(No.8, Vol.2, August 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Though Saigon is firmly planted on the tourist trail, its neighbourhood wards connected to the road less travelled capture my imagination with uniqueness mercifully undisturbed by holidaymakers. With the cover story in the June 17, 2012, edition of the Viet Nam News boldly proclaiming, ‘Chinatown has for years faced a lack of space for pedestrians, green areas and parking lots and had poor services, all of which does not attract tourists,’ I sensed an opportunity. My translation of this less than glowing endorsement is a city quarter awaiting discovery and most likely exuding raw grit best savoured now before progress sweeps away the last vestiges of authenticity.
Chinatown. The very name evokes images of dragon-adorned, red-and-gold friendship gates serving as the stereotypical portals to dim sum parlours, souvenir shops and wet markets packed with exotic smells and sounds. These clichés danced around my head as my taxi recklessly careened its way towards Saigon’s Chợ Lớn (‘Big Market’) neighbourhood. This old quarter, in District 5 and adjoining areas of District 6, sprawls along a waterway, the Kinh Tau Hu, that leads east to a canal that meets the Saigon River.

Lucky cats on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street

Though firecrackers and beating drums behind any such gate would not meet my arrival, I did seem to cross an invisible frontier where Nguyễn Trãi Street begins its multilane promenade into Chợ Lớn. Chinese symbols now identifying shops alongside their Vietnamese translations change the very fabric of the city from the bold, colourful, and bright showplace rising skyward in District 1 to that of a more working-class, subdued aura. Chinatown’s mid-rise buildings lining a patchwork of narrow streets and cramped alleyways stand seemingly oblivious to, yet highly weathered by, time’s forward march.

The taxi deposited me at the centre of this neighbourhood’s universe, Bình Tây Market. As I surveyed its jam-packed and malodorous contents sizzling and baking in the steamy, late morning air, a jaded sense of been there, done that sent me on a path of quiet defeat. Indeed, the same cast of characters and backdrops plays out similar narratives from one end of Vietnam to the other, and I was soon wondering if this trip into Chinatown would prove a non-starter right out of the gate.
I quickly exited the market and confronted the chaotic streets fencing me in with an almost impenetrable stream of motorbike traffic buzzing through what I at the time deemed to be a most non-Chinese of Chinatowns. I would later learn a Chinese minority had indeed settled in the area during the late 1700s, but the subsequent centuries would usurp any superficial and easily noticeable vestiges of the original culture and language.
As several ‘What if?s’ clouded my view, I began losing sight of the forest for the trees as I fomented a wish list for the area in my mind. What if that fetid miasma choking Hang Bang Canal and its trash-strewn banks were sanitised and landscaped into a pedestrian-friendly promenade? What if the dilapidated apartment houses were torn down and replaced with sleek historical architecture? What if bright-red lanterns were strung across the streets as in proper Chinatowns across the globe?

Old houses on Tran Hung Dao Street. Dried sausages hanging at the corner of Nguyen Trai and Phung Hung Streets

North of the market at the corner of Hải Thượng Lãn Ông and Phùng Hưng Streets, an elderly woman sporting a most pronounced hunched back and pushing a squeaky cart overloaded with feather dusters, rain ponchos and other random odds and ends snapped me back to reality. A man selling bánh mì bò lá lốt, or baguettes with beef-stuffed betel leaves, from his bicycle-mounted grill then stopped me dead in my tracks. The charred meat’s sweet aroma pulled me into the present tense right as this wizened woman inquired into my potential need for a green plastic fly-swatter firmly gripped by her knobby fingers.
I realised then and there I needed to cease this wishing of Chợ Lớn into what it could be and dive into what it already was. A guidebook destination packed with a full day’s itinerary of must-see monuments Chinatown it is not, but rather an outdoor museum of everyday life randomly unfolding at its natural, unscripted pace. The art of travel opens our eyes to keenly observing the very people whom we largely ignore back home. Indeed, merchants adding their colourful brushstrokes of commerce to this chaotic canvas called Vietnam never cease to excite me, and I vowed then and there to become an active participant in Chợ Lớn rather than a detached observer.

