Today we take a break from Sulawesi, and head to Saigon. On our last visit I researched a walking-riding tour of the city for Wall Street Journal Asia; it appears in today's 'Weekend Journal' and online, here.
The walk starts in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown. It's a part of Saigon that took a while to grow on us. We visited Cholon maybe two or three times in all of the more than two and a half years we lived there, never finding anything that pulled us back. But distance and perspective have their advantages, apparently, because now every time we return to Saigon spending one or several long mornings in Cholon is a priority.
There's a good amount of food and travel press devoted to Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown, but relatively little written on Cholon. I suspect that's because the former, with its bountiful Chinese-character signage, is much more identifiable as a Chinese neighborhood than the latter. Cholon is in fact a huge area sprawling over Saigon's Districts 5 and 6. It's been in existence for hundreds of years but only really began to grown in population when the French incorporated Vietnam into Indo-China in the late 1800s.
Cholon's most obvious markers are Cho Binh Tay (Binh Tay Market) and its many Buddhist temples. You need to spend some time poking around a bit to find other indicators of its Chinese (Hoa, in Vietnamese, probably from the Mandarin word 'hua') identity. And this requires doing a lot of walking in what is admittedly not Southeast Asia's best walking city. But it's a worthwhile effort. Every time we return to Cholon we're more enamored of the place.
'Weekend Journal' runs just a few photos with its Walking Tours (to see Dave's photos, click the dots on the map) and word-count worries precluded me from including all of my favorite bits of Cholon in the article. So here's a highly haphazard selection of what are, for us, some of the neighborhood's highlights. Consider it a supplement to the Walking Tour.
Any visit to Cholon should start at Cho Binh Tay. We try to arrive by 7:00am, 7:30 at the latest. At this hour the covered part of the market is just waking up, but the informal market out back, on Phan Van Koe Street, is very much alive.
We absolutely love this part of the market. It's 'wild and wooly' (our friend Andrea Nguyen's apt description for Saigon itself, but especially applicable, we think, to this buzzing lane), all of Saigon's chaos, frantic energy, and entrepreneurial zeal squeezed into one tight space.
There's lots of pushing and shoving, shoppers jostling with sellers, hawkers barking at passers-by, and endless bargaining. The smells of fresh seafood, leafy vegetables, and fresh herbs mingle with the scent of freshly baked baguettes and prawn fritters sizzling in oil.
Every time we step onto this street I pick a spot and just stand there, not moving, for a very long time, drinking in everything around me in gulps.
There are no regular stalls here. Sellers just plop themselves down on both sides of the street, whip out their wares, and get to selling. Some vendors move often, picking up their tiny plastic stools and rattan baskets or metal trays or plastic pans of veggies or prawns and whatnot and ambling up the street a few paces, where they plop it all down again and get back to business.
The sea does part for motorcycles, and monks.
There's some good food to be had on this back lane, including vegetarian banh mi (admittedly, meat lovers will find it not quite as satisfying as a pork-stuffed baguette), prawn toasts, and turmeric-scented, tofu-studded vegetarian 'broken rice' served with chili-spiked fish sauce.
By eight, the energy in this part of the market starts to dissipate as vendors depart with their empty baskets and shoppers head back to their kitchens with full ones. Suddenly, after all that racket and chaos, the lane is quiet and empty.
Now is a good time to duck back inside the market and seek refreshment in its 'food court'. We always start with a few coffees and fruit shakes (strawberry is a favorite),
before moving on to something more substantial. You're spoiled for choice here -- there are rice-and-dish vendors, chao (porridge) makers, and bun and pho stalls, and everything looks and smells good. But time and time again we opt for a plate of noodles prepared by an always shirtless, never smiling wok jockey who likes to play with fire next to his can't-miss corner stall.
His chow mein-like deep-fried noodles topped with choy sum, prawns, pork, a bit of liver, and deep-fried bean curd skin in a thickish black pepper-spiced gravy is wonderful, boasting that scent of char that only the kiss of a red-hot wok can deliver.
On one side of the food court are a row of stalls selling whole fish and boned and skinned fish for fish paste and fish balls.
Here a vendor employs a great method for detaching fish meat destined to be pounded into a paste from its skin: fillet, then grasp the fillet at the tail end while you use a spoon to scrape the meat free. I've yet to try this at home but it makes a heck of a lot more sense than removing skin from fillets with a knife. Less waste too.
From Binh Tay we walk in the general direction of Nguyen Trai Street, an east-west thoroughfare dotted with temples. We rarely go in a straight line, instead diverting from main streets down an alley or short lane or two for a quieter glimpse of daily life.
In front of a fruit market on Nguyen Trai we met Lam Ai Phuong, a Cholon native who's lived there all her life. We tried conversing in English, then switched to Mandarin, with better success. She told me that the first floor of the building pictured above was a Hainanese coffee shop. It closed after Liberation.
Phuong's husband, who was 'involved with the US military', fled Vietnam by boat after Saigon fell. She hasn't seen him since. He now now lives in the US. Didn't she wish to join him? I wonder.
'By the time it was possible I was too old. This is my home. I prefer to stay here.'
Across from the fruit market, on Phung Hung Street, is what the owner claims is Cholon's oldest roast meats shop, dating back to the late sixties. We just love the weathered look of the place, and the bas relief duck on its golden interior sign (just visible behind the lantern).
This may be the only roast meats shop where the butcher/slicer works at his chopping block while standing on top of a meter-high stool.
His positioning is strategic: he has a clear view of the street. When a customer pulls up to the curb on their motorcycle they needn't dismount; they can just shout their order up to him. He chops and slices and hands the order to his assistant, who delivers and takes payment.
A baguette seller is conveniently stationed right outside the shop. Buy a baguette from her and shout your order to him. She ferries the baguette to the shop, he splits and fills it with your choice of meat. A perfect symbiotic relationship.
On your way up Nguyen Trai you'll pass several temples,
where you can make a donation and have incense coils or a rectangle of magenta paper hung with a wish or a prayer.
We usually end our visits to Cholon with a slow stroll up and down Trieu Quang Phuc Street. This is short street is a Chinese opera and lion dance supplier zone -- there are custom scissor makers,
mask and prop makers,
and cape and costume makers like this woman, whose grandfather established the family business eons ago.
Trieu Quang Phuc Street also houses many Chinese herb shops.
You can't miss them: just look for the leaves, rinds, rhizomes, horseshoe crabs, and questionable reptilian body parts (I'm not advocating, just describing) being dried out front.
A good reason to start early in Cholon: by noon it's mostly unshaded streets are beastly hot.
Now is the time to hail a pedicab (or a taxi), head back to your lodging, and nap through the sweatier part of the day.