Located in District 5, bordering downtown Saigon’s District 1, Cho Lon boasts a history over 200 years old when Chinese migrants arrived in Vietnam, mainly from the Fujian province. Originally, the Chinese settlement was a town all on its own, separated from the Vietnamese city of Ben Nghe (what is now downtown Saigon). Trams crossed the 11km swampland between the two towns, linking the economic hub of Cho Lon with the political and administrative center of Saigon.
Away from their motherland, the Chinese proved to be excellent merchants, setting up port operations and shipping rice and other products from the Mekong Delta. They soon intermarried with local Vietnamese and Khmer women, evolving into a mixed-race community with their own ethno-cultural identity.
Chinese immigrants from the same province or who spoke the same dialect tended to live together, establishing their own assembly halls where community leaders governed everyday activities. Head to the beautiful Nghia Nhuan Assembly Hall (27 Phan Van Khoe) to see an example of these communal houses which served the dual function of being social centers as well as places of worship.
Remember to look up, as you’ll see large coils of incense smoldering away, suspended from the ceiling with little paper tags indicating the donor’s name.
The assembly halls also tell stories of ancient China, with myths and lore represented in detailed carvings and rich decorations.
The assembly halls also served to preserve some of the artistic skills that the Chinese immigrants brought with them, including ceramic works. If you head to the rear of the main hall of the Nghia Nhuan Assembly Hall, you’ll see an example of the tapestry-like tiles called bleu de Bien-Hoa which were popular in the 1920s.
Cho Lon was a fully functioning city with its own schools and hospitals. In fact, it’s said that at one point, there were three times as many schools and hospitals in Cho Lon compared with Saigon!
Just next to the Nhi Phu Temple (264 Hai Thuong Lan Ong), one of the community halls of the Fujian settlers, you’ll see the Tran Boi Co Secondary School where the words “Ecole de Foukien” (“School of Fujian”) are still visible over the doors.
As the Chinese gained wealth, the homes in Cho Lon became more ornate, and incorporated French colonial architectural elements. Have a wander around and spot the wrought iron balconies and fancy moldings hidden in plain sight above the shop fronts and in some of the residential neighborhoods.
These heritage houses were often continuously lived in by generations of the same family which led to their preservation.
Others were well-known Chinese medicine shops which are still in business today. Look for the apothecary-type drawers and pharmacists putting custom-made packets of medicine together from potent natural ingredients.
Even some of the residential buildings will surprise you. A non-descript set of stairs might lead to a beautifully mosaiced archway hidden behind some drying laundry.
And don’t forget to look down! You might just be standing on some vintage tiles from the early 20th century!
Take a break from all your walking with some amazing dim sum or fresh noodles (either dry or in a soup) and wontons!
Saigon’s Chinatown is just a 15 minute taxi ride from EMM Saigon Hotel.
For more self-guided walking tours, check out the excellent book “Exploring Ho Chi Minh City” (available at select Fahasa book stores in Ho Chi Minh City) by local historian Tim Doling.