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

Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon, the world’s largest Chinatown, 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 getting around Ho Chi Minh City, Cho Lon is a must. Read on to find out more about this fascinating area!

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History Of Cho Lon

ho chi minh city's cho lon
Chinatown In Saigon // Photography by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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 urbanizing 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 the 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?

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Phung Hung Market // Photo By VIA Ambassador Van Nguyen (odaucungchup)

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 Districts 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 traveling. If you’re hailing a taxi from the street, have your desired address written in Vietnamese before traveling and make sure the meter is on.

Things To Do In Cho Lon

Eat The Local Food

ho chi minh city's cho lon
Saigon Local Food // Photo by VIA Ambassador Van Nguyen (odaucungchup)

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 flavor.
  • 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.

Try Chinatown Saigon Cafe

Ba Lu Racket Coffee is one of the famous racket cafes in District 5 with more than 70 years of history. Although the shop is only located in a small corner of Phung Hung market, it still attracts many tourists because of its unique, rich flavor bearing the mark of the Chinese people. In particular, the shop brews coffee entirely with rackets instead of using filters, creating a special excitement for foreign tourists who can come and try brewing with rackets.

Hidden in a corner of the market, Ba Lu coffee shop is located in a small house with ancient architecture typical of the old Chinatown. The barware and utensils at the shop all have a rustic, simple style, typical of the 2000s. From glasses to spoons, everything creates a familiar and cozy feeling.

Shop Till You Drop!

ho chi minh city's cho lon
People in Saigon playing pool // Photography by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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 specialize 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 Thap Muoi Street, Ward 2, District 6.
  • An Dong Market: Cong Truong An Dong, Ward 9, District 5.
  • Soai Kinh Lam Market: 545 Tran Hung Dao Street Ward 14, District 5.

Explore Cho Lon’s Hidden Alleyways

Down in Chinatown
Chinatown In Saigon // Photography by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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 colorful houses and buildings built in a different style from 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 urbanization. But 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.

Visit Traditional Medicine Shops

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

Down in Chinatown
Lion Dance In Ho Chi Minh // Photo by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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:

1. Thien Hau Pagoda

VIA Down in Chinatown 42 1 - A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon (China Town) District
Ba Thien Hau Temple // Photo by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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 that line the main walls. On each strip is a prayer, which worshippers traditionally believe the wind carries off to Mazu.

Address: 710 Nguyen Trai Street, Ward 11, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

2. Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda - A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon (China Town) District
Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda

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 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 12, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

3. Chua Ong Bon Pagoda

Ong Bon pagoda scaled 1 - A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon (China Town) District
Ong Bon Pagoda

Ong Bon Pagoda, also known as Nhi Phu Temple, is currently located at 264 Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, Ward 14, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. At the end of the 17th century, when many Chinese people from Quan Chau and Truong Chau prefectures in Fujian province, China migrated to De Ngan land, or today’s Cho Lon area to make a living and start a business, they built this temple around the beginning of the 18th century to worship as well as serve as a place to meet and interact with fellow countrymen.

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 meter complex, which contains a courtyard filled with walled paintings and religious tributes.

Built by Fujianese around 1730, colorful ceramics and ancient carvings surround the main shrine, which pays tribute to Ong Bon, the God of wealth and virtue. The unique designs of the temple include a three-entrance gate, front hall, Thien Tinh yard, main hall, and rear hall. Nhi Phu Temple not only has high religious value but is also a valuable asset for architectural and fine arts research. The architectural system and sophisticated carvings have contributed to making the temple unique and outstanding.

Address: 264 Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, Ward 14, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

4. Lantern Street – shines brightly on the Mid-Autumn Festival night

Every Mid-Autumn Festival, the lantern street in District 5 is always bustling with people coming and going. The colorful atmosphere of lanterns, bustling with the laughter of buyers and sellers, attracts a large number of people to visit.

One must recognize Luong Nhu Hoc Lantern Street in District 5, famous as a village that has produced handmade lanterns for many generations and is a long-standing home of the Chinese community. Every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival, under the bustling atmosphere of the festival, this place becomes lively and brilliant with countless colorful lanterns.

Here, you can find an array of unique and diverse lantern designs, thanks to the artisans in this street who have over 50 years of experience. From fabric and paper lanterns to sophisticated royal lanterns decorated with unique details and patterns such as dragons, phoenixes, birds, etc., these creations showcase the skill and talent of the craftsmen here.

Address: Luong Nhu Hoc Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

lantern street - A History And Guide To Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Lon (China Town) District
Mid-Autumn Festival at Luong Nhu Hoc Street // Photo by Vietreader

5. Cha Tam (St Francis Xavier) Church

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Cha Tam (St Francis Xavier) Church

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 went unanswered as he was assassinated the following day. 

Address: 25 Hoc Lac Street, Ward 14, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

6. Hao Si Phuong – the alley with ancient architecture in the heart of Saigon

Alley 206, Tran Hung Dao B Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Hao Si Phuong Alley, is one of the oldest alleys in Saigon, existing for more than 100 years in the heart of the bustling metropolis. Built in the 1910s, Hao Si Phuong Alley still retains its unique architecture from the beginning, combining ancient and modern.

Hao Si Phuong Alley is designed like an old apartment complex, with two floors and a unique staircase system connecting the floors, which is different from Vietnamese architecture. This is where the Chinese and Vietnamese communities live, so visitors will easily encounter Chinese cultural characteristics such as red couplets and altars outside the house.

Not only is it an ideal place to check in and take photos, but Hao Si Phuong Alley is also an interesting destination to enjoy typical Chinese cuisines such as black coffee, and noodles,… With architectural beauty. and its rich cultural atmosphere, this place has attracted many film crews as the setting for filming and advertising.

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Hao Si Phuong Alley // Photo by Vin Wonders

Take A Guided Tour

Saigon Free Walking Tours, an NGO run by Hoa Sen University students, offers 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 the 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

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Saigon People // Photography by VIA Ambassador Adrien Jean

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 Ho Chi Minh tours.

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Written by My Huynh
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As a local expert of Vietnam, born and raised in Saigon, I am proud of my homeland's majestic mountains, dreamy rivers, and abundant forests and seas. Every corner of Vietnam carries a heroic historical story I always wanted to share.