In Ho Chi Minh City, District 5 is home to the nation’s largest and most fun Chinatown. The area, locally referred to as Cholon, is a mix of diverse culture and endless activity that spills from the noisy alleyways which twist boundlessly throughout the concrete expanse. Just off the tourist trail, it’s a great place to see a different side of Saigon.
In Chinatown, everything’s for sale. The region’s roots date back centuries when people traveled from all over the city to purchase goods. Today it’s very much the same. For market lovers, exploring Chinatown can be a much more enjoyable experience than visiting Saigon’s most famous shopping centers in District 1.
Binh Tay Market
A good day exploring will usually begin by the sprawling Binh Tay Market, which straddles the line between District 5 and 6. The market sells meats and seafood out front and pretty much everything else inside. Some goods can be bought individually, but most such as spices or silks, are sold in bulk. There’s also a food court that serves up excellent traditional Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Saigon is a city full of markets, yet most travelers only spend time at centrally located Ben Thanh. Binh Tay, on the other hand, is where locals shop. The vibe is much different and the vendors are almost entirely hands off. However, as of March 2018, the market is being renovated and the vendors moved to a labyrinth of stalls across the street.
An Dong Market
The An Dong Market sells fabrics, clothing, home wares and craft goods. Handmade jewelry and hand-carved woodwork can be found scattered throughout the piles as well. The market’s four expansive floors are a similar if not slightly less enjoyable experience to Binh Tay. From the outside the building is as uninviting as possible, a large square, white, Soviet looking block. However once inside, the colors, excitement and textures are as Vietnamese as any of the city’s other great shopping centers.
Navigate District 5’s narrow alleyways for Dim Sum
In between both markets there are miles of streets, narrow lanes, and twisted alleyways to explore as well. Herbal remedies and Chinese lanterns can be found down nondescript pathways. For some, winding through these entryways with no real direction to go and window shopping the afternoon away are the most fun to be had in the area.
When the shopping is done it’s time to eat. In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s an old saying that goes: “eat in District 5, live in District 3, and see in District 1”. Needless to say the food here is fantastic. Saigon’s best dumpling restaurants claim the district as home. These are some of our favorites.
Tan Nguyen Thai
Restaurant, Chinese, $$$
This friendly joint is known to have some of the best dumplings in town. A towering menu sitting on top of a red and yellow signage will let you know you’ve made it to this always-packed hole in the wall. This should be a stop on any food lover’s visit to Vietnam. The menu is as extensive as it is delicious, featuring nearly a dozen pages of steamed or pan fried dumplings.
Tien Phat Dim Sum
Restaurant, Chinese, $$$
Tien Phat is a Hong Kong joint dropped into the midst of Vietnam’s oldest Chinatown that’s been around for more than 20 years. The menu is similarly extensive to that of Tan Nguyen Thai, and the ambiance is cozy, casual and authentic. The steamed pork and crab dumplings are some of our favorites in the whole city. There’s never a dull moment to be had here; watching the servers run about can be almost as enjoyable as the meal.
Explore the District on foot
Some say that Saigon isn’t a city to be walked. The sidewalks are too narrow or nonexistent, the motorbikes hurl down each and every sliver of an opening, the heat is too powerful and overbearing. This couldn’t be more wrong. Saigon exists on the streets. The never-ending action and unmatched pace of life moving by are unique to this sprawling metropolis. The truth is that there is no single way to get a better feel for the city than by exploring on foot. Chinatown is no different. The best way to understand the area is to get up early and start walking. Between the markets, shops, and dumpling houses you’ll come across some of the city’s most beautiful pagodas.
Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda
A smaller pagoda located down a quiet street, this orange building was constructed in the 1830’s and has retained its charm for nearly 200 years. The temple is dedicated to Mother Sanh, the Goddess of Fertility and is usually full of local women praying at the altar and providing offerings in hopes of conceiving a child. Many other deities are represented here as well, such as the Goddess of the Seaand the Guardian of Happiness.
Thien Hau Temple
This spectacular structure dates back to the mid 1700’s and was built in honor of the Chinese Sea Goddess, Mazu. Ornate carvings and decorative figures dart upwards from the slant roof. Once past the iron entrance gate, beyond the courtyard and inside the pagoda, twisting incense cones hang down overhead and clouds of smoke wisp up from the giant smooth stone vases. A number of statues paying tribute to Mazu are dispersed throughout the grounds.