Unforgettable gems of Saigon's Chinatown in District 5

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known amongst locals as Saigon, a captivating metropolis that pulsates with life, energy, and a rich tapestry of diverse cultures. Within this bustling city, a vibrant neighbourhood awaits, inviting you to step into a world where East truly meets West. District 5, which also happens to be Chinatown, is a captivating district that encapsulates the fusion of Chinese heritage and Vietnamese culture. As you venture into District 5's Chinatown, which was officially known as Cho Lon, a feast for the senses unfolds before you. The air is filled with the aroma of sizzling street food, the symphony of vendors hawking their wares, and the vibrant colours of traditional Chinese lanterns that adorn the bustling streets. This enchanting neighbourhood, established in the 18th century, holds a unique place in the city's history and cultural fabric, dotted with unforgettable gems awaiting for you to explore. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© Logan Ly

Binh Tay Market is where I've spent many late mornings wandering through the narrow alleys lined with colourful shops and vendors, haggling over prices and discovering hidden treasures. You will find it all here from fresh herbs, spices and dried goods to textiles, clothing and household items. The market is housed in a grand well-preserved colonial building built in the early 20th century. Looking up at it, you'll see right away how the architecture of the market is an interesting blend of traditional motifs on the two-story structure. Be sure not to miss the central courtyard, which you can find within a series of covered walkways and corridors connecting the market's different sections. The lower level of the Bin Tay Market is dedicated to wholesale goods, while the upper level is mostly for retail sales. 

Whenever friends are visiting me in town, I always take them to Binh Tay Market since it is a great place to experience local culture and see the daily life of the locals in Saigon. The market is vivacious with locals bargaining and haggling over prices, and it's a perfect spot to try local street food and snacks. If you're looking for a unique, one-of-a-kind souvenir to take back home, you'll find plenty of traditional handcrafted goods, such as lacquerware, silk lanterns, and traditional clothing. The market is open every day, but it is busiest early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so I definitely recommend going early for the freshest produce and to avoid the heat and crowds. 

© iStock/ NgKhanhVuKhoa

Thien Hau Pagoda, also known as "Chùa Thiên Hậu" in Vietnamese, is a Chinese temple located in Cho Lon of District 5. The temple is poetically dedicated to the goddess of the sea and protector of sailors, Thien Hau, and it is one of the most important and popular destinations for locals and travellers alike in the district. The temple was built in the early 19th century by the local Vietnamese-Chinese community, and it has undergone several renovations and expansions over the years. It's easy to be spirited away by the temple's architecture - a smitten blend of traditional Chinese and Vietnamese styles, decorated with intricate carvings, colourful lanterns and incense burning.

The main hall of the temple is dedicated to Thien Hau, and it is adorned with a statue of the goddess. The temple also has several smaller shrines and altars dedicated to other deities, such as Guan Yin and the Taoist god, Taishang Laojun. Since the temple is also an active place of worship, you can observe the locals praying and making offerings to the deities. Come Lunar New Year (in Vietnamese, Tết) Thien Hau Pagoda is the place to be in the neighbourhood - as the temple is decked out with even more colourful lanterns and festivities like Lion dances.  Here is a corner of Saigon that offers a unique glimpse into the religious and cultural heritage of the local Vietnamese-Chinese community, and it is a peaceful and beautiful spot for anyone to explore.

© iStock/ xuanhuongho

Tucked away in Chinatown is a charming street known as Lantern Street, or "Hoi Quan Nguoi Hoa" in Vietnamese. This ethereally glowing street, officially named Trieu Quang Phuc Street, is famous for its beautiful lanterns and rich cultural heritage. It's a wonderful area to roam around - just try to count how many lanterns you can spot! The lanterns that hang overhead come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, illuminating the street with a soft and captivating glow. These lanterns are intricately crafted by Saigonese locals with delicate materials such as silk, paper, and bamboo, often featuring intricate patterns, calligraphy, and symbols of good fortune.  

During the Mid Autumn Festival (Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese), this street becomes even more jovial, with community karaoke wafting throughout the allies and local children running around with their lanterns.  