Walking around the area in isolated anonymity was providing only a one-dimensional toe-dip into these murky waters. I still had yet to develop any solid connection or clarity as to what Chợ Lớn was. By joining the growing queue at that banh mi stand to sample a neighbourhood specialty, I waded in earnest into the shallow end of this teeming pool. Unfortunately, the sandwich’s licorice-like betel leaf and anchovy-tasting fish mint herb washed over my tongue like a bitter tidal wave. Even the oddly textured, squishy meat left me wondering if I could ever develop a liking for this particular sandwich. Chợ Lớn so far remained much the same, as nothing special had yet emerged from its rough-around-the-edge depths.

Open air street market on Phung Hung Street

I nipped at the fringes of both sandwich and neighbourhood, each subsequent bite taming the banh mi’s initial strangeness just as each step forward on Hải Thượng Lãn Ông slowly brought me in synch with the neighbourhood’s rhythm. Friendly shopkeepers waving hello and passers-by greeting my presence with curious stares helped integrate my presence into their world. Clusters of paper lanterns hanging in front of shops even infused a bit of that je ne sais quoi so missing from my original perceptions.
My anonymity finally slipped away with a giant splash much to the ire of a woman squatting over her wicker basket of rambutans just across from the banh mi stand. To say traffic heeds the rules and regulations would be a gross exaggeration, and a renegade motorbike barrelled towards me on the sidewalk. Since I had wrongfully assumed that concrete strip between buildings and roadway is the domain of pedestrians, I engaged the driver in a battle of the wills.
Unfortunately the rambutan display lost when my left foot sideswiped the neatly arranged pyramid as I leapt to safety. The surrounding air inhaled about four dozen of the spiky red orbs before forcefully expelling them in a cloud of red. Trying to help the elderly woman clean the aftermath just brought on hand-waiving and further rapid-fire scolding. I negotiated a VND200,000 cash settlement and vanished into the crowds.
Slot-canyon-like Tong Duy Tan Street linking Hải Thượng Lãn Ông and Trần Hưng Đạo Streets provided sweet respite from the wild, wild west of the main streets. Here anything and everything needed to embellish a wardrobe stitches these tiny shops together in one common theme. The noontime sun beamed a scorching light shaft straight down between buildings whose facades seem to be losing the battle with gravity’s earthward pull. Strings of plastic beads and baubles caught this diffusion of light and sparkled against the backdrop of mildewed and chipped concrete.
Throngs of women dressed in garishly coloured pyjama ensembles inspected pile upon pile of glittery rhinestones, silky tassels, plastic buttons and more, and I stopped to bask in this display of everyday life. In a place where commerce yields to no one, my six-foot-tall frame managed to fully disrupt the alleyway’s fungshei by impeding delivery men, motorbikes, and shoppers all anxious to manoeuvre around me.
My loitering between one particular merchant and potential customers too timid to push past me solicited a firm scolding that finally expelled me from this bastion of cheap bling and into nearby Phùng Hưng Street. Identical sacks of bark, twigs, leaves and branches lined the sidewalks of equally similar storefronts where a friendly woman at number 180 beckoned me over to her display of these traditional medicines.
Learning about another culture by purchasing a small bag of the most innocuous-looking and least offensive smelling deciduous remains for a mere VND5,000 seemed at first a smart choice. That is, until the woman’s daughter wrote the name of this dried leaf, tả diệp, on a piece of paper before miming intense gastric distress with a flourish of both hands over her belly and then a waving of one hand near her nose while gesturing to her backside.
The elder of the two rubbed my stomach, shot me a sympathetic look and handed me my plastic sack of dubious contents. Armed with embarrassment and some potent eastern medicine, called folium sennae leaf in my Western world, I now searched for a street-food restaurant not too offensive to my Western sensibilities. A street market anchored around the intersection of Hung Bang and Phùng Hưng Streets sidetracked me, though. These tent-shaded outdoor tables heaving under massive displays of meats, fruits and vegetables piqued my interest in a way indoor Bình Tây had earlier failed.
As I sloshed through the shoe-wetting effluvia of raw commerce, a woman who could probably recollect first-hand almost a century’s worth of Vietnamese history gazed my way with a most wary and annoyed look. Had the rambutan woman alerted her to my clumsy presence? About a dozen of her live white ducks stewed silently in air infused with the noxious scent of the nearby fishmongers. Forgetting that ducks in Vietnam are a food source rather than a zoo display, I began petting one.
