A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon (China Town) District

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Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon, the world’s largest China Town, is a bustling district just west of District 1. With its storied history, markets, pagodas, and restaurants, it is a unique mix of Chinese and Vietnamese influences. If you’re visiting Ho Chi Minh City, Cho Lon is a must. Read on to find out more about this fascinating area!

  • History Of Cholon
  • Where Is Cholon Located?
  • Things To Do
  • Eat The Local Food
  • Shop Till You Drop!
  • Explore Cholon’s Hidden Alleys
  • Visit Traditional Medicine Shops
  • Check Out Cholon’s Religious Sites
  • Take A Guided Tour

History Of Cholon

Old traditonal Binh Tay market in China town
Old traditonal Binh Tay market in China town // Photo on Shutterstock

Cho Lon’s emergence was heavily linked to the Hoa (overseas Chinese) people, whose historical migration to Vietnam dates back to the 1644 collapse of the Ming dynasty. Subsequent political crises in China over the years meant the numbers of Hoa people steadily grew in Vietnam into a fully-fledged diaspora, which today is made up of five different groups: the Cantonese and the Hakka, from Guangdong province; the Chaozhou, from eastern Guangdong province; the Fujianese, from Fujian; and the Hainanese are from the southernmost island.

Cho Lon itself first emerged in 1779 around the time of the Tay Son rebellion, which was a massive peasant revolt against the ruling Nguyen dynasty in Southern Vietnam. Ethnic Chinese, who were supporters of the Nguyen dynasty, feared reprisals and were forced to flee Bien Hoa and the surrounding towns where they lived. They settled in Cho Lon (which means big market), which remained a city in its own right and a major business hub until 1932 when it morphed into the rapidly urbanising Saigon in 1932.

During the Vietnam War, Cho Lon became notorious as a black market for US soldiers selling American Army issue supplies, and it also suffered bombings during the first days of the Tet offensive. Fortunately, most of the famous pagodas and traditional Chinese architecture survived. The late 1970s saw an exodus of Hoa people in the wake of the Sino-Vietnamese war and resulting anti-Chinese backlash. Despite its topsy-turvy past, Cho Lon’s businesses and traditions have stood the test of time and it remains a thriving district.

Where is Cho Lon located?

Cho Lon is primarily located in District 5, on the west bank of the Saigon River, but it also spills over into the eastern end of District 6 and parts of District 10 and 11.

Getting to Cho Lon by yourself is easy enough – it is only a 10-minute drive from most hotels in District 1. Take a taxi – we recommend Grab or Go Jek (on-demand transport apps) because you can put your address in before travelling. If you’re hailing a taxi from the street, have your desired address written in Vietnamese before travelling and make sure the meter is on. 

Things To Do In Cho Lon

Eat The Local Food

Hủ tiếu cá (fish noodle soup)
Hủ tiếu cá (fish noodle soup) // Photo on expatolife.com

Over the years, Hoa people have brought over countless delicious dishes, making Cho Lon a foodie’s paradise. Much of the food in Cho Lon is distinct from or fused with Vietnamese cuisine, and for this reason, it makes a great spot to try out some new grub.

Chinese restaurants pack the streets, giving you an amazing array of choices to sample the local fare. Make sure you try out some of the following dishes:

  • Hủ tiếu cá (fish noodle soup): thinly sliced snakehead fish is added to thick Chinese style noodles and a pork broth and topped with traditional Chinese spices, giving this dish a succulent and sweet flavour.
  • Hủ tiếu sa tế (Chili paste noodle soup): this noodle dish, which originated from Teochew, China, combines 20 different herbs and spices with beef strips. Well worth a try if you like a good kick of chili!
  • Sủi cảo (dumplings): If you want to start your day like the Hoa Chinese, grab yourself a steaming hot plate of dumplings in Cho Lon. These Chinese-style dumplings are usually made with pork or crab, and you can enjoy them fried, steamed or boiled.

Aside from the restaurants, check out the Chinese bakeries, which sell both traditional Chinese pastries and seasonal mooncakes alongside western-style bread and sandwich loaves. Whatever you do, just don’t leave Cho Lon without eating – it is one of the best things to do in the area.

Shop Till You Drop!

Soai Kinh Lam fabric market
Soai Kinh Lam fabric market // Photo on kenh14

Move over Ben Thanh – Binh Tay market may be the number 1 market in town! Packed full of fresh produce and food stalls, this is where locals come to do their shopping. As a tourist, you’re unlikely to be hassled like in D1, meaning you can slip under the radar.

Goods come from all over Vietnam and Asia, from silk and lanterns to tropical fruit from the Mekong delta. So, if you’re interested in a change of scene from your local Vinmart or Coopmart, make a trip to the busy Binh Tay market to see what bargains you can find.

Other markets worth a visit include An Dong and Soai Kinh Lam markets, which specialise in fabric, clothes, and traditional crafts. Perfect if you’re in the market for a new suit or dress!

Addresses in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Binh Tay Market: 57A Tháp Mười, Phường 2, Quận 6,
  • An Dong Market: Công trường An Đông, Phường 9, Quận 5
  • Soai Kinh Lam Market: 545 Đ. Trần Hưng Đạo, Phường 14, Quận 5

Explore Cho Lon’s Hidden Alleyways

Hao Sy Phuong alley
Hao Sy Phuong alley // Photo on expatolife.com

Part of the charm of Cho Lon is getting lost in its hidden alleys. Head to Hao Sy Phuong alley, which has become one of Cho Lon’s most popular tourist attractions in recent years. Located just off Tran Hung Dao street, the alley has many colourful houses and buildings built in a different style to the rest of Ho Chi Minh City.

As you explore, you’ll notice the fusion of French, Chinese, and Vietnamese architectural styles which have remained untouched amidst Saigon’s rampant urbanisation. But for the motorbikes and wiring, the unique style, the Chinese street signs and the Cantonese-speaking locals will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into early 20th century Shanghai or Hong Kong.Vis

Visit Traditional Medicine Shops

Traditional medicine shops
Traditional medicine shops // Photo on expatolife.com

The most visible businesses in Cho Lon beyond the obvious Chinese food are Traditional Chinese Medicine shops. Nearby Luang Nhu Hoc street, you can find an area dedicated to Chinese traditional medicine, which is especially popular amongst older Vietnamese. If you go on one of Saigon’s many tours, your guide should be able to make sense of the wide range of dried herbs and plants on offer.

Check Out Cho Lon’s Religious Sites

Cho Lon is home to some of the best-preserved Chinese architecture and pagodas in Southern Vietnam, and they make a great place to rest from the hectic traffic. The different deities worshipped also showcase the distinct origins and provinces of the Hoa people.

Below are three of the best ones worth visiting:

Thien Hau Pagoda

pagePropertiesImage(1) - A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon (China Town) District
Thien Hau Pagoda is the most important pagoda in Cho Lon // Photo on asiawebdirect.com

Thien Hau Pagoda is the most important pagoda in Cho Lon. Built by Cantonese migrants at the beginning of the 19th century, Thien Hau Pagoda is mainly dedicated to Mazu, a Chinese sea Goddess worshipped by the Fujianese community.  As one of the most popular places of worship in Cho Lon, the pagoda can get fairly busy and packed full of smoky incense.

As you stroll through the grounds of the pagoda, you’ll notice the hundreds of small paper strips which line the main walls. On each strip is a prayer, which worshippers traditionally believe the wind carries off to Mazu.

Address: 710 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường 11, Quận 5, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 70000

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda
Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda // Photo on tripadvisor

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda is unique in that it isn’t dedicated to a deity. Instead, it pays tribute to a military leader from imperial Chinese history, Quan Hong, who was known for his bravery and honesty. The fact that he never set foot in Vietnam yet remains an important figure for the Hoa people reflects their enduring traditions.

Wonderfully gold-crusted Chinese characters and red paint cover the entrance and interior, where there are a range of offerings and altars to other deities such as the Taoist Jade Emperor and Buddha. Fun fact: this pagoda was President Obama’s first destination in HCMC during his 2016 Vietnam tour, where he paid tribute to the cultural traditions of Vietnam.

Address: 184 Hùng Vương, Phường 12, Quận 5, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh

Chua Ong Bon Pagoda

Chua Ong Bon Pagoda
Chua Ong Bon Pagoda // Photo on spectralcodex.com

Chua Ong Bon Pagoda is the oldest Chinese pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, and it has played an important role in the community for hundreds of years. The pagoda is located inside a 2500 square metre complex, which contains a courtyard filled with walled paintings and religious tributes.

Built by Fujianese around 1730, colourful ceramics and ancient carvings surround the main shrine, which pays tribute to Ong Bon, the God of wealth and virtue. And judging by the bustling businesses and restaurants in the surrounding area, he’s not held back with his blessings.

Address: 264 Đ. Hải Thượng Lãn Ông, Phường 14, Quận 5, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh

Cha Tam (St Francis Xavier) Church

Cha Tam (St Francis Xavier) Church
Cha Tam (St Francis Xavier) Church // Photo on vietnamdiscovery.com

Vietnam is home to some 7 million Catholics, so it is perhaps unsurprising to find a Catholic church in Cho Lon. Dating back to the 19th century, Cha Tam Church lies at the end of Tran Hung Dao street, standing as a relic of the French colonial period and an important symbol of faith for Hoa Catholics.

Nestled in the middle of its peaceful grounds is Mother Mary like you’ve never seen her before – in a Chinese-style pagoda ornamented with a cross. During the 1963 South Vietnam coup d’état it was also the infamous site of refuge for disgraced South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Any prayers he offered clearly went unanswered as he was assassinated the following day. 

Address: 25 Học Lạc, Phường 14, Quận 5, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh

Take A Guided Tour

Take A Guided Tour Cho Lon
Good shoes and light clothes will be needed to make your trip more enjoyable and comfortable // Photo on vietnam-guide.com

Saigon Free Walking Tours, an NGO run by Hoa Sen University students, offer free tours (you just pay 70,000 VND to cover transport costs). This offers students the chance to hone their skills as guides and in the English language. You will get great insight into daily life in Cho Lon and the best eating spots and alleys. Plus, you’ll have all the help you need when negotiating in Binh Tay market. Do foot the bill for food and drinks – it’s a nice gesture for the students’ time!

For a more professional and structured experience, book a tour with Back of the Bike Tours. Prices cost 1,145,000 per person, and you’ll get a comprehensive half-day tour of Cho Lon and District 1 – including food, transport, all the sites, and more. It’s #4 on Tripadvisor Saigon for a reason!

Soak In The Atmosphere

From the food and architecture to its bustling businesses and turbulent history, Cho Lon represents the Hoa people’s resilient and enterprising spirit. As one of Saigon’s most historic and diverse districts, it deserves its spot on your travel itinerary.

If you’re keen to discover more of Ho Chi Minh City, take a look at our 1-2 day itinerary guide

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