Ho Chi Minh city’s Chinese quarter, Chợ Lớn, is home to many historic temples, pagodas and communal houses. These lovingly-preserved buildings take modern-day visitors back in time. Join us on a tour of Cho Lon’s history.
In the 1700s, Chinese people from five main regions migrated to southern Vietnam and settled in Saigon-Chợ Lớn, which is now District 5 in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the newcomers hailed from Guangdong, Fujian, Shenzhen and Hainan provinces.
In Chợ Lớn, Chinese immigrants built communal halls, pagodas and temples where they could meet and maintain their traditional cultures. Nearly three centuries later, many of these structures still stand and retain a strong Chinese identity. As well as being beautiful, these architectural relics help us to understand aspects of life in old Saigon-Chợ Lớn.
The pagodas, temples and communal halls found in Chợ Lớn were built to resemble those found in China. Buildings were built to resemble the Chinese character “Tam” (three) or “Khẩu” (mouth) or with an open middle section that allows more light and air to penetrate. Each society’s communal house has its own specific features, especially in the way that the altar is set up and in terms of interior decor and building materials.
The first temple built in Chợ Lớn was Nhị Phủ Temple, which stands on the present-day Hải Thượng Lãn Ông Road. This temple was built by the Fujian community in 1730. The name Nhị Phú refers to the two communities that built the temple, who came from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. Later, the Quanzhou group established its own society called Wen Lang. The Zhangzhou group then set up its own society called Hazhang.
Nhi Phu Temple is the oldest Chinese relic in Chợ Lớn, the Tue Thanh Society’s communal hall features the most impressive decorations. Also known as Bà Thiên Hậu Pagoda, this hall was built in 1760 by members of the Guangdong community. A number of small statues covers the top of the house, representing characters in historical dramas and ancient Chinese legends such as those about the Three Kingdoms. This type of pottery, known as Cây Mai, was originally produced by artists from the Foshan region of Guangdong.
The small statues on the Tue Thanh communal hall were made by a group of artisans known as Cong Tu Su who hailed from Foshan. These statues are engraved with the year of production and the name of the pottery-kilns where they were fired, such as the Đông Hoà, Buu Nguyên and Mai Sơn kilns.
In the Tuệ Thành Society’s meeting house, there is another precious object: a mammoth incense burner that was produced in 1886. Located in the middle compartment, this incense burner was made by covering a bronze frame with ornamental glaze. Of all the worship objects found in Chợ Lớn’s temples, pagodas and meeting houses, this incense burner is the most valuable.
Each of Chợ Lớn’s communal halls, pagodas and temples has something noteworthy. The Minh Hương community’s communal house, Gia Thạnh, holds scrolls that feature images showing Minh Huong people in boats crossing the sea towards Vietnam; and new arrivals requesting an audience with King Gia Long to ask for land.
In front of the Hazhang Society’s meeting house stands a pair of beautifully carved unicorns. The Tam Sơn Society’s meeting households rows of red-painted pillars. People come here to worship Princess Trú Sanh and to pray for male heirs.
Along with historic pagodas, temples and communal halls, Cho Lon still has some old villas and other buildings that deserve to be protected and maintained. HCM City’s Culture-Sports-Tourism Department has designated Hải Thượng Lãn Ong Road as an area to be preserved for the 2006-2020 period. This is one of the oldest roads in Ho Chi Minh City. Many intricately decorated colonial-style shop houses still stand on Hải Thượng Lãn Ông Road. These houses date back to 1864, when the key business on this street was trading medicinal Chinese herbs.
Chợ Lớn covers an area of around five square kilometers. It is home to three communal houses and 22 pagodas. Eight structures in Chợ Lớn have been classified as “historical and cultural relics”, out of Ho Chi Minh City’s total of 43 relics. Six of the city’s 19 listed “artistic architectural works” are found in Chợ Lớn.
Chợ Lớn’s communal halls, temples, pagodas and old streets have valuable stories to tell. Over several centuries, these treasures have been preserved and maintained with great care, allowing modern-day visitors to enjoy their beauty and to learn about Cho Lon’s past.