© iStock/ NgKhanhVuKhoa

I've had so many wonderful memories here even though I'm torn about sharing this spot. Hẻm Hào Sỹ Phường (Hao Su Alley) is a wee small alley located in the heart of District 5's Chinatown where you can be immersed into its traditional Chinese-style shophouses and historical significance as a centre of Chinese-Vietnamese culture. The alley is located in the Phường 9 neighbourhood and it is named after the Hẻm Hào Sỹ temple which is located at the end of the alley. The temple is a small and simple structure, built in traditional Chinese architectural style, with a tiled roof and wooden beams. Now why I find it hard to share this place is because this alley is a residential spot - where locals actually live and conduct their day-to-day lives. While the community is very welcoming, visitors should keep in mind their noise level, and in general be respectful of the place, remembering that essentially, these are actual people's backyards and not a commercial area. On the other hand, I don't want to gatekeep this place because one of my favourite noodle stall lady is at the very end of the alley, and I always love supporting local businesses like hers in Vietnam.

As you explore Hẻm Hào Sỹ Phường, you'll be roaming through an alley lined with traditional Chinese-style shophouses, which are two or three-story buildings, with narrow frontages and deep interiors. These shophouses were built in the 19th century and they were the homes and businesses of the Chinese immigrants. They were used to sell goods, provide accommodation and also as a place of worship. Today, the alley is not touristy, and it is a great place to experience a quieter slice of living in Saigon.

© flickr/ Gary Todd

Often when you are coming into District 5, you'll be greeted by this magnificent structure flanking the roads connecting the neighbourhood to the rest of Saigon. Located at 116A Đ. Hùng Vương, Phường 9, Quận 5 -  Church of St. Joan of Arc is a Roman Catholic church that was built in the early 20th century during the French Colonial period in Vietnam. It is one of the oldest surviving churches in Saigon (up there with the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon) and has a unique architectural style that is a mix of Gothic and Romanesque elements. The church was built in the early 20th century by French colonial authorities, as a symbol of their presence in the region. It was named after Joan of Arc, a French national heroine and Catholic saint, who led the French army to victory during the Hundred Years War. The church is also known as "Nhà Thờ Đức Mẹ Hiền Lương" in Vietnamese which means "The Church of Our Lady of Grace". The church is still in use today! For those interested, you can attend mass and admire the church's beautiful architecture and historical significance from the inside as well as the outside.

© iStock/ Sister N

A cyclo is a three-wheeled bicycle taxi commonly found in Vietnam. While it's thriving in cities like Hoi An, sadly it's becoming a dying form of transportation in Saigon. You may see it in District 1, and the only other neighbourhood to see or experience cyclo is in District 5. Outside of these districts, chances are slim to none.  It's a romantic traditional mode of transportation that offers a unique and leisurely way to explore Saigon. A typical cyclo has a seating area for passengers, usually in the form of a small carriage or seat at the front, which is attached to the front of a bicycle. The rider, known as a cyclo-driver, sits on a seat behind the passengers and propels the cyclo forward using pedals. As more people own their own motorbikes and the too fast too, furious mode of transportation is now preferred in Vietnam, cyclos are still a remnant of a nostalgic past, an opportunity to interact with the friendly and knowledgeable cyclo-drivers, who often serve as guides, sharing interesting tidbits and local knowledge about the areas they traverse.

© iStock/ karenfoleyphotography

Sanshan Hokkien Temple, also known as "Chùa Tứ Thánh" in Vietnamese, is a Chinese temple dedicated to the worship of the three Chinese Sea Immortals (Sanshan in Chinese) who are believed to protect seafarers and fisherman. Built-in the late 19th century, the temple's architecture is a blend of traditional Chinese and Vietnamese styles, with intricate carvings and colourful decorations. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to the worship of the three sea immortals, and it is adorned with statues of the gods. The temple also has several smaller shrines and altars dedicated to other deities, such as Guan Yin and the Taoist god, Taishang Laojun.

 One of my favourite things about visiting this temple is also one of its most interesting features - the large incense coils that hang from the ceiling. These coils are made of sandalwood, and they are lit and burn continuously, filling the temple with a sweet and heady aroma that absolutely spirits you away. The temple is also known for its beautiful and intricate carvings and sculptures, many of which are made of wood and stone. 

© iStock/ xuanhuongho

Architecture do sadly go extinct - and Saigon's shophouses are one of the bygone era structures that are dwindling throughout the city. Even in District 5's Chinatown, where it was once prominent and ubiquitous... These days, there are a few scattered in between the streets. Those that are left are in quite a disarray but, nevertheless, still worth seeing and appreciating while they still exist.  Shophouses in Saigon dates back to the 1860s, with a mixture of colonial architecture and Chinese romantic charms built into its arches and pastel colour buildings. It features a shop on the bottom floor, with its owner and family living on the top floor. 

