For those who think Ho Chi Minh City is confined to the perimeters of District 1, District 2 or District 7, you’re wrong. Take District 6 for instance. Its Hokkien, Cantonese, Fujian and Teochew residents have lived there their whole lives and rarely see the point of venturing further afield. And Go Vap, home to a somewhat gregarious bunch of folks, has its own Pham Ngu Lao, but you won’t see any backpackers there. The more active people in District 11 head to the sports stadium to stay fit, while the souls who call District 8 home live private lives at a relaxed pace.
Anyone who laments the lack of things to do outside their international-influenced comfort zones is missing the wider picture. Time, therefore, to explore the outer limits. Because these oft overlooked neighbourhoods reveal the city’s true character and complexity.
The labyrinth of suburban Chinatown is easy to navigate if you know where to go. Words by Michael Arnold. Photos by Quinn Mattingly and EJ Chung
Not many people living in Ho Chi Minh City will know that in one of its earlier incarnations, this entire region was designated as two distinct cities based around the tributaries of the Saigon River — one Vietnamese and one Chinese. It wasn’t until 1931 that they were united, and even then the city was officially called Saigon-Cholon, until its name was shortened to become just ‘Saigon’ in 1956. Nowadays, the Cholon area is normally associated with District 5, but the old suburban areas of the town are largely found in District 6. A strong folk-cultural presence remains here that has a quieter nature than you’ll find in central Chinatown.
If downtown Cholon is in District 5, then why is the Cho Lon itself — the ‘big market’ that gives the area its name — actually situated in District 6? The answer is that the highly characteristic Binh Tay Market that stands on Le Tan Ke is not ‘Cho Lon’ — or at least, it’s not the original. The old Cho Lon stood on the site of the District 5 Post Office until it burnt down sometime in the last century, and that may itself have been named after an earlier Cho Lon where Cho Ray Hospital stands today. Binh Tay is, however, a worthy inheritor of the title, being one of the most intriguing buildings in the city and probably the centre of the wholesale trade in southern Vietnam.
With its central clock tower, Chinese-lattice ventilation windows, and ornate dragons dancing on the eaves, the market looks like a cross between a railway station and a temple. The confusion of architectural styles is intentional — its creator, Quach Dam of China’s Chaozhou, was at the time one of the richest and most influential men in Indochina, and he wanted it to be something special. It was thus built with the finest in western technical prowess — steel-reinforced concrete — and incorporated the most ostentatious Chinese designs.
Undeniably the foremost attraction of the district, Binh Tay Market wins out over the more familiar Ben Thanh Market in the city for its wider range of produce, the absence of aggressive bargaining, and — importantly — cheaper prices. It’s been claimed that vendors there are reluctant to sell their goods in anything less than bulk quantities, but this is untrue — the market has been a lesser tourist attraction long enough for merchants to be quite comfortable with foreign buyers browsing for small-quantity sale items. Come here to admire the building, pick up some cheap clothing and ponder its unique history.
What to see
Tinh Xa Loc Uyen Pagoda
121 Kinh Duong Vuong, Q6
Daily 5am to 9pm
District 6 is a nest of Buddhist enclaves, and this is perhaps the loveliest of them all — and a great place to visit while you’re in the area. Emphatically a pagoda rather than a temple, the central structure is divided into three storeys, topmost of which is an octagonal tower constructed to enclose a sacred stupa within. The lower levels are for prayer and instruction, and robed devotees can be seen reciting their scriptures in large numbers, led in service by the resident tonsured monks.
The pagoda is the centre of the sixth chapter of Master Minh Dang Quang’s Mendicant Buddhist Order, a home-grown system dating from the 1940s. It was built by the Venerable Thich Giac Hue in 1965, who recognised that the densely-populated and well-cultured area of what is now District 6 was an ideal environment for spreading his message.
Visitors are enthusiastically welcomed, and may be invited for a cup of tea or a free vegetarian meal — and if you’re there on Thursday or Sunday between 8am and 11am, a specialist in the Vietnamese medical tradition will be available to offer free diagnosis and herbal treatments for ailments.
