For visitors to Saigon the most popular sites are in a compact area around District 1 and 3. If you have time though I recommend making a visit to Cholon, which is the old Chinatown area, most of which lies in District 5.
Cholon used to be a city in itself until it was merged with Saigon in the 1930’s. At one point it was one of the biggest Chinatowns in the world, and during the war it was filled with American deserters and traders on the black market. It sounded like the Chinatown’s that were depicted in movies and nothing like the sanitized versions that we know today.
While many Chinese left after the war the area still retains it Chinese heritage. Cholon isn’t a Chinatown that reveals itself immediately like, say, Bangkok’s Chinatown. The Chinatown there has huge signage along Yaowarat Road in Chinese and it feels evident you are in a Chinatown. Cholon’s most interesting sites are spread out over a fair distance and it is not apparent where it starts or ends.
I have gone on several wanders in the area so I have put together a highlights list for those wishing to see this side of Saigon.
Map of Cholon
I’ve marked most of the temples and churches of Cholon that are worthy of a visit on this map.
Things to see in Cholon
The Binh Tay Market is the central market of Cholon and it’s on another level of crazy compared to the Ben Thanh Market in District 1. Despite that you will actually get hassled less there by the vendors than at Ben Thanh as they are not selling toursity items.
[Binh Tay Market.]
The surrounding streets are also a fascinating wander with more street-level selling and old shops. You will note that the shops and streets are less developed than in District 1.
Unfortunately Vietnam has a terrible record for preserving its historic architecture from the colonial era. A city with an area of protected historical structures will attract more visitors than yet another city of plain concrete blocks, yet this fact is lost on decision makers.
Despite the loss of heritage, a walk around Cholon and District 5 will still reveal some colonial-era gems that have survived, such as this building on Go Cong.
Some lanterns at 27 Phan Van Khoe, most likely up for the Chinese New Year.
The Nghia Nhuan Assembly Hall.
A small temple at 380 Tran Hung Dao.
Chua On Lang.
Burning incense in Chua On Lang.
A wander around any part of Saigon must be punctuated with Vietnamese iced coffee and iced tea breaks. MUST!
Phu Dinh is an interesting street to walk along with some remnants of colonial architecture and a little temple.
Ha Chuong Hoi Quan Pagoda.
It’s not just buddhist temples out here as there are some churches as well. St Xavier is not far from Binh Tay Market.
The Joan of Arc Church is another landmark of Cholon.
And there is even a mosque.
As with the rest of Vietnam there are no tourism information signs in English to explain the history of any of these buildings. If you are short on time and would like more detailed background on the history of the area and it temples, then Saigon and Cholon heritage tours by local historian Tim Doling is a tour that comes highly recommended.
Here is a short video of my Cholon wanders.