Almost every major city has its Chinatown. Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City — spanning Districts 5, 6 and 11 — is the largest in the world.

 

It is hard understanding that it was once an independent city, a twin city to Saigon. Twin cities are unusual, a special case of places founded in close proximity, that grow into each other over time, and in most cases losing their own identities, with any border or barrier between them becoming irrelevant.

 

Cholon was settled before the formal establishment of Saigon. During the 18th century, Chinese immigrants — the Hoa people — established a site on the embankments beyond the Saigon river as a defensive strategy against the Tay Son forces that had previously massacred them. They called their site Tai-Ngon (meaning embankment).

 

Their relative remoteness allowed them to grow their village into a trading centre and when the French arrived they were able to provide them with valuable services such as the transportation of goods through river and canal networks. They were largely left alone and their trading strength attracted many new immigrant Chinese to Vietnam, expanding the settlement. This trading DNA resulted in the name Cholon bestowed by the Vietnamese, as the term for “big market”.

 

Coming Together

 

Successful trading brings with it economic growth and in 1879 Cholon was incorporated as a separate city. Rapid advances in technology in the latter part of the 19th century quickly reduced the time it took to get to Saigon. That technology was the tram and the earliest tram line in Saigon was the connection to Cholon.

 

In the 20th century trams were electrified, making the travel times even shorter, allowing Cholon to develop even faster, and in April 1931 the two cities were merged (the connection being at Nguyen Van Cu) to form the single city Saigon-Cholon. In 1956, following independence from France, the Cholon name was dropped and the city was incorporated into Saigon.

 

Yet Cholon’s trading DNA remains in place. Binh Tay Market is the second largest market in the city and District 5 and District 6 are still the places to go to find bargains. There are goods you can find in Cholon that you cannot find elsewhere in Ho Chi Minh City.

To Market, To Market

 

Much of that trade revolves around the markets. There were once two Cholon markets, the original market, founded in 1778 at the same time as the city’s incorporation, was located where the main post office in Cholon now stands. Eventually becoming run-down and overcrowded, a new and bigger market was proposed and built by Quach Dam, a rich Chinese merchant, who called it Cho Binh Tay, gifting it to the French Governor in exchange for exclusive construction rights of selected areas around the market. While the Cholon market continued to enjoy an advantage with its better location and loyal patronage, it was destroyed by fire in 1928.

 

Many Chinese-Vietnamese (Viet Hoa) still live in Cholon and while a casual visitor perhaps cannot discern a difference between the entities of what were once twin cities, the local Viet Hoa people remain close-knit and parochial. Strong social and cultural institutions such as clan associations, temples and monasteries still exist, with the cultural infrastructure of temples including Jade Emperor, Chua Ngoc Hoang and the magnificent Quan Am Pagoda. The authorities have recognised many of these temples and clan associations as national historical and cultural sites. The historical sites also function as tourist attractions and contribute to the tourism industry of Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam.

 

There is something eternal about Cholon, with its essence and its core constituency still intact. It will endure as a separate but connected entity, providing a remarkable and valuable part of Ho Chi Minh City.

 

Ed Haysom is the general director of Mode / Haysom Architects and is based in Ho Chi Minh City. You can contact him on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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