The many sides of sprawling Saigon

HCMC/Saigón has 24 districts; most of the tourist attractions are in District One, where the French set up government buildings and an economic center. District Five, however, is the central area of historic Saigon. Cho Lon, or Chinatown, was settled in the late 17th century by ethnic Chinese. It was known by its Cantonese name, Tai-Ngon (Embankment) which was often mistaken for the similar sound ‘Saigon’. It is now dubbed Cholon (Big Market). If you believe the internet, it is the largest Chinatown in the world. We took a tour which began at the Tue Thanh Assembly Hall, which was built in the late 1700s and served many purposes including immigration management and worship hall. A donation gave us the opportunity to make a wish and light some incense which will burn for a week. Following the temple, the tour included a tuk tuk ride to a wholesale market. We walked through stalls filled with everything from hats and shoes to dried fish, all with huge minimum purchases. There is a fountain at the back of the market with a half dragon-half alligator sea monster. There is a fear that this creature lives in the river. All the boats in the river have eyes painted on them to frighten the monsters. No swimming please.

Keeping with our Chinatown experience, our next stop was the Museum of Traditional Medicine, a unique building. A former pharmacist built the home and office-turned museum using wood from old homes across Vietnam. The exhibits share insight into the history of non-Western medicine in Vietnam and the variety of different plants and herbs people used and still use today to cure a variety of illnesses and ailments. There is also a replica of an herb shop and many types of teapots and jars for boiling and storing herbs. Another floor has a large collection of mortar and pestles for preparation of the drugs. It is a beautiful location and is the back drop for lucky new year (Tet) photos to be taken in traditional dress for an auspicious new year.

For a rural respite, we left Chinatown and went to Binh Quoi. This green space along the Saigon River is a replica village of what life was like on the Mekong Delta pre-Industrial Revolution. There are gardens, coconut palms, lakes stocked with elephant ear fish and giant water lilies. No cars or motor bikes in sight. We enjoyed people watching while sipping refreshing beverages.

Back in the city we walked past the remarkable People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City or Ho Chi Minh City Hall. This French Colonial building is beautiful and takes up a full city block. It’s not open to the public but it is a nice photo opportunity. Close to this is the Cafe Apartments building. This unusual building was constructed in the 1960s and served as housing for government and military personnel during the Vietnam War. It was later abandoned and converted into individual apartment cafes or businesses. Inside you can take the stairs or the elevator to each floor and check out the residential building layout that’s an atypical use for commerce. We took in the view from a cafe on the 8th floor and sipped a local Vietnamese iced mocha coffee. On the walk back to our hotel we came across a quilt shop! What a surprise. There are no fabrics for sale (phew!). Every item is hand quilted. The bon-profit organization Mekong Quilts has helped many women artisans across the Mekong Delta and in some indigenous regions outside of Hanoi and in Cambodia maintain financial stability with jobs that are unaffected by weather.

Pho, caramelizad fish and veggie coconut curry made it another wonderful day in this steamy city.

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