When Chinese refugees came to Cho Lon (Saigon’s Chinatown) over 200 years ago, not only did they bring their delicious cuisine, but they also brought with them their traditions, culture, and etiquette. In Chinatown, there are certain rules that are known among those that live there, but are generally unspoken of. Visitors are usually completely clueless, and sometimes even end up offending others with their actions. Are you curious yet? Keep scrolling down for a list of interesting “secrets”, some local restaurants that sell good food and safety advice.
Spreading over half of District 5, and a considerable section of District 6, Cho Lon is the biggest Chinatown of Vietnam. The name “Cho Lon” directly translates to Big Market. The original Cantonese name is “Tai-Ngon” and Mandarin name is “Di’an”, both of which mean “embankment.”
Before merging with the Saigon in the 1930’s, Cho Lon used to be a city in itself. In the past, many Chinese refugees ran away from war in their country, and resettled in Cho Lon, creating a Chinese community overseas. The Minh Huong village was the first Chinese settlement. In 1778 and 1782, the Hoa people from Pho Islet (Bien Hoa, nowadays) ran away from the massacre of Tay Son, looking for a place to resettle. Here they built high embankments against the flows of the river and called the new land “Tai-Ngon.”
During the Vietnam War, Cho Lon was a big black market where soldiers and deserters traded US Army-issued items and various American goods.
The Hoa community teaches their kids to always preserve the rich customs and culture alive. The children are told to speak Chinese when at home and also told to follow these following rules:
1. Visiting the pagoda
On the 15th and 16th of every month in the lunar calendar, many Hoa people usually go to the pagoda to pray for luck, health, wealth and love. In Cho Lon, there are many charming Chinese-style pagodas, built centuries ago, and people go to different pagodas to pray for different things.
For example: Many Hoa people go to Chua Minh Huong pagoda (184, Hong Bang, Ward 6, District 5), to pray for prosperity and fortune before they start their business. Those who are seeking for the other half in their lives will pray for love in Chua Ong pagoda (676 Nguyen Trai, Ward 11, District 5). Chua Ba Thien Hau pagoda (710 Nguyen Trai, Ward 11, District 5) is dedicated to goddess Thien Hau and here people go to ask for safety and protection for themselves and their loved ones. Which one will you visit? Or will you visit all three? Even if you don’t believe in prayers coming true, you can still go and visit these temples to revel at their beauties and watch others as they ask for peace of mind.
2. Follow superstitions
Superstitions are everywhere but the Hoa people take it to a whole new level. Some examples are:
a. Don’t be the first to buy from a shop if you believe that somehow you may bring bad luck to the shop and prevent them from attracting more customers.
Each business has its ups and downs. But some superstitious Hoa people (and even some Vietnamese) believe that there are people that bring good vibes and bad vibes. If a person with good vibes walks in, the business will blossom, which means that if a person with bad vibes walks in, the opposite will happen. The bad vibes brought in by this person will send negative energy that makes others not want to walk in. Or that is what is thought, anyway.
If a person with good vibes walks in, the business will blossom, which means that if a person with bad vibes walks in, the opposite will happen.
The funny thing is that if you are the one with good vibes, you are not going to get any discount on your bill. But if you are the one with the bad vibes, the seller will not be happy and will do a ritual on you – called ‘Dot phong long’ in Vietnamese. However, do not worry because it is not going to affect your luck in any negative way.
How to tell if you are the one bringing in bad vibes?
– When you enter a busy shop and somehow most of the customers suddenly leave, then it’s you! So pay attention next time when you go shopping or eating out.
– If you have a local friend, just ask them what their opinion is.
b. Don’t get a haircut in January or the first day of every month (Lunar calendar) because it is taboo
Although this is based on no science what so ever, many Hoa people still avoid having haircut in January or the first day of the month in the Lunar calendar because they think it is going to bring them bad luck and that they could lose money after.
c. Don’t take a picture of 3 people
It is said that if there are 3 people in a photo, the one in the middle will die first. Though it is obviously odd, you should avoid taking pictures of 3 when you are with Hoa people (and some Viet as well).
d. Ram Thang Bay (Full moon day of July)
July is said to be the month of “homeless souls” in Vietnam. Besides making ceremonial offerings to pray for the wandering souls every day, many Hoa families in Cho Lon usually add money to their offerings on full moon days. After the worshipping ceremony, the money and food (usually fruits and sweets) will be thrown on the street. The amount of money depends on the size of the family business. People believe that the more money they sacrifice, the more successful their business will be.
3. Don’t gift certain things because they are taboo
If you are invited as a guest of a Hoa family in Cho Lon, be careful on what you gift them. Here are some items that are considered taboo.
- A clock/watch: Superstitious Hoa people believe that the clock/watch is a symbol of “running out of time”.
- A pair of shoes: The word shoes sounds like evil and it’s something you step on, so it is thought of as bad luck.
- A mirror: If you have Asian friends, you may have heard that if someone breaks a mirror, it is a bad omen. It is believed that mirrors can attract ghosts, so giving one to a Hoa member is not a good idea.
- A glass/cup: What is wrong with a cute glass or a cup? The problem is that in Chinese it sounds similar to “dispersal” so it is believed that it will split people up.
Note: Number 4 is considered to be the number of death (once again an issue with pronunciation – number 4 in Chinese is similar to the word of death. So you shouldn’t bring anything in sets of 4. On the other hand, 8 is the number of luck.
4. Family meal
When you attend a lunch or dinner with a Hoa family, there are 2 things you should not do:
- Don’t leave chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice: This will resemble incense sticks which are usually offered to the dead.
