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HCM City hidden Chinatown lies in wait for intrepid tourists (20-09-2013   16:24:00)

Reported tourist disinterest reflects the fact that there seems little culturally to see or little genuine Chinese architecture to indicate the presence of the Chinese community for several hundred years.

From downtown, a friend and I headed for Binh Tay Market, also called Cho Lon (Big Market), on a motorbike down Nguyen Trai Street. After a half-hour ride through nightmare traffic, we reached the heart of Chinatown. After touring the incredibly busy, noisy and messy buildings, we decided to head off. But I imagine tourists would love the chaos.

My friend suggested we go somewhere more peaceful, so we headed for Tian Hou Pagoda, the most popular in Chinatown. Tian Hou is particularly popular in Fukien on the China coast, where many southern Chinese come from. The daughter of a fisherman, Tian Hou, or Goddess of the Sea, was reputed to be able to control storms at sea.

There were a few foreign tourists at the pagoda, but most of them were from mainland China and Taiwan. The building, on Nguyen Trai Street, was built in the mid-eighteenth century. While not a large structure, the pagoda is a place to see for those who love Chinese-style architecture. It's roof is decorated with small delicately fashioned porcelain figurines expressing themes from Chinese religion and legends.

After entering the main gate, we saw a huge incense burner in front of the main altar. I loved the spirals of incense smoke hanging around the ceiling. We decided to offer up our prayers and light incense. After donating US$1, we wrote our names on red paper to hang up with coils of incense. A Chinese Vietnamese helped me hang the spirals, saying they would burn for seven days, bringing us much happiness.

During Chinese New Year, which is similar to Tet or Vietnamese New Year, the pagoda is apparently crowded with pilgrims, most of whom are Vietnamese of Chinese descent. While praying and admiring the ancient architecture inside the pagoda, we were attracted by a drum sound in the courtyard. We were privileged to see a fantastic Kylin (Unicorn/rhinocerous) dance performance there. This is similar to the popular lion dances in both countries, but the steps are often more deliberate and intricate.

Vu Quoc Dung, a member of the dance group, explained that the ceremony was to dot the eyes, ears, nose and forehead of their new Kylin with red – representing chicken blood – to bring it to life. He maintained that all new Kylin should be taken to the pagoda to be presented to the Goddess of the Sea.

While walking to another pagoda on the same road, we cooled down with a drink of chrysanthemum tea mixed with 24 types of herbs, a popular drink in Chinatown.

The second pagoda honoured Guan Yu, the legendary general during the Three Kingdoms period 2,300 years ago in China. The pagoda, which was built about 200 years ago, is being restored to its former glory.

After visiting Quan Am Pagoda (the Bodhisatva of Limitless Compassion – or the Buddhist version of the Virgin Mary) on Lao Tu Street, we started to head for Cha Tam Church in Hoc Lac Street.

Then we got back into the real world. As many know, Chinatown is not only known for Binh Tay market and Chinese temples, it also has a Chinese business area, which is even busier than downtown HCM City.

Our noses twitched as we entered Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, adjusting to the strong perfumes from many herbal medicine stores. We eventually came to Luong Nhu Hoc Street, where there were many lantern and kylin shops.

The mid-autumn festival is approaching. The street is full of local Vietnamese and Chinese coming to buy lanterns and mooncakes. We visited during the day, but apparently the street is crowded and glittering at night.

At Trieu Quang Phuc Street, which is parallel to the unicorn street, we found several shops selling knives, scissors and choppers. Skilled craftsmen often do the job right on the pavement.

While it is a bit sad that Chinatown is now so integrated into the main city that it can sometimes appear to be no different, the area is a wonderland for those who love Chinese food.

Chinese food stalls and restaurants are everywhere, especially at nighttime. The best way to discover it is by motorbike, but from Ben Thanh Market, visitors can catch a bus from bus route number 1, which charges about VND6,000 (30 cents) for the ride.

by Khanh Toan — VNS