To Ky Sa Te
156 Gia Phu, Q6
Daily 4pm to 11pm
Hu Tieu Sa Te noodles
VND35,000 to VND45,000
To Ky Sa Te is the original and best of three restaurants, all run by the same family, serving the quintessential version of Vietnamese satay — hu tieu sa te. The dish has a strong presence in local history, hearkening back to the days when all of Southeast Asia buzzed with Chinese trade. Satay — a spicy peanut dish — was adapted from an Indian recipe and transported by the Chinese throughout the region, planting itself firmly in Cholon, where it took on additional Vietnamese characteristics. Today, District 6 remains the stronghold of this local variety of satay, and it’s the place most people come to try it.
On a particularly quiet road out behind the Binh Tay Market, its unimpressive façade is easy to miss; the aroma of the peanut soup, however, is unmistakable. Milder than the better known Malay variety, To Ky’s traditional recipe removes the harsher spices in favour of Chinese sauces, lending more focus to the undertones of cinnamon, cardamom, liquorice and turmeric. Its use of soft, white hu tieu noodles, rare beef, and cucumber centres this as a Vietnamese-style recipe. Even if you’re nervous about trying spicy dishes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Diem Hoa Tuoi Hau Giang
416 Hau Giang, Q6
Open 24 hours
A rather more pleasant place to shop is District 6’s wholesale fresh flower market, one of the largest of its kind in the city. Entering after 3am when the activity really picks up is a unique experience; the massive interior is literally carpeted with buckets of roses, chrysanthemums, lilies, orchids, and so on, all delivered fresh-cut out of Dalat. This market serves the majority of the commercial flower stalls in the greater Cholon region, and the flowers here are cheaper than any of theirs. Wicker baskets, flowers and other floral arrangement accessories are available at many of the stalls, each operated by families who literally live the flower business — their homes are behind the rear partitions.
171-173-175 Duong Cho Lon, Q6
Daily 8pm to 3.30am
A surprise in the otherwise conservative rural Chinatown areas, Bar 2000 is not a place to go to have a quiet drink and chat with friends — at a venue where the music dominates everything, you wouldn’t be able to make out a single word without it being yelled in your ear. That’s ok, though, because this is more of a place to be seen and to delight in the nightly live performances of charged nymphet dancing and melodramatic Vietnamese standards accompanied by insistent techno backbeats. Drink prices are astronomical — but this is still worth visiting if you’re in the area by sheer virtue of the fact that it’s incredibly fun.
Watch as smartly-dressed waiters and wildly-dressed waitresses succumb periodically to the all-pervasive rhythms, twisting giddily as they approach to refill your glass. See the laser light show and massive LCD displays proclaiming the talents of the local DJs, and try to stop yourself from shaking to the music as you lean against your chest-level table — you can’t.
Why I love District 6
“There’s a saying in Ho Chi Minh City: ‘Live in District 3, but eat in District 6’. The Chinese food in this area is delicious, and there are so many varieties. Some of the noodle dishes, particularly yellow noodles and local satay, are the best in the city. While most of the restaurants are very simple, the food itself is tasty and authentic.” - Jeff Tran, Businessman
On the surface Go Vap appears to be a vast landscape of randomness. But the home of the city’s other street called Pham Ngu Lao is a district untouched by tourism and influences from overseas. Words by James Allen. Photos by EJ Chung
Ho Chi Minh City’s vast northern district, Go Vap, is a utilitarian place, straddling the airport on one side, rubbing shoulders with District 12 to the north and Binh Thanh to the south. Over 540,000 people live there, a fact that is evident when trying to traverse the district — the traffic is relentless.
In a bid to ease the congestion, a giant highway to connect the northeast (Binh Loi) and northwest (Tan Son Nhat Airport) is being constructed, cutting directly across the northern districts in an effort to take the pressure off overloaded city roads. We will have to see how much this will help.
Go Vap comes from the word go meaning hill and vap, a type of tree common to the area. Because the district sits slightly higher above sea level than its compatriots next door, the residents joke that if there were ever an apocalyptic flood, Go Vap would be the only part of the city left above water.
This is a district without tourism, little affected by the globalisation sweeping across the rest of the city. Bursting with extended families, street food and scruffy-haired teenagers racing down the alleys and up and down the main roads, Go Vap is what Ho Chi Minh City’s central districts would look like without the all-encompassing influence from overseas.