- Don’t flip fish on its plate: This is bad omen. Especially if there is a driver or a fisherman in the family. People fear that turning a fish over would capsize the boat when they go fishing or it could turn the steering wheel and cause an accident.
This is all for the superstitions that the Hoa people believe. And now for some food recommendations…
Food in China town
Chinatown is a heaven for foodies – you can find lots of different dishes for cheap prices. Here are a few you should try:
Banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake)
Banh xeo is essentially Vietnamese pancake. The way it is prepared differs throughout the country. In Cho Lon, the preparation follows southern methods, making the end product a shiny yellow crepe with prawns, sliced pork onion and bean sprouts inside. When you eat it, you will roll a piece within a salad leaf and dip it in sweet fish sauce.
Banh xeo Le Quang Sung at 81A Le Quang Sung, Ward 12, District 6 is the best restaurant according to the locals in Cho Lon. It was founded more than 70 years ago. The pancake wrapper is crispy, the prawns are fresh and the fish sauce served there is delicious. Besides banh xeo, they also serve other food such as: banh cong (Vietnamese fried shrimp cake) and spring rolls. The price is quite reasonable – only 45,000 VNĐ for a banh xeo, 12,000 VND for a banh cong and 6,000 VNĐ for 1 spring roll.
Read more: All About Banh Xeo
It would remiss of me to not mention pho, especially when we are talking about food. Pho is Vietnam’s de-facto national dish. When you come to Cho Lon and randomly ask the locals about where can you get the best bowl of Pho, they will show you to Pho Binh. About 20 years ago, Miss Hoa and her family started the business with only a few chairs and tables. Quickly, the shop became famous in the area because of the special taste and aroma of the dish that you cannot find in any other place. According to the owner, they had a secret receipt to make their Pho, so it stands out from others. Check out this place if you want to have breakfast in Cho Lon.
Pho Binh only opens in the morning from 6 am to 11 pm. The address is 26T Le Quang Sung, Ward 6, District 6.
Read more: The Best Pho in Saigon
Xoi Bat Buu (Chinese Sticky Rice)
Together with bánh mì, xôi (sticky rice) is a common street food that Vietnamese people love to eat during any time of the day. Xôi Bát Bửu is a Chinese dish that that is hard to find anywhere else other than in Chinatown. I personally love the flavor you taste from the mixed ingredients – it’s sweet and sour from the char siu (grilled pork), Chinese sausage, salted radish and dried shrimp. It also smells good because of the soy sauce used and the use of shiitake mushrooms makes it a wonderful addition in terms of taste and texture.
You can find this dish in 254 Lê Quang Sung, Ward 6, District 6. The price is 15,000 VNĐ for a packet of Xôi.
Chestnut bubble tea
You can find bubble tea in every corner of Saigon. But what makes Chinatown’s bubble tea special is the topping. Instead of using tapioca pearls to make the bubble balls, this one shop in Cho Lon decided to be creative by using chestnuts covered with flour and so making the bubbles crunchier when you chew. The cheese balls and cheese pudding served there are also worth a try.
You can go to Tra sua Chi Lang at 199/9 Le Quang Sung, Ward 6, District 6 to get yourself a cuppa milk tea topped with cheese balls. The price ranges from 15,000 VNĐ to 30,000 VNĐ depending on the topping you choose.
It would be remiss not to mention Chinese dim sum. Just like sushi, dim sum in Saigon is mainly sold in fancy restaurants at higher prices. But hey, when you are in Chinatown, you can expect to find mouth-watering dim sum on the streets and they barely cost you a dollar.
On 201 Le Quang Sung, Ward 6, District 6 there is a small place that sells dim sum for only 1,000 VNĐ for a piece of ha cao and 3,000 VNĐ for a a piece of xiu mai. Xiu Mai is definitely more delicious to me. Besides ha cao and xiu mai, you can also find banh he (Chinese chive cake).
Hot ga tra (Chinese egg tea soup dessert)
The Chinese egg tea soup is made of peeled egg, Chinese herbal tea, sugar and water. Certainly sounds weird to put egg in tea, but this is worth a try!
There are some places where you can find hot ga tra in Chinatown:
- Che Ha Ky is the most famous among the shops serving this in Chinatown. Apart from Chinese egg tea soup, they also serve more than 38 different types of sweet soups priced reasonably: 20,000 VNĐ for a bowl of hot ga tra and from 15,000 to 25,000 for other che.
- Che Cot Dien on 476 Tran Hung Đao, Ward 14, District 5 was started by a Chinese refugee in 1938 who served only a pot of green bean sweet soup. More than 70 years later, the shop is now famous among other districts too. You can find hot ga tra for only 20,000 VNĐ and the price for other sweet soups start from 15,000 – 30,000 VNĐ
Keep your belongings safe!
Prevention is better than cure and this can not only be applied to diseases but also to road safety and pickpockets! Here are a few tips for you that will be useful when traveling to Cho Lon:
- Taking good care of your belongings is necessary. Instead of using a handbag, it would be better to go for a backpack and wear it on your front.
- You shouldn’t wear valuable jewelry if you go to Chinatown by bike.
- If you ride a scooter and carry a bag, you should strap it to your front.
The idea is to just be rational and weary about your surroundings.
By spending a day in Cho Lon, you will learn many things, especially about the customs of the Hoa people living in Saigon. Why don’t you take a day or two to explore this area and then leave a comment for me detailing your adventures? Have fun and keep your belongings safe!
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