HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND || CHO LON
The dense cluster of streets comprising the Chinese ghetto of CHO LON was once distinct from Saigon, though linked to it by the five-kilometre-long umbilical cord of Tran Hung Dao. The distinction was already somewhat blurred by 1950, when Norman Lewis found the city’s Chinatown “swollen so enormously as to become its grotesque Siamese twin”, and the steady influx of refugees into the city during the war years saw to it that the two districts eventually became joined by a swathe of urban development. Even so, a short stroll around Cho Lon (whose name, meaning “big market”, couldn’t be more apposite) will make clear that, even by this city’s standards, the mercantile mania here is breathtaking. The largest of Cho Lon’s many covered markets are Tran Phu’s An Dong, built in 1991, and the more recent but equally vast An Dong II. If you’re looking to sightsee rather than shop, then historic Binh Tay is of far more interest. You’ll get most out of Cho Lon simply by losing yourself in its amorphous mass of life: amid the melee, streetside barbers clip away briskly, bird-sellers squat outside tumbledown pagodas and temples, heaving markets ring to fishwives’ chatter and stores display mushrooms, dried shrimps and rice paper.
Quan Am Pagoda
Cho Lon’s greatest architectural treasures are its temples and pagodas, many of which stand on or around Nguyen Trai, whose four-kilometre sweep northeast to Pham Ngu Lao starts just north of Cha Tam Church. North of Nguyen Trai’s junction with Chau Van Liem, on tiny Lao Tu, Quan Am Pagoda is the pick of the bunch in this part of town. Set back from the bustle of Cho Lon, it has an almost tangible air of antiquity, enhanced by the film of dust left by the incense spirals hanging from its rafters. Don’t be too quick to dive inside, though: the pagoda’s ridged roofs are impressive enough from the outside, their colourful crust of “glove-puppet” figurines, teetering houses and temples from a distance creating the illusion of a gingerbread house. Framing the two door gods and the pair of stone lions assigned to keeping out evil spirits are gilt panels depicting petrified scenes from traditional Chinese court life – dancers, musicians, noblemen in sedan chairs, a game of chequers being played.
When Cho Lon’s Fukien congregation established this pagoda well over a century ago, they dedicated it to the Goddess of Mercy, but it’s A Pho, the Queen of Heaven, who stands in the centre of the main hall, beyond an altar tiled like a mortuary slab. A pantheon of deities throngs the open courtyard behind her, decked out in sumptuous apparel and attracting a steady traffic of worshippers. Twin ovens, flanking the main chamber, burn a steady supply of fake money offerings and incense sticks.
The history of Cho Lon
The ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, first began to settle here around 1900; many came from existing enclaves in My Tho and Bien Hoa. The area soon became the largest Hoa community in the country, a title it still holds, with a population of over half a million. Residents gravitated towards others from their region of China, with each congregation commissioning its own places of worship and clawing out its own commercial niche – thus the Cantonese handled retailing and groceries, the Teochew dealt in tea and fish, the Fukien were in charge of rice, and so on.
The great wealth that Cho Lon generated had to be spent somewhere. By the early twentieth century, sassy restaurants, casinos and brothels existed to facilitate this. Also prevalent were fumeries, where nuggets of opium were quietly smoked from the cool comfort of a wooden opium bed. Among the expats and wealthy Asians who frequented them was Graham Greene, and he recorded his experiences in Ways of Escape. By the 1950s, Cho Lon was a potentially dangerous place to be, its vice industries controlled by the Binh Xuyen gang. First the French and then the Americans trod carefully here, while Viet Minh and Viet Cong activists hid out in its cramped backstreets – as Frank Palmos found to his cost, when the jeep he and four other correspondents were riding in was ambushed in 1968.
Post-reunification, Cho Lon saw hard times. As Hanoi aligned itself increasingly with the Soviet Union, Sino-Vietnamese tensions became strained. Economic persecution of the Hoa made matters worse, and, when Vietnam invaded Chinese-backed Cambodia, Beijing launched a punitive border war. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese, many of them from Cho Lon, fled the country in unseaworthy vessels, fearing recriminations. Today, the business acumen of the Chinese is valued by the local authorities, and the distemper that gripped Cho Lon for over a decade is a memory.