SEEING A DIFFERENT SIDE OF SAIGON
Our sightseeing in Saigon (i.e. Ho Chi Minh City) yesterday took us around District 1, the historical heart of the city and one of its most affluent. Today we took a cyclo (i.e. pedicab) tour out to District 5 to see a different side of the the city. Known as Cholon, this part of Saigon is home to the city’s Chinatown and one of its busiest markets: Binh Tay Market. District 5 is also a working class district, home for thousands of hard-working Vietnamese whose homes are far simpler than those around out hotel in District 1. The contrast between the sights we saw yesterday and what we experienced today was really interesting, and helped us appreciate a lot more how hard working people are here!
The area is also home to Saigon’s Chinese (i.e. Cantonese) population, most of whom settled here in the late 18th century. The area has a distinctive Chinese flavour to it, and incredibly, is even busier than downtown Saigon! The tight narrow streets were jam-packed with tiny homes, micro-businesses, local markets, and a constant stream of motorbike traffic.
In the midst of all this chaos, we passed a Buddhist monk dressed in simple orange robes, holding his rice bowl and walking the streets seeking alms. The juxtaposition of the monk’s humble demeanour, set against the noise and bustle of a big modern city was quite remarkable. It can’t be easy to maintain your spiritual focus with all of the intensity of Saigon flowing around you!
During the French colonial time, Cholon was a warren of dark streets, exotic opium dens, and brothels. The same opium dens and brothels greeted American troops when they arrived in Saigon and reportedly a few US soldiers went AWOL in Cholon during the war. The area was also home to a thriving black market for US soldiers trading in American Army issued supplies.
A legacy from those days is that Cholon remains THE place to buy ANYTHING, and everything – as we saw today. We saw an incredible array of stuff being sold, from fresh produce to reconditioned engines, second hand electronics, clothing, kitchenware, ice, and clothing.
The busiest market in Cholon is Binh Tay Market, a heaving wholesale market of Cholon. We stopped there as part of our pedicab tour and spent ages trawling through the lanes and alleys of the market, marvelling at what was on sale.
There were lanes filled with all manner of fresh ingredients, including meat and seafood of all kinds, plus plenty of fruit and vegetables. Along with all the colourful assortment of fresh foods, there were also stalls selling pre-cooked foods and take-away meals.
Inside the covered area of the market there were many dried and preserved types of ingredients, including nuts, dried fruits, herbs, and spices. The dried mushrooms and dried seafood sections were really interesting, with lots of varied textures, shapes, and smells.
The market was also well stocked with hundreds of vendors selling every type of Vietnamese clothing imaginable, as well as pots, pans, dishes, and cooking utensils of every type.
Most amusing of all for us were all the Christmas decorations for sale! Seems the Western holiday of Christmas has taken off here in Vietnam, not for its religious connotations, but more if its kitsch appeal and as an excuse to hand out gifts to family and friends. The sight of snowmen, Santa Claus in his red wooly outfit, and decorative mistletoe seems very out of place here in Saigon however!
Binh Tay Market was certainly a feast for the senses, though given how hot, humid and busy it was, the whole experience was also more than a little overwhelming! Less daunting was the nearby Ho Thi Ky flower market, where the challenging smells of dried fish and freshly butchered meats was replaced by the more pleasant aromas of roses, orchids, lilies, sun flowers, and chrysanthemums.
As we boarded our pedicabs again, our drivers took us along a few of the narrower streets, past men showing off their prize fighting roosters*, and small local coffee shops where hard-eyed men** sat smoking and drinking strong Vietnamese coffee.
*Cockfighting is hugely popular here in Vietnam, with some of the best birds worth a small fortune.
**We definitely got a few less-than-friendly stares during our pedicab ride through Cholon, which was a change as most people in Vietnam have been quite friendly and willing to at least exchange smiles. Mind you, given how big this city is, we weren’t surprised to find a “grittier” element here. Interestingly Saigon is the first city we’ve been in, here in South East Asia, where we’ve been warned (repeatedly) to “watch our belongings” and be alert for pick pockets, bag snatchers, and petty crime. It was a bit of a shift having to revert back to behaviours we’d left behind in Spain as Asia is notoriously safe and free of the sorts of petty crime issues which have, unfortunately, become the norm in many large European cities.
Here too we passed a live animal market, where caged song birds were being sold alongside kittens, puppies, and dogs. We didn’t dare ask whether the furry critters in cages were for sale as pets or food!
As we continued on through Cholon, we were approached a few times by people with disabilities* looking to sell us lottery tickets. Desperately poor and with few options available to them for work, many of these disadvantaged people trawl the streets of Saigon selling what they can to make a meagre living. It was really quite inspiring and humbling to see – they don’t just sit on the side of the road and beg, they still earn what they can by working for it. In fact, we’ve not seen ANY beggars here in Vietnam. It seems that, even if it’s just selling fruit or sweeping the streets, people would rather be working that sitting with their hand out. And boy do they work hard!
*Many obviously the result of maternal exposure to dioxin, a component of the defoliant Agent Orange used by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Our final stop for the day was the Chua Quan Am Temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple busy with visiting supplicants.
Decorated in vivid colours and lined with ornately decorated shrines, the temple was an oasis of quiet in amongst the noise and traffic. The air was thick with scented smoke from all the incense and braziers when we were there, creating a haze around us that added an ethereal quality to the ambience.
Chua Quan Am Temple was a lovely place to pause for a while before we once again ventured out into the traffic on our pedicabs. Our drivers really did an admirable job of negotiating the treacherous road conditions and pedalling us all the way from District 1 to District 5 and back again in the stifling heat. We came them a hefty tip in thanks when the tour ended, grateful for their efforts in showing us this very different side of Saigon.
We had a quick lunch before retreating to our room for a shower and a quiet afternoon of rest and relaxation. We’re trying to conserve our energy a bit because we’ve got a long day tomorrow – we’re heading out of town and going down to the Mekong Delta for the day. Join us then to see what new marvels we can uncover in Vietnam…