Hanh Thong Tay night market
Quang Trung, Go Vap
For those who can’t seem to get out of bed in time for the market and won’t subject themselves to trawling the stalls during the midday heat, Hanh Thong Tay night market provides a cooler alternative with stalls opening from 6pm. As one shift of market stall holders packs up their things, another trader sets up shop for a busy night. In place of the standard fruit and vegetable stalls, vendors unpack large bags of discount clothing and untangle piles of jewellery under the glare of powerful strip lighting.
Rows upon rows of cheap clothes are available as well as boxes of cosmetics and accessories. Bicycles selling banh trang nuong and roasted chestnuts are one of the perks of late night bargain hunting. Droves of shoppers head to this popular cho from as far away as District 12, but the yawning stall holders can only stay up so late and eventually make for home, clearing their space for the morning shift.
What to see
The Sky Pagoda
215 Phan Van Tri, Go Vap
One of the most ornate and best preserved temples in the city, Van Phong Chu Hoa Khanh, or Sky Pagoda was last renovated in 1982, accounting for its current seamless beauty. Built in 1867, the six-level pagoda gets its name from the cloud-filled skies delicately painted throughout the rooms. Even the feeling of air and light has been accentuated with terraces on each level.
Make sure you get up to the top floor where, thanks to the windows that line the walls, you will be able to get a great view of Go Vap below.
Other interesting pagodas can be found throughout the district, some with particular associations such as the Nghe Si Pagoda (116/6 Thong Nhat, P.11), or the Artists’ Pagoda, where 500 famous and lesser known musicians, painters and actors are buried. The pagoda was built in 1958 by renowned artist Phung Ha, who was intent on providing a resting place for fellow artists, even going as far as funding headstones herself, a practice now covered by donations and benefactors.
Best Watering Hole
18C Phan Van Tri, Go Vap
Not strictly a bar, Country House is probably one of the most famous places in Go Vap. It’s a gargantuan theme park-sized café, complete with a water feature, clay animals frozen mid-prance on well-tended grass and so many levels it could easily be mistaken for an Escher drawing. It’s so popular in fact that a table must be booked well in advance if you are planning on joining the hordes of customers at the weekend.
Country House has apparently found the perfect formula for a Vietnamese café, the feeling of space is there as well as an eclectic design aesthetic — a testament to this is the sheer volume of seating available. An extensive menu is on offer, with sinh to or “mixed squashed juciest” priced between VND40,000 to VND50,000. But for those wanting something stronger than beer, a corkage fee of VND100,000 means you can bring a bottle of whatever you like.
Lau Dong Que
198 Le Duc Tho, Go Vap
Lau Thai nho
Bubbling away at a volcanic temperature, lau or hot pot as many know it is a great meal to fight over with your friends. Lau Thai is a spicier version, burnt orange in colour and full of lemongrass, chilli, ginger and other flavours that Vietnamese think of as being Thai. Lau Dong Que, or rural hotpot if roughly translated, is by no means a pretty place, but the food is full of flavour, quick to be delivered and very cheap — what more could you want? Sitting on the roof top can be hot during the day, but at night the temperature is cool enough to balance out the steam rising from the pan of boiling broth.
The restaurant, despite its humble appearance, is packed most nights with hungry guests consuming bottle after bottle of beer and countless plates of the great seafood they serve here. Along with your hot pot expect a plate of fresh rau muong and other vegetables, as well as a couple of handfuls of seafood. If you are hungry enough, additional plates can be ordered and an extra jug of broth is also available.
Why I love Go Vap
“My family's lived in Go Vap since I was three. I love living here because it is very convenient, I can find everything I want very quickly. From my house I can walk to two supermarkets in three minutes, to the bookstore in five minutes and to the market in six. Due to the large amount of migrants from other provinces Go Vap has become very crowded, but it does mean that everything is much cheaper here.” - Phuc Le, Education Consultan
On the surface Go Vap appears to be a vast landscape of randomness. But the home of the city’s other street called Pham Ngu Lao is a district untouched by tourism and influences from overseasThe only district separated into distinct parts by the city's major canals, District 8 boasts more greenery than buildings. All making this a tranquil escape from the metropolis beyond. Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly
District 1 can fit inside District 8 with room to spare. Located a surprisingly accessible distance from the popular areas of central Saigon, the main part of District 8 can be reached through District 5, across the Nguyen Tri Phuong Bridge. The road becomes Pham Hung, a bloodline that runs through District 8 until it reaches Binh Chanh. The district is a mixture of twisting alleys, bustling markets, tiny half-hidden bia hois and sudden bursts of undeveloped greenery.