The sales woman suddenly thrust a quacking mass into my startled hands and began negotiating a price. I now surmise that an unwritten code of the market dictates that if a potential customer touches the merchandise, said customer shall purchase the object in question. Now what exactly she expected a camera-toting western guy to do with a feathered animal I do not know, but there I was holding this now angry bird at arm’s length as it flapped its wings in dire protest.
My awkward exit caused even more scrutiny by the locals when I accidentally kicked a pan of live prawns. Thankfully, I emerged from the market without further incident at the corner of Phùng Hưng and Nguyễn Trãi Streets. Two lanes of busy motorbike traffic were all that separated me from a sidewalk grill sending copious amounts of oily smoke signals to anyone within a one block radius and now tugging at my appetite.
I ordered sườn nướng, or grilled pork chops, and prayed the food under this sagging awning would fail to summon any immediate need for the tả diệp now at the ready for any untimely emergency. Though I was somewhat an anomaly amongst a decidedly local clientele, I felt a growing connection with Chợ Lớn as I downed that pork so deliciously marinated in a sweet honey sauce and grilled to charred perfection.
My soul was next to receive a random bout of nourishment from Chinatown’s streets. Stumbling upon Minh Huong Temple, at 184 Hồng Bàng Street, very much by chance brought the good fortune of a visit during the full moon when ancestor worship rituals peak. Past and present live simultaneously in Vietnamese culture, and the deceased provide sage advice and guidance to family members attempting to make sense of the future.
A steady stream of everyday people including taxi drivers, nurses and police officers ebbed and flowed around various stations within the ornate temple. A wooden stick eliciting melodious, gong-like rings from a copper vessel, the shaking of a cowbell hanging from a life-size, red, cloth steer, and the whir of electric fans circulating billowing clouds of incense smoke all combined to overwhelm my senses. A feeling of guilt enveloped me as I suddenly felt more a voyeur breaking the sanctity of the rituals under way around me than a curious student.
After ten minutes of silent observation, I decided to insert myself for the first time into the spiritual side of Vietnam. In exchange for VND60,000, an attendant handed me a red coil of incense the width of a large wok. A young girl explained that I should carefully inscribe the names of my ancestors on the accompanying red slip of paper. Next a harried man thrust a candle into my hand and motioned for me to quickly light the coil as I was holding up progress. He then attached the note bearing the names of my grandparents and hoisted the smoky offering heavenward to a hook in the temple’s wooden rafters with a long, specially designed pole.
On that sombre note, I concluded an amazing day getting to know this enigmatic neighbourhood. As my taxi slowly manoeuvred through the motorbike traffic on Nguyễn Trãi Street, Chợ Lớn faded into the surrounding neighbourhoods until in the passage of one block to the next it was suddenly no more. From my air-conditioned cocoon I peered through a dirty window and for the first time all day now saw clearly what drives Chợ Lớn’s uniqueness. Its unabashed, unapologetic authenticity and hard-working people are the blood that fuel Chinatown’s heart.
Saigon’s Department of Planning and Architecture has formulated an ambitiously titled plan known as ‘Ideas for urban design for conservation and rehabilitation of the Chợ Lớn Old Quarter’. New houses will be built in a similar style to historic architecture, billboards limited, adding new floors to existing buildings prohibited, pedestrian only streets created and green areas expanded. These lofty projects naturally create concerns amongst the 68-hectare preservation area’s 440,000 residents, who worry any rash redevelopment will forever alter not only the streetscape but their lives as well.

Lighting the incense inside Minh Huong Temple

No matter how this neighbourhood evolves, I will forever cherish the mental snapshots of this incredible day. Now, instead of dreaming about possibilities, I find myself
hoping Chợ Lớn can indeed retain its current identity while potentially charting a brave new course. Perhaps I shall soon return to Minh Huong Temple to light another red incense coil to summon the ghosts of Chợ Lớn’s past. I will ask them to carefully usher this district into the future in a manner where the next generation remains closely connected to yesteryear.

Text and photos by John Russack