Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City
Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown, is one of the oldest, mysterious and most interesting parts of Saigon. Cho Lon literally means ‘big market’ and the vast Binh Tay Market lives up to that reputation. Though not as centrally located as the famous Ben Thanh Market, it was the first market I visited in Saigon.
Unlike other markets, Cholon Market hasn't changed since the days of the Viet Nam War. Here you will find derelict shells of old French style houses that are still surrounding the market building. When I arrived it was probably in the mid-80s Fahrenheit but because of overcast skies and a little breeze it was humid but not stifling. The market, however, was crowded and under its roof it did get pretty warm. I took my time shopping and I would suggest that you do also. The aisles are narrow, the din is loud, and the people are scurrying about or squatting in the narrow passages to talk or eat. The variety of goods here is positively astounding and will give you uncanny glimpses into modern Vietnamese life. I took a lot of pictures and my guide and I stopped often to inquire about some eye-appealing trinket or to haggle over the price of some pistachios.
At the center of the Binh Tay market is a very nice, eye-appealing courtyard of trees, beautiful shrubbery and stonework. Get your camera out as you will be taking photographs of the courtyard and the delightful market.
Saigon seems a paradise for shoppers. You will find tacky tourist junk right next to beautiful local handicrafts that are situated next to glittering fake-brand watches. And basketry and cloth seems to be in endless supply. If you love to shop and have at least some rudimentary bargaining skills and a good eye for value, your money will go a long way and you can enjoy virtually endless retail entertainment. Your bargaining skills will come in handy almost everywhere in Saigon as long as you avoid the major tourist-bus stop shops. Generally speaking, anything not marked with a price sticker can be had for about two-thirds the price first quoted.
I'm basically a market fanatic; would not miss the opportunity to check out the markets in all the cities that i visited.
In fact, during my recent trip to Ho Chi Minh, i went to 2 markets; Ben Thanh (you can read abt my review of Ben Thanh market in my travel pages) and Binh Tay. Recollecting my experience abt the latter, i only have this to say: HOT (as in the temperature)!
PS: Check out more Binh Tay market writeup in my Tips pages.
SETTING THE EXPECTATIONS: Go to Binh Tay market for the experience rather than the shopping and you will not be disappointed. and who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised if you manage to pick up something that you like.
SURVIVAL KIT: handheld battery operated fan, a bottle of mineral water, dress light and tie up your hair (for those with long hair like me).
AVOID: Going there with pampered companion travellers who are grouchy and whinny as they will definitely complain abt everything in the market...and this will affect your mood too.
GETTING THERE: By Taxi, of course! The taxi fare from District 3 (where i had beef noodles - read abt it in my Restaurants pages) to Binh Tay market costs about US$12-13. Not sure if i got ripped off (the taxi meter was jumping really fast compared to the other taxis that i've taken). Just to put things into perspective: taxi fare from Binh Tay market back to District 1 was about US$7-8; and from airport to my hotel (Renaissance) only cost about US$5. Not sure if the different taxi companies have different rates but i do know that they have different flag down fare (some start with 14,000 vnd and some with 12,000 vnd). But honestly, dont be fool by the flag down fare as it is peanuts compared to how fast the meter jumps. If anyone knows the math, pls share so that fellow travellers can look out for this.
There is a strong chinese presence in all the city, in spite of the efforts of the Government to keep them out. But where this presence is harder is in the western district of Cholon.
There you will find traditional chinese shops (tea, medicines, clothes...), restaurants and the main market, which really deserves a visit to get lost among the hundreds of stalls selling evrything that could get out of your mind... name it, it's there!
Cholon's main market, a Chinese-style architectural masterpiece with a great clock tower in the centre.
Much of the business here is wholesale. If you are buying in bulk, this is the place to do your shopping. It is cheaper than Ben Thanh market and there are less tourist too. If not, you can always ask your friends if they are buying and split the cost after you buy in bulk.
I will be covering more under the shopping tips.
From Bui Vein street (backpacker area), we took a cab down to Binh Tay (with full of expectation to get cheaper goods than Ben Thanh Market). It costs us 46000 dong (about USD 3). According to the taxi driver, it is the biggest market in Ho Chi Minh.
Yes, it is big, but it is not a good place for you if you intend to buy only small volume ( 1 dozen for example) of items. People overthere are selling items in bulks. They will not entertain you as tourist as you are not their main customer. If you need to buy something, you need to make an effort to ask. They will still sell you small quantity if you request. Price is cheaper compare to outside market.
Basically it sells all items except souvenirs (which were what we looked for). We were looking for key chains, egg shell lacquer paintings and wood carving. They do not have that.
You can see people carrying boxes of goods running around. I think this place is a reseller center rather than normal open market.
Saigon's Chinatown is in District 5. The heart of this bustling area is the Binh Tay Market. Although it is primarily wholesale, it is well worth a visit for the activity and the shrine in the middle -- where the vendors pay their respects before the work begins.
Please visit my Cholon travelogue for more on Cholon.
Cho Lon means "big market" and the Binh Tay Market is the largest market in Saigon's Chinatown. Much like Ben Thanh Market, the aisles are full of just about anything that you would need for the modern Vietnamese life. However, the prices are generally cheaper than Ben Thanh.
At the center of the market is a courtyard garden for you to escape the craziness of the shopping.
Although many Chinese fled after the fall of Saigon and the anti-capitalist, anti-Chinese campaigns of the late 1970s, the place still has a distinctly Chinese flavour. You can hear Chinese dialects being spoken and can easily find shark fin soup in the area.
After visiting Ben Thanh and An Dong, going to Binh Tay Market should not be a neccessity at all if you're looking to buy more local discounted items. Of course you should visit the place to see it's architecture, and also to experience how the Vietnamese people go through their daily lives.
There are also nice little shops surrounding the market. But looking from the other side of the spectrum, Binh Tay Market is more chaotic than An Dong Market, and the shopholders are not too desperate for your business and thus would not try to court you to buy their items. Some may even display signs to say that their items are all fixed price. No chance for discount.
There are a number of pagodas in Cholon. [The Vietnamese use the term "pagoda for any temple] The Thien Hau Pagoda was the one we visited. It reveres both Buddha and the goddess of the sea.
The spiral incense cones burn for a month -- inside is a tag that lists the prayer request.
We went to the Cho Binh Tay at 11:30am and left at the Main Bus Stop about 300metres away from Cho Binh Tay at 2pm.
It was big...there were 2 floors but we visited only the ground floor as I was having trouble climbing and descending staircase after my trip to CuChi Tunnel 2 days earlier(another tip, for those who are not fit or not used to exercise, like me, try to schedule your trip to CuChi Tunnel on the last day of your trip to HCMC in case of any injury or just simple thigh muscle pain).
It took us one hour(without shopping) to walk through approximately half.....errrr...error, it should be 20%(updated) of the ground floor at leisurely speed. (a.k.a. window shopping)
It was not as hot or humid as I expected. I didn't even use the mini electric fan that I brought along. Perhaps, it was cloudy on that day. It was quite a leisurely walk although we have to stop often to give way to workers carrying goods.
We bought 4 bamboo lamps at 70,000VND each (about SGD5) with approximately 25cm diameter (screw type) (without plug, just a wire hanging out which I have to fix a new one with my country's 3-pin plug).
Bought some Lotus Seed snacks at 180,000VND per kilogram for the sweetened type and 240,000VND per kilogram for the unsweetened type. (Co-op supermarket and Tax Centre supermarket are selling at 60,000VND for 200grams). Taste differs slightly for all 3 types(sweetened, unsweetened, supermarket) and to first-timer like me, I like all 3 tastes. You may try them before you buy. We sampled many stalls before we settled for one stall who gave us a small discount. Tastes & Prices differ slighly among the stalls so, if you're particular about them, try all before you decide.
There were one long row of hot food stalls where a lot of locals are buying food from.
We did not eat there as the row behind the food stalls were selling fresh meats and seafood.
And, we were reluctant to try the hot food in the front row even though it looked acceptably clean.
If you are lucky to get a taxi driver that speaks your language or English and are talkative,
he can tell you about where the Chinese mostly lives in Ho Chi Minh City and show you along the taxi ride the various landmarks/town and the story behind it. Our driver were a Chinese who can speak Cantonese just like us.
Taxi from Cho Ben Thanh(Le Loi Street side) in District 1 to Cho Binh Tay in District 6(bordering 5) was about 125,000VND in a Vinasun Taxi.
Taxi back to Cho Ben Thanh(Le Loi Street side) in District 1 was between 95,000VND to 100,000VND(i've forgotten the exact amount) in a Vinasun Taxi.
Exchange rate during my visit was approximately USD 1 = 19,000 VND.
Below is the official website that I saw written on the market main signage inside the building above the escalator. You can get an idea of the size and market shape from here http://www.chobinhtay.gov.vn/View.aspx?id=17
There are some photos of the market front and garden and also how it looks like many years ago in a black and white photo.
They even show the prices of some of the main goods in that website.
Hope these info help some of the future visitors.
Cho Binh Tay is the main market of Cho Lon (Chinatown). This huge complex sells a mixture of goods and fresh products. You can get vegetables, poultry, bags, fruits etc. The market is chaotic and noisy. Beware of pick pockets.
The Cho Lon area itself is the Chinatown of Saigon and home to Vietnamese Chinese. The area is busy with its markets, restaurants and is abuzz with all kinds of activities. As it is normal for most Chinatowns worldwide, the area is dirty and chaotic. But it makes an interesting walk.
Cholon is in District 5 and is a maze of narrow streets, bustling with people. Most of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese live here and they are the largest single ethnic minority group in the country. Merchants began to settle in Cholon in the 1770s, although many ethnic Chinese fled the country in 1975.
The Thien Hau Pagoda is one of Cholon’s must-sees. It is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of the sea. Photographers are spoilt for choice with the ornate decoration inside the pagoda and the statues of Thien Hau. It is popular with worshippers (the air is always heavy with the smell of incense) and there are regular festivals during the lunar calendar.
Binh Tay Market throngs with people from early morning and the gloomy, narrow walkways are crammed with consumer items and exotic foodstuffs. The sound of bargaining, quite often in Chinese rather than Vietnamese, and the calls of the vendors constantly fill the air. This is one of the best places to see the locals going about their daily lives.
District 5 of HCMC is known as the Chinatown. I didn't explore through it though, just around Windsor Plaza Hotel, An Duong Plaza, and small restaurants along the road. If you prefer to walk around Chinatown, please make sure you are traveling in a minimum group of three since District 5 is not as safe as District 1.
There is a temple in the area called Thien Hau, but I didn't get a chance to visit it.
This sector of Saigon, populated by some 400,000 ethnic Chinese, boasts numerous beautiful pagodas and one of the most exciting markets in the city. A short stroll through the market offers a kaleidoscope of colours and a hive of activities.
Caution: Be aware of pickpockets known to loiter in the market area.
It was here that President Diem and his brother took refuge in during the coup d'etat in 1963. An armoured personnel carrier was sent to the church to take custody of the two. The soldiers killed Diem and his brother before they reached the center of the city.
The church was built around the turn of the 19th century. It is somewhat unique in that it's decorated with horizontal lacquer boards and wood panels with inscriptions much like the surrounding Chinese style temples. Masses are held in both Vietnamese and Chinese (Mandarin).