It was when a passing barge hit Ghenh Bridge early last year, causing a three-month disconnect of the national railway from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, that people first heard of Cu Lao Pho.
Cu Lao Pho is an island located in Bien Hoa, 30km away from Saigon, and is enclosed by two arms of the Dong Nai river. Until 2012 when Hiep Hoa Bridge was built, Ghenh Bridge was the only road connection to the mainland. Now another structure, An Hao Bridge will connect the island to the mainland, while two long-time ferries will continue to operate.
The key contributor to the original development of Cu Lao Pho was Tran Thuong Xuyen, a Chinese general from the Ming dynasty. In 1679, he and his retinue came to Vietnam as political refugees escaping the Qing. The group settled down in Ban Lan (Bien Hoa) which was a heavily forested area before founding Cu Lao Pho, an alluvial island in the Huong Phuoc river (a section of the Dong Nai river).
Because of the geographical convenience, where forest products from the north could be shipped through the river system to the south, Can Gio and Cambodia, a large group of Chinese left Ban Lan and moved to Cu Lao Pho.
Together with the Vietnamese who already lived there, Tran Thuong Xuyen and his men conducted a complete exploration of the area. Under his leadership, Cu Lao Pho became a commercial port and the international trading centre of Gia Dinh, the citadel that once stood on the land now occupied by Ho Chi Minh City.
The prosperity of Cu Lao Pho only lasted 97 years. In 1776, Tay Son troops came to suppress the Chinese in Cu Lao Pho because of their support for the rival emperor, Gia Long. In search of safety, the Chinese merchants moved to Cholon (Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5 and District 6), forming what would eventually become the largest Chinese community in Vietnam.
The island can be reached by ferry
Tan Van Quarry
Cu Lao Pho can be divided into two parts. The southern area is mostly fields and swamps; in the northwestern region, there are markets, shops and places where residents gather, especially around the Ghenh Bridge.
The island has several historical relics, mostly pagodas and temples. Chua Ong (Guan Yu Pagoda) was built in 1684 and is one of the Chinese pagodas in the area. The pagoda is not big but for the Chinese of southern Vietnam, is high in architectural and cultural value. In 2011, Chua Ong was classified as a national historical and cultural relic. Other religious buildings include Binh Quang Temple, Dai Giac Pagoda and Nguyen Huu Canh Temple.
Ghenh Bridge is well-known not only for last year’s incident, but also for being the oldest bridge in Cu Lao Pho. In 1902, Gustave Eiffel, the French architect responsible for the Eiffel Tower, built the bridge with two lanes, one for a railway and the other for pedestrians. Now the pedestrian lane is reserved for bicycles and motorbikes.
Chau Thoi Pagoda
A dragon in Chau Thoi Pagoda
On the Way Home
Two other attractions that travellers should not miss on the way home are Tan Van Quarry and Chau Thoi Pagoda. They are both located on Highway.
Tan Van Quarry (Mo Da Tan Van) is located just off Highway 1K and was one of the main quarries in Bien Hoa, providing construction materials for the south. The quarry was abandoned in 2012 and due to successive rainy seasons, has now turned into a turquoise lake. Swimming is not allowed because of the lakes depth.
Chau Thoi Pagoda (Chua Nui Chau Thoi) is located on an 82m-high mountain, looking over the wide delta area of Di An in Binh Duong. It was built in the 17th century under the Nguyen Dynasty. The architecture is interesting, using broken ceramic tiles for decoration, dragon and phoenix statues, and paintings telling Buddhist stories. To reach the top, you can either follow the staircase or drive uphill along the road winding up at the back of the pagoda.