That’s the reason for the name Chợ Lớn (Cholon in old French books) meaning Big Market, which is also the name for the area it’s located in.

Cholon City and Cholon Province

A noodle cart in Cholon 1969
A noodle cart in Cholon 1969
[ by Tommy Japan 79 from Flickr ]

The Cholon area of Saigon Market was actually established as Cholon City in 1865 according to the decree by the Governor of South Vietnam under French Cochinchina. In 1879, it became a 2nd class municipality equal to Tourane (nowadays Danang) and Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Cholon City was distinguished from Cholon Province even though government agencies of the province were located in the city. Cholon Province was established in 1900 and is part of Ho Chi Minh City and Long An Province in the present day.

Saigon – Cholon

Binh Tay Market in 1955
Binh Tay Market in 1955
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

The name Saigon (Sài Gòn) goes way back in Vietnamese history and it became the name for one of the two most prosperous urban areas under French Cochinchina. The name is debated as being of Sino-Vietnamese and Khmer origin, but the definitive source has never been agreed on.

In 1882, the first railway in Vietnam came to be and linked Saigon City to Cholon City. In 1931, the French President at the time signed the decree to merge the two cities into one Saigon – Cholon Area (Khu Sài Gòn – Chợ Lớn) under Indochinese Federation. In 1951, it was changed into Saigon – Cholon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn – Chợ Lớn). 

Once again in 1956, the name was changed into Saigon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn). From then on, Cholon is still used for the area covering District 5, 6, and 11 of Saigon Capital which became Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.

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