Cholon & its origins (Vietnam)

Located west of the city center, Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City’s historic Chinatown.

It is quite a big area as it includes District 5, District 6 and a part of District 10 and District 11.

Here is a bit of history to remind us how Cholon was born. The first Chinese settlement established there in the second half of the 17th century, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, by the people who remained loyal to the fallen emperor and exiled to Vietnam.

Then, later during the 18th century, a second wave of Chinese immigration arrived to Cholon, as a consequence of the demographic pressure in China. The communities organized themselves in “bangs” or “community groups”, based on their respective dialects and regions of origin.

In the late 18th century, the Chinese settlement was destroyed when the Tay Son rebel army captured the city of Gia Dinh (actual Saigon). The survivors had to rebuild the town and took this opportunity to improve the waterway system by building high embankments and wharves along the river. The settlement then took the name of “Tai Ngon” (embankment).

It grew and became a bustling center of commerce. Chinese merchants started to trade a larger variety of goods such as building materials, opium, alcohol, tobacco.

However, in the 1820’s, citizens of Chinese origins saw their privileges abolished by emperor Minh Quang who distrusted the Chinese.

In 1859, the French invaded Vietnam and started naming “Saigon” the administrative center located in today’s District 1, while the Chinese settlement became known as “Cho Lon”, literally meaning “Big market”.

The Chinese community sought the French’s protection and, thanks to their support, could resume trading as they did before Minh Quang’s reign.

In the 1930’s Cholon was a real “suburb” of Saigon and they started to merge together.

Cholon got pretty much destroyed during the American War. However it has kept its reputation of frantic trading hub and has become one of the largest Chinese communities outside China. It is also a city within the city, with its own culture, customs and beliefs.

Nowadays, many of Cholon’s historic shopfronts are progressively disappearing under advertising hoardings or new building constructions. However, you can still recall the old Chinese city when you have a stroll along the traditional herb shops on the streets Lương Như Hộc and Triệu Quang Phục or if you go and visit the beautiful ancient pagodas & temples of the neighborhood: Bà Thiên Hậu temple, Tue Thanh Assembly hall, Ha Chuong pagoda and Quan Âm pagoda just to name a few of them…

Cholon is still a fascinating area to visit to get out of the neat environment of District 1.

To dive into Cholon’s typical atmosphere and hidden alleyways in an innovative way, do not miss our interactive walking tour  in District 5! 

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Pchum Bèn Festival in Cambodia

Have you ever heard about Pchum Bèn festival?

It is one of the main two very important Buddhist Festivals in Cambodia – besides Khmer New Year -, and is also known as Ancestors’ Festival.

The ceremony is held for 15 days starting from the first until the fifteenth of Khmer Lunar month calendar called “Pheaktrobot” (between September and October in our Western calendar).

This year, the first day of the festival fell on September 14th (Bèn 1) and the most important days will be September 27, 28 and 29 (also known as “Pchum Bèn / the “Reunion of All Bèn”), ending the celebration and the Fortnight of Ancestors.

A bit similar to All Souls’ Day in Anglo-Saxon countries or to “La Toussaint” in France, Pchum Bèn is a time of the year when Khmer people remember, commemorate and “feed” their deceased ancestors.

Based on local belief, people are being reincarnated at death. Some families do not properly take care of their deceased parents and the souls of those will no rest in peace “and keep wandering in space and time”; on the contrary, during Pchum Bèn festival, those unhappy souls will come back and wander around in pain, searching for food, especially next to their homes. They are considered as ”hungry ghosts or spirits”. That is why during the first 14 days of the festival, families go to the neighboring pagodas to make different types of offerings to the monks, so this will supposedly appease the “lost souls” which will stop bother their living relatives, as they are supposed to give alms to – if not one -, but to seven wats in remembrance of their lost ancestors over seven generations.

While the word “Pchum” means in Khmer “to gather together”, the word “Bèn” means “to collect” and it also mean “to take a portion” of cooked rice or meat. So you have it all in the name of the festival!

During Pchum Bèn, pagodas are usually crowded with people coming to give offerings to the monks, who help pass them to their deceased relatives. Offerings are various: food (especially “bay ben “or sticky rice balls), flowers, money, clothes, and other basic necessities for the monks and community at the wat to sustain during the rainy season where monks are not supposed to leave the premises of the pagoda.

It is a great opportunity for travelers to visit pagodas at that time of the year to feel the very special atmosphere of that festival.

If you want to explore Phnom Penh in a different way, join our interactive walking tour.

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Mid Autumn Festival in Saigon

The last few days, many streets in Saigon’s Chinatown have been very busy and bustling with Mid-Autumn Festival preparations…

It’s called “Tết Trung Thu” in Vietnamese and is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month. This year, the big day of the festival fell yesterday, on September 13, when the moon was getting full.

In the past, this festival was traditionally a harvest celebration: after the work was finished, farmers were thankful for good harvest and had time to relax and spend with their loved ones, especially their children.

Mid-Autumn Festival is still one of Vietnam’s biggest festivals and it’s also called the Full Moon festival or Children’s Festival because of its focus on children. Somehow, we could say that it is like a combination of Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Shops are selling colorful lanterns, masks and toys that children carry. Some traditional games and musical performances are organized on the streets, as well as parades and lion dances, symbolizing a wish of luck. Moon cakes are the traditional specific cakes of that festival. They symbolize happiness, prosperity and reunion for the families. They are a meaningful gift for your beloved ones and for your most important clients. Mid-Autumn festival is also a time where it’s important to go to the pagodas, so they get very crowded. Perfect time to observe the festival going on!

If you have joined our interactive adventure in Cholon during that time, you were likely to see all the preparations going on. Lots of celebrations will happen this evening in Cholon and other areas.

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The legend of Phnom Penh

Have you ever heard about the legend of Phnom Penh?

It dates back to the 14th century. At that time, the capital of the Khmer kingdom was still Angkor.

The story says that an old Lady called Lady Penh Or Grandma Penh (Daun Penh) is the one who founded Phnom Penh. She was a rich widow who was living in a village named Chaktomuk which literally means “the Four Faces” because of its location at the four-arm confluence of the Upper & Lower Mekong River, the Tonlé Sap and the Bassac.

After some big rain and flooding, one day, she was looking for firewood next to her house when she discovered 4 bronze Buddha statues inside a big floating Koki tree trunk washed-up on the banks of the River.

With the help of all the villagers, Lady Penh decided to raise a small man-made hill and to build on top of it a temple (Wat) to house and to protect the sacred statues. Later on, this temple grew famous and soon became a pilgrimage place. Based on the villagers’ beliefs, people would come to pay respect to the Buddha images and to pray there to make their wishes come true.

The village itself became larger and got to be known as Phnom Daun Penh, which literally means “Hill of Lady Penh”. The word “Daun” was dropped over the course of time … that’s how Phnom Penh was born!

This century-old temple built by Lady Penh is the famous Wat Phnom, located north of central Phnom Penh. “Wat Phnom” literally means “Hill Temple”. It is the “point-zero” used to calculate the distances between the Capital city to the provincial towns of the Kingdom.

If you are interested in exploring Wat Phnom from a very different angle, join our interactive walking adventure, you will be surprised!

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