To Dinh An Phu Temple
24 Pham Hung, Q8
A mixture of bright colours, intricate mosaics and twisting turrets and bridges, To Dinh An Phu Temple sprawls out over two main courtyards on the right side of the road soon after crossing the Nguyen Tri Phuong Bridge. The view of the pagoda from the road is mesmerising, with the tiered worshipping place painted in turquoise, pink, orange and blue. However, stepping inside proves to be an even greater eye-opener.
This is very much a working temple, with a bustling feel in the first courtyard and main corridor. People can be seen arranging flower bouquets to the left, and mountains of orange and red candles, and red apples for offerings are piled on tables.
Into the second courtyard, the temple seems to merge with nature. Twisting cave-like structures stretch up to the overhead gangways, which twist like the gnarled tree branches spread out over the courtyard. Stalactites and stalagmites fuse the building with the greenery of the courtyard, creating an illusion of a magical forest land. The pagoda seems to have sprung from the ground itself, which seems unbelievable given the buzzing traffic just outside the walls.
Small ponds in the courtyard house miniature models of pagodas and Buddha statues, and live terrapins laze at the surface of the water in the morning sun. Mosaic tiles glint everywhere in the sunshine and upon closer inspection, each tile is patterned like china crockery. In places, broken milk-jugs and tea plates are also set into the walls. This pagoda is a place of hidden corners, nooks and crannies, with so much to take in that your eyes won’t stop roaming.
What to see
Kite Flying in Dong Dieu
697 Pham The Hien, Q8 (go straight down Cao Lo)
Approximately 5.30pm to 6.30pm every day
The 2003 Khaled Hosseini novel The Kite Runner romanticised the practise of flying kites, which is still popular in Vietnam. Located off a busy, bumpy road that runs parallel to the river, Cao Lo opens into undeveloped land with untamed grass along one side, and coffee shops and bia hois along the other.
During the day, this is quite an unassuming street, with not much to see except development ideas for the future. However, in the early evening the place comes alive with hundreds of people flying kites all along the street. There are also kite sellers around for those who forgot theirs at home.
63/16 Pham Hung, Q8
Bordering District 8 and Binh Chanh is the beautifully located Binh Xuyen restaurant. Named after the former gang coalition who during the early to middle part of the last century controlled Nha Be, District 4 and parts of District 8, the modern day version is decidedly less controversial, providing an outdoor dining experience where gazebos are set around a tranquil lake filled with water plants. The restaurant is located down a long road, which offers it a quiet atmosphere as it is not directly next to busy Pham Hung. At early lunchtime, the place is quiet, with an abundance of staff hovering nearby, and a few tables of locals drinking beer together.
There is a large selection of seafood, with an array of glass tanks showcasing squid, prawns, fish and crab. Dishes start at approximately VND25,000 and rise up to over VND400,000 for shared dishes. Diners can also borrow a bamboo fishing rod, bait and try their luck at catching a fish by dangling it over the railings as they sit waiting to catch their meal.
Best Coffee Shop
Corner of Pham Hung and So 5, Q8
The entrance of this quaint cafe is overflowing with hanging baskets and potted plants, immediately transporting guests from concrete jungle to actual jungle. The café is long and narrow, painted in light blues with cream canopies overhead. Small round tables occupy the right side of the room, while on the left is a raised platform that runs the length of the café, and is separated into alcoves by low bookshelves that house books, magazines and chess sets. Each alcove has a low tea table and floor cushioning for diners to lounge on. A couple of guitars sit on stands at either end of the restaurant, and a group of patrons sit near the front quietly picking out tunes on the strings.
The staff are friendly and warm, offering a simple menu with a range of teas and coffees priced from VND20,000 to VND30,000. There is also a small food selection offering banh mi and beefsteak amongst other snacks.