In Chinatown, these historical shophouses are dotted on Đường Hồng Bàng street, with the prime examples of the well-preserved ones standing on 43-49 Hải Thượng Lãn Ông street.

© iStock/ David_Bokuchava

St. Francis Xavier Church, also known as "Nhà Thờ Đức Francis Xavier" in Vietnamese, is one of the oldest surviving Roman Catholic churches in the district and it is an important religious and cultural destination for the local Catholic community. The church was built in the late 19th century by French colonialists, and named after St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, who was active in the region during the 16th century. I love how the church's architecture is a blend of Gothic and Romanesque styles, with high arched windows, a bell tower, and a large central nave - really striking from the surrounding sceneries of Chinatown. Whenever the door is open, you should pop inside and take a peek. The interior of the church is decorated with beautiful stained glass windows, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and the saints. The altar and pulpit are made of marble, and there are statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints. Do know that during the American War in Vietnam, the church was heavily damaged by bombing, and many of the church's historical buildings and structures were destroyed. However, in recent years, thankfully there have been efforts to restore and preserve the church's rich cultural heritage making it possible to explore today.

© iStock/ 100

I can list so many notable restaurants and places to eat in Saigon's District 5. But one place that I always go to every Sunday morning, no matter where I am in the city, is  Tiến Phát - Điểm tâm Hồng Kông. This is a long-standing restaurant located on 18 Đ. Ký Hoà, Phường 11, Quận 5. This restaurant is well-known and beloved amongst us locals for serving authentic Hong Kong-style cuisine, which is a blend of Cantonese and Western styles. Hong Kong-style cuisine is famous for its use of seafood, and for its dim sum, which is a style of Cantonese cuisine that involves small, bite-size dishes that are often steamed or fried - so if you've never had it before, or if you're an avid lover like me, this is thee place to have it in Saigon. When the stacked bamboo steamers come out to your table, opening each one is such a treat to uncover the little edible jewels that awaits inside. Yep, even though I live in District 1, I make the journey all the way across the city weekly just for this place. 

This is a fun open-air market that is absolutely brimming with mouth-watering food. It's also where the locals go to do their morning groceries, from fresh-cut vegetables delivered right from the farmlands to a variety of butcher-shop stalls. But I often come here for a varied selection of street food stalls during morning and lunchtime. Any time after 1pm and the market has closed up shop, so be sure to come to  Chợ Phùng Hưng early (the theme for District 5, really)! Notable stalls here is Há Cảo KIỀU KÝ, where you can get delicious dim sum on the street. You'll see their daily selections from their huge round steamer, which is such a delight every time they lift it up for you to select which pieces you want to eat. 

© iStock/ NgKhanhVuKhoa

Quan Am Pagoda is also known as "The Temple of Compassion", a beautiful and serene destination located in the heart of Chinatown in Saigon. This temple is a true hidden gem for those looking for a peaceful and spiritual escape from the bustle of this frenetic neighbourhood (yep, even more, high octane than District 1!). The temple was built in the late 19th century, where the main hall of the temple is dedicated to the worship of Quan Am, the bodhisattva of compassion. It's adorned with a stunning statue of the bodhisattva with mesmerizing large incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The temple is also known for its intricate carvings and sculptures, many of which are made of wood and stone, depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology and folklore. 

© iStock/ Jui-Chi Chan

On the knook of QM23+8HR, Phường 13, Quận 5 is Knowloon Park. It's a small abode that carves out a green space within Chinatown, making it a relaxing spot to rest amongst the constant hustle of District 5. Here, you'll see a beautiful rectangular pond that is guarded by a long shimmering gold dragon - emblematic and fitting for the neighbourhood. There are two pagodas where you can feel free to sit in to escape the sun. For most locals, we avoid this place during high noon - just because of the heat, so if you go here at that time, you'll most likely have the whole park to yourself. But in the early mornings or in the evenings after the sun has set, the community comes out and get together in this public space. 

Most visitors usually stay in District 1 or 3 in Ho Chi Minh City. But if you want to wake up to delightful aromas of wontons, street food vendors and the unique, lively energy of Vietnam's only Chinatown, then staying in Saigon's District 5 is where you'll want to be.  Luxurious Chinatown Hideaway is a hotel that lives up to its name, while Aiden Saigon Hotel even has a pool on top of its rooftop! Perfect for after a day of sightseeing right? Then there's Anh Dao Hotel which delivers exceptional hospitality.

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