Vietnam's only Chinatown tucked in Saigon's District 5

Where red lanterns glow and char siu egg noodle stalls mark the winding streets - District 5, also known as Cho Lon or Saigon's Chinatown, is a hidden gem awaiting to be explored in Ho Chi Minh City. While my apartment in Saigon is in District 1, I often find myself wandering across the city to District 5. What makes this corner of Saigon just so special? Perhaps how over the centuries, it has retained its authenticity so well, and bittersweetly - it is still rather undiscovered by travellers. There is just so much things to do and see in District 5 of Saigon that many people don't even know about. Imagine stepping back in time as you get lost in these frenetic streets lined with traditional Chinese shophouses, colourful temples and artfully-crafted pagodas. Out of Saigon's 24 districts, this is one of the most culturally immersive neighbourhoods in not only the city, but the country as well. District 5 has an enriching history that stretches back to the 19th century during French Colonial rule when it was first settled by Chinese immigrants who came to Vietnam in search of economic opportunities. These immigrants brought their culture, customs, and traditions, which have over the centuries, significantly impacted the district's development.  Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© iStock / Minwan

Walking around Saigon's District 5 today, that genuine local charm is still so well steeped in its architecture, like the Binh Tay Market or Thien Hau Pagoda, as well as the food (Cantonese and dim sum lovers look no further than to be indulged here). While District 5 looks very different today than it did back then when it was first formed, it's still easy to trace this neighbourhood's lineage and identity. 

The district was established as a separate entity from Ho Chi Minh City, then officially known as Saigon, in the late 19th century. District 5 was officially named Cho Lon, which means "big market" in Chinese. This name was chosen because of the district's large and bustling markets, which were a major economic hub for the Chinese community. Everything from wholesale flowers to spices were hawked under awnings in these streets. The skill for making money - as well as the playground for growing it, was like the wild, wild, West here. Because of it, during the early 20th century, Cho Lon experienced rapid economic growth, becoming a major centre for trade, manufacturing, and commerce. 

© iStock / NgKhanhVuKhoa

It was not long during that century when many Chinese merchants and businessmen established themselves in the district and then started to mingle with local Vietnamese tribes. Thus, creating a home to an ever-growing Chinese-Vietnamese community was also born in parallel to Cho Lon. 

During the American War in Vietnam, Cho Lon was heavily damaged by bombing, and many of the district's historic buildings and structures were unfortunately destroyed. However, in recent years, there have been efforts to restore and preserve the district's rich cultural heritage. Take the still-standing Binh Tay Market, where prominent Chinese architecture and a grand sweeping stairwell were meticulously restored for future generations. During Cho Lon's heyday, it was booming alongside the Fench colonial period, so to this day historical French-built churches like the Church of St. Joan of Arc still stand amongst the Chinese architecture.

© iStock / David_Bokuchava

Today, Cho Lon remains an important cultural and economic centre for the Chinese community in Saigon. Locals city-wide still refer to District 5 as Cho Lon, and on any given day, you can explore its bustling markets and delicious street food - dotted between its traditional Chinese motifs in intricate architecture, still-in-use temples, and ancient pagodas. This goes to say, no matter what type of traveller or person you are, there is something for everyone in Saigon's District 5. If you are a food lover, be sure to come with an empty stomach, as there are so many delights from super affordable family restaurants to mom-and-pop stalls to eat from. If you're a photographer, oh boy, will your eye and your lens be in for a treat (the incense smoke wafting from the temples are its own cinematic experience). If you are an architecture admirer or history nerd, District 5 is a treasure trove for your senses in Saigon. That is all to say; this neighbourhood still holds the special crown of being the only Chinatown in all of Vietnam. 

© iStock / woojpn

While most districts in Saigon (aside from Districts 1, 2, 3 and 7) are quite homogeneous, District 5 continues to be a melting pot of Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, offering a unique glimpse into the history and heritage of both communities. Whether you are living in Saigon like me or visiting it, you should definitely check out the neighbourhood. My favourite time of the day is early mornings (7am - 9am) before the heat has really risen, also because Cho Lon is already bustling and fully awake at that time. It takes about a 20-minute motorbike ride from District 1 out to District 5, but once you are there, it is actually pretty easy to walk around. Sidewalks are not too shabby in this corner of the city, and the top things to see and do in District 5 are within walking distance to each other. 

Bonus: if you're here during Lunar New Year (Vietnamese's Tết), also known as Chinese New Year, District 5 becomes an explosion of fireworks and traditional lion dances and another red and gold flair where the community really shows the city how it celebrates. 

© Unsplash / jet dela cruz

Most visitors usually stay in District 1 or 3 during their time 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.

© iStock / Vera Tikhonova

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