Why I love District 8
"I’ve lived in District 8 since I was born. The neighbours here have a close relationship with each other. This district isn’t as noisy and busy as the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. You can take a walk along the rice fields as there used to be so many fields around my neighbourhood. I also used to wake up early in the morning to do exercise with my friends along the road and enjoy the fresh air. There are five churches here, so every Christmas season there are many decorations along the road. It’s so beautiful that people from other places come here to enjoy them." - Phuong Pham, teacher assistant at BIS living in District 8
Most non-Vietnamese head to Tan Phu to take their driver’s licence exam at Tien Bo Centre, but Stephanie Cantrell finds out that there’s more to explore here than the road test. Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly
For the Japanese living in this metropolis, Tan Phu is being primed to become the next Phu My Hung. According to Vietnam News, Aeon Vietnam, an affiliate of leading Japanese retailer Aeon Co Ltd, announced last month plans to build a shopping centre in the district.
The US$109 million project, called Aeon-Tan Phu Celadon Shopping Centre, would begin construction this September and would be completed by mid-2014, says Aeon Vietnam CEO Nishitohge Yasuo.
Located on a 77,000sqm area in Celadon City (located in Tan Phu), the shopping mall will have some 130 speciality retail outlets with goods domestically sourced and others imported from Japan and globally.
"These shopping centres and stores would also help boost exports of Vietnamese goods to Japan," he continues, adding that the operation of the shopping centre “is expected to help attract many other Japanese companies to enter Vietnam”.
Whether Tan Phu will become the new centre for the city’s Japanese community will be something we have to wait and see. What is true is that this sprawling, expanding suburb houses more than just the usual localised extension of downtown Saigon.
Phu Tho Hoa Tunnel
139 Phu Tho Hoa, Tan Phu
There’s no need to trek all the way to Cu Chi to see the legendary tunnels as Tan Phu has its own version. Built in 1947, the tunnel under Phu Tho Hoa was used in both the French and American wars and stretches for more than a kilometre. A small museum rests on the site with a few artefacts and photographs detailing the tunnel’s history.
The tunnel was abandoned for years before being recognised as a national historical site in 1996. Now, visitors can see the tunnel and experience a vital piece of history. Unlike Cu Chi, the tunnel doesn’t seem to have been expanded for westerners, so the entrance is reached through a rather terrifyingly small, square manhole. Visitors tend to be Vietnamese, and the tour guides speak limited to no English, so a translator would be useful for foreign groups visiting the tunnel. Entrance is free though tipping the tour guide is greatly appreciated.
What to see
Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery
Cnr of Tan Ky Tan Quy and Binh Long, Tan Phu
Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery is the largest graveyard in Ho Chi Minh City, but that doesn’t prepare one for the sight of thousands of tombs of all sizes stretching out over several blocks. People from different religions are laid to rest here, with Christian crosses and Buddhist symbols coexisting side by side. There are approximately 70,000 graves at the cemetery covering an area of about 60 hectares. About 300,000 people are reported to be living on the cemetery grounds in illegal housing among the graves.
Plans began in January 2011 to relocate the cemetery as it is causing serious pollution issues for the residents in the surrounding area. The graves are expected to be moved to cemeteries in Binh Chanh and Cu Chi, and the present site is intended to be redeveloped as a residential area. However, at present, the sight of row upon row of tombs remains.
Nguyen Nhu Lam, Tan Phu
Located around the corner from the tunnel, Nguyen Nhu Lam is known for its abundance of street food. During daylight hours, the street is quiet with only a few people lounging in the many surrounding cafes. But, come evening, the street comes alive as tables are moved outside the shops and the whole area is lined with different places to eat and drink. The range of Vietnamese food is simple — noodles, fried fish balls, dim sum, smoothies and fruit juice. The dishes are plentiful and perfect for sharing with bun bo, banh canh cua, ca vien chien and sam bo luong being served up at the many establishments. This street is perfect for sampling the local food staples at cheap prices in an al fresco setting.
Quan Gio Mua 1
70A Phu Tho Hoa, Tan Phu
A large sprawling quan nhau, the atmosphere at this joint is lively and cheerful. At the front of the restaurant are two huge cows being roasted on spits. A young man stands besides one, cutting off portions of deliciously cooked meat with a small knife. Also on the menu are skewered prawns, grilled in a delicious barbeque sauce, and a boar dish that resembles and tastes like a rich pork crackling.
