A Day in Cholon
Every city worth its salt has a Chinatown, but the award for World’s Largest Chinatown (at least in terms of area) goes to Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City. This district was actually its own city for a long time, until eventually being swallowed up by its bigger neighbor to the east. We spent a day navigating its busy streets, and visiting its temples and markets.
Cholon was established in the 18th century by Chinese residents fleeing persecution in other parts of Vietnam. Today, there are nearly a million Chinese-speaking people in the country, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they’re all crammed into this one district. Here, all the signs are Chinese, and life is noticeably different than in the rest of Saigon.
We started our day at the Tomb of Pétrus Ky, a linguist that helped popularize the modern Vietnamese alphabet. Not that I need to defend the memory of this man of whom I’d never heard, but I couldn’t believe the way his mausoleum has become an extension of the neighboring property. After all, as the famous Chinese proverb goes, “one man’s tombstone is another man’s drying rack”. I was given the immediate impression that, in Cholon, nothing is sacred.
Walking west along Trần Hưng Đạo, we entered into the true madness of Cholonian traffic, and were disabused of any silly notion that the day might be “enjoyable”. Honking, shouting, pushing, non-stop insanity. We ended up on the curved street of Hải Thượng Lãn Ông, which is known for its traditional medicines shops. The products were intriguing, as was the fact that they’re sold by monks. We tried asking about the mushrooms and roots, but never received more than an irritated gesture which I’m preeeetty sure meant “go away”.
This unfriendly vibe was a staple of our day in Cholon. Of course, people have businesses to run, and not everyone has time for gawking foreigners. But still, there are different ways to handle unwanted visitors. For example, Mrs. Bookseller: physically pushing me out of your shop? Not very nice! And you might not believe this, but I was actually planning on buying one of your stupid journals.
Harried and frustrated, we eventually reached the Bình Tây Market: the “big market” which has always been a part of Cholon, and even provided its name (“Chợ Lớn” means “Big Market”). Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, but we found some fruit and food stands in makeshift stalls erected along the sides of the market, and sat down for an incredibly cheap lunch.
With full bellies, we felt ready to get dive back into Cholon. Near the market, we found the Chua Ong Bon. As we approached, we thought this squat building was but definitely destitute. But rounding the corner, we realized that it’s an active and charming little temple. We hadn’t heard anything about this place, but with its pretty round doors and pleasant buzz of activity, it was a highlight of our day.
We also enjoyed the nearby Catholic church of San Francisco Xavier, mainly because of its deliciously awful kitchiness. We sat in front of Disco Jesus for awhile, taking a break from the noise and heat of Cholon, and Jürgen issued me a challenge. “Turn around and see if you can look at the beautiful bird statue in the rear alcove, without laughing.” I failed miserably, but really, it was an impossible challenge. Try it yourself!