Explore Saigon Chinatown — The Little Hong Kong of Saigon
“A hub of commerce”, “hustling and bustling”, and “young and effervescent” are just some ways to describe the modern beauty of Saigon. However, this city has more to offer. Saigon hides inside it a poetically tranquil appearance and takes time to explore.
Actually, from the very first moment I set foot in Saigon, I didn’t know where a peaceful secret corner of this city was. I simply thought that all I needed was to follow my heart and keep going, looking, and listening. I got on a bus connecting the center of District 1 to Chợ Lớn. The way seemed endless. And I was overflowing with emotion when I arrived in Dist. 5, a unique residential area in bustling Saigon.
A community of Chinese people have lived and earned their living here for hundreds of years. Consisting of separate apartments and buildings occasionally between community places, this area’s architecture is very special. From above, Dist. 5 looks like a giant zig zag carpet with patterns of roads and winding lanes. Be patient and follow these endless roads. Get lost in this strange yet enchanting place and it will seem from time to that you are back in the 1990s.
From above, Dist. 5 looks like a giant zig zag carpet with patterns of roads and winding lanes. Be patient and follow these endless roads. Get lost in this strange yet enchanting place.
Perhaps because of its proximity to Chợ Lớn, Chinatown is always busy. Houses are close to each other. Their first floor have been restored and decorated to serve as shops. I don’t like noisy places, but upon passing these streets, I wasn’t bothered by the throngs of businessmen and customers. At that time, I was busy looking at the upper floors of the houses where the old architectural style has been preserved with narrow corridors, marred yellow walls, wooden windows with different colors, opencast altars with incense smoke, and various shaped windows on the wall.
Old apartment buildings are considered an attractive “specialty” of Chinatown. I don’t know exactly how many apartment buildings there are in this district since I just walked about 500m to find a new buildings, but they seem to be about 50 years old. The paint on the walls have faded with time. While the old buildings in Hanoi have stairs right at the gate ways and apartments on the ground floor have their own doors, the old apartment buildings in Dist. 5 are more mysterious.
It’s better called them small residential areas than apartment buildings. They are identified with a pretty large dome gate and Chinese letters on the wall. I passed the old gate, walked some minutes along a dark lane, and got lost in a quiet sunlit yard. I felt the scent of incense somewhere and the only sound I could hear was silence. Along the yard’s two sides were long chains of houses consisting of dozens of apartments. They share such narrow corridors that it would be difficult for two people to go side-by-side. The apartments are small. Each of them was painted with vivid warm and cool colors which contributed to the picturesque scene.
I could only stand silently and looked around. A mixed feeling about this familiar yet strange and mysterious place titillated me. It was like I slipped into a time warp and the surroundings were rapidly changing in front of my eyes. Suddenly, I thought I was somewhere in the 1960s. That was when Ms. Truong Man Ngoc from the film, In the Mood for Love, wore an elegant silk cheongsam, standing near a half-opened door before an apartment on the second floor. There was the young melancholy artist who seemed to have lost his train of thought. There were also a few laborers sharing an apartment from TVB – the renowned film studio in Hong Kong. My brain tried to remind me that I was in the Chinatown of Saigon (Saigon Chinatown) in 2016, but my senses led me to a dreamy space named Little Hong Kong more than a half decade ago.
More than 50 years have passed, and changes are unavoidable. However, deep inside each person here is the thought of saving traditional customs. They save their traditional values as they save themselves. When a day of working ends, Chinese people lift off their burden of life to go back home. They speak Cantonese. They live slowly and enjoy collective activities. They are friendly and hospitable. When noticing tourists like me wandering around, some people even offer their help, guiding me to the highest floors and the most secret hidden corners so that I could catch a glimpse of the soul of the Chinese people here.
Chinese people are known for their love of collective activities. Therefore, when they settled down in Saigon, they made much effort to build temples, assembly halls, and theaters. Apart from the Buddha, in temples and pagodas, we can also find other gods in spiritual Chinese legends such as the Tang Monk and his students in the series, Journey to the West. Assembly halls share the architectural design of many temples and pagodas. Some assembly halls are set inside famous temples. They are the places where Chinese people meet each other and share their interests. Sometimes, they hold traditional art performances. Nowadays, the assembly halls are Chinese schools where children learn Chinese. With the old beauty, all theaters and cinemas have long disappeared. A friend of mine shared that Hong Kong was most beautiful in the 1960s. Perhaps, this Little Hong Kong in Saigon is the same. Therefore, inhabitants have persisted in preserving the old beauty of this town through the years.
New tastes of street food
After exploring the area, I treated myself to delicious Chinese cuisine. Dist. 5 is popular as a street food paradise. Not only Chinese but also Vietnamese people in Saigon often visit this area to enjoy the food.
Restaurants are arranged with straight lines of dining tables. The colored glazed tile walls, clean inox tables, inox jars of green and red chopsticks, together with trolleys selling food reminded me of images of Hong Kong in the TVB movies which I watched when I was a child. Dishes are hand prepared from the heart of Chinese chefs, keeping traditional flavors and styles. Dumplings are pure white and soft. Há cảo and xíu mại are smooth and aromatic and feature meat and shrimp. The steamed sticky rice bears the scent of lotus as it is wrapped in lotus leaves. And don’t forget to try delicious fried skewers and Hong Kong – style tarts sold on the streets.
After my stomach was satisfied with such delicious dishes, I had a cool Chinese drink. There are many types of drinks with sweet or bitter flavors such as daisy and seaweed which are sold from carts, at restaurants, or on the street. There are no tables or chairs for guests so you must take away or sit on the sidewalk while drinking and watching the people pass by.
My one day in the Chinatown was fulfilled with exciting new experiences. I was happy with everything I found. I wished to stay here, get lost, and live happily forever in my Little 1960s Hong Kong.