Beer is topped up regularly with crates of Saigon Red, Tiger and Heineken stacked all over the restaurant floor. Giant bear-like dogs roam the room freely, startling customers when they turn to find themselves nose-to-nose with the grinning, panting pets. The setting is relaxed and loud and everyone is friendly and smiling.
Why I love Tan Phu
"My family has been here for ages. It’s not as busy as the centre, which is nice sometimes and things are cheaper — everything is cheaper. I think those are the main reasons why I still live here." - Kim Vu, Journalist
From badminton to water rides and shopping in between, this district has it all. Words by Stephanie Cantrell. Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly and EJ Chung
The relatively small District 11 covers an area of only five square kilometres. However, despite its size, it has a lot to offer in terms of alternative days out with groups of friends. The streets are lined with simple quan nhau joints next to pricier food court options in the shopping malls.
Residents here are either families who have lived in their colonial houses for generations or the younger nouveau riche who take up the modern luxury apartments in blocks such as The Flemington. With the neighbourhood’s growing income, department stores like Parkson and LOTTE Mart have taken advantage of retail potential by setting up shop here.
Dam Sen Amusement Park
3 Hoa Binh Street, Q11
Located in the amusement park is Dam Sen Water Park is a refreshing retreat from the heat any time of the year. A favourite among thrill-seeking foreign residents and locals, the range of rides is the best you’ll find in the city and the water is blissful in the blistering Saigon sun.
Take a lesson in aqua dance where shower jets massage you with powerful streams of water or ride the Wandering River, a gentle 400m winding river that passes through trees and caves. For a more heart-hammering experience, try Boomerang, a huge 12m-tall slide that opened in 2010. A raft takes you down the slide at terrifying speeds before gliding up the opposite incline and down again. For those who don’t suffer from claustrophobia, the Twister is for you, a narrow flume ride that culminates in ejecting the rider from a giant bowl into the water below. There is also a wave pool for those who can’t get to the sea. With a restaurant on the premises, Dam Sen is an ideal place to channel your inner child and forget about work.
What to do
Phu Tho Indoor Sports Stadium
221 Ly Thuong Kiet, Q11
There is a plethora of activities to help you keep you fit at the 23-hectare Phu Tho Indoor Sports Stadium. Originally built to host the SEA Games back in 2003, it has now become a multi-functional centre with facilities that include 12 badminton courts, a swimming pool, a volleyball court and now even a basketball court with 15 hoops. And for those who want to practice different disciplines other than sports, courses in taekwondo, vovinam, karate, yoga and much more are available.
When it opened, the 5,000-seat stadium complex was expected to boost sports in Ho Chi Minh City. It regularly holds national and international sports competitions along with arts and crafts fairs. On any given day, sports enthusiasts of all ilks can be seen battling it out in the grounds here. All making a trip here into an interesting spectacle.
143 Le Dai Hanh, Q11
Time stops when you step into this curious little shop nestled between mechanic workshops. Swiss clocks hang below longstanding grandfather clocks yellowed with age while tiny alarm clocks sit alongside wooden carriage clocks on shelves. Everywhere short and long hands tick to a timely rhythm with faces beaming in the sun.
In and among these timekeepers are old gramophones, ornate and intricate telephone handsets and carved candlesticks. A back wall is entirely dedicated to old, retro cameras and one high shelf houses dozens of metal lanterns. This really does feel like a clockmaker’s workshop with its cluttered surfaces and clock parts piled up on every surface. Well worth a look, even if you don’t plan on buying.
282 Lanh Binh Thang, Q11
Located opposite a cong vien (park), Thanh Binh is a restaurant set around a central open courtyard with plants and rocks dotted about. A mixture of ordinary dining tables and barbeque stations make up the interior, with the option for diners to cook their own food over a circular grill set into the table. A range of seafood alternatives are showcased in tanks on the left side of the restaurant and the menu comes complete with helpful photographs for non-Vietnamese speakers. Prices start from VND130,000. A great venue to share a boisterous meal with friends.
Why I love District 11
“Because it’s not District 1. I think District 1 is overrated and it’s expensive there. We have everything District 1 has but a lot cheaper and the people are not pretentious or feel they are too important to be friendly.” - Nguyen Hoang Nam, Freelance graphic designer