Places - October 31, 2021 | 05:00 am PT

Tan Dinh: delectable delights away from the limelight

Up in District 1’s northeast pocket, Tan Dinh isn’t usually on many visitors’ radars, but the densely populated area offers a welcome contrast to more touristy HCMC.

Even the historic sights here are devoid of tour groups, and it teems with treasures including bargain buys and sublime cuisine.

Tan Dinh’s main points of interest are found along Hai Ba Trung and Tran Quang Khai streets but its network of side-streets and alleyways are worth exploring too.

Here’s a collection of different delights to enjoy in Tan Dinh.

Alternative retail therapy

Hai Ba Trung Street’s lower half dissects downtown District 1, but its upper section, Tan Dinh’s main north-south axis and its westernmost boundary, presents a completely different vibe.

Named after national heroines, the Trung sisters, this extensive street that is lined with lurid neon-lit signs offers some alternative retail therapy. Inexplicably, wall-to-wall pharmacies with streetside open counters (the go-to hotspot for Covid-19 face masks), numerous Christmas pop-up stalls that magically appear late November, specializing in flashing Santa’s and sparkly tinsel and an almost identical run of brightly-lit fabric stores co-exist in a chaotic harmony. There are also several home-grown fashion boutiques, where, if you’re aged under 25, blessed with snake hips and can stand ear-splitting techno music, you can snap up bargain-priced attire.

Former Chinese ghetto

Named after a 13th century royal general, Tran Quang Khai is Tan Dinh’s main east-west axis, a picturesque, broad street lined with towering old tree.

Dinh Phu Hoa on Tran Quang Khai Street, HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber

It is said that this part of Tan Dinh was a former Chinese ghetto and telltale vestiges remain, including numerous buildings marked with Chinese characters. And this is not to mention several old-school Chinese noodle shops and authentic, no-frills ‘Chinese takeaway’ joints where roasted glazed ducks, chicken and pork hang from window hooks. Worth particular mention are Huynh Ky (#2Bis), operating for 70 plus years, along with its larger neighbor, the Thanh Xuan restaurant, on Dinh Tien Hoang Street.

Other marked notables include a pastel hued colonial era villa ( #17) with entrance gates bearing bright yin-yang symbols and a handful of 20th century Dinhs (community houses-temples, honoring heroes and founding patrons), boldly decorated in gold and red. The most noteworthy of these are Dinh Nam Chon and Dinh Phu Hoa, richly ornamented both inside and out.

On nearby Tran Khac Chan Street, there’s even a Hong Kong-style tea house, emblazoned with striking ‘Ancient China’-themed wall murals.

Martial arts temple

Built over a century ago, the Nam Chon Temple (Dinh Nam Chon) at #29 Tran Quang Khai is officially recognized as a municipal cultural relic. Having undergone extensive renovations, this striking temple has been restored to its former glory with distinctive roof-edge detail, tiger bas-relief at the entrance and interiors adorned with carