Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cho Binh Tay - Chinatown Market

Every city in the world most likely has its Chinatown. And Saigon is no exception. The character of the market is quite different than Cho Ben Thanh, but it is surrounded by some beautiful parks and architecture that beckons one to slow down from the seemingly endless madness and bustle one finds inside its perimeters.

Do a cab as it's faster and provides some relief from the heat, which can become unbearable. If you just say Cholon (the word means big market), they will immediately know what you are talking about. Cholon refers to the district where allegedly the world's largest "Chinatown" is found.

An estimated one million people live here, and have their shops and foods and all things ethnically Chinese. In sharp contrast with District 1 where we were staying, which has modern, high rise buildings, Cholon in District 5 provides a time warp that may take you back a few hundred years. Which makes it all the more exciting.

Let's go through the market and continue on outside where a sitting area is available, but the only people we saw sitting were children. The adults appear to have way too much to do to spend any of their time out here. But it's lovely and reminiscent of some of the topiary we had seen on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok (albeit on a very very much smaller scale). All of the elements for harmony and balance are found; water, beautiful foliage, huge urns where joss sticks are burning continuously, as offering to the spirits, or to keep the evil spirits away. And for more protection, the requisite dragons are in full form, black stone and menacing.

All around the area, you will see pagodas, temples and monasteries built by the Chinese to accommodate the influx of their people into Vietnam. They have their own clan associations, which allow them to respond to their own cultural and religious needs.

An interesting bit of a trivia is that even though the Vietnamese have dubbed the area as Cholon, the Chinese refer to it as "ti-an", which means enbankment. Some of the temples and institutions which were built in the area date back to the French occupation, and others predate it.

When you've had enough fresh air, head back inside the market and start navigating the aisles. They have separated durable goods from consumables, which makes a lot of sense. There is also an upper level with more shops, that are in reality similar to stalls. Most have goods stacked to the ceiling, in certain cases very neatly, and in worst cases, very helter-skelter. The next few pictures will give you an idea of optimization of space. These people have mastered the art.

this is the upper level of the market seen from below

the market shows its age through one of the tiles in front of the hat displays

If I recall accurately, we did buy a suitcase here, after doing some price comparisons, which , are you will find are not necessary here. By our standards, most if not all prices are ridiculously low, and one tends to get caught up in the enormity of the number of dongs rather than their value. 150 thousand dongs is only US$10. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you do the math, you still get sticker shock. At one point, Chuck had a brilliant idea, and devised his own tables of dollars versus dongs. It did help us with the rest of the trip.

Cuisine is one of the most exciting things to sample, and it's no secret that the Chinese represent one of the three top world cuisines. The other two are French and Italian. At Ben Tay Market, you can not only browse the aisles for purchasing foods, but you can watch people cooking and eating whatever the day's menu brings. The colors and smells will transport you to another world. In some cases, I had absolutely no idea what was in front of me, but I was nevertheless mesmerized by the colors and sheer quantity of variety.

the only thing I can identify here are the scallion pancakes on the extreme right-yummy

they love chilies in this country, and it's the death of me.

of course, everything is absolutely fresh
If I had to guess, I'd say these were mushrooms

The colors here would make an artist drool; the middle pile looks like tiny shrimp

So now you have a preview of a small slice of life in Cholon. Don't wait too long before you visit.


Anonymous said...

Welcomes to Vietnam - excellent investment destination in Asia

Victoria Tran said...

I only hear Cho Ben Thanh and I hear Cho Binh Tay for the first time. It also has many goods. Coming to Vietnam, you not only visit this market but also other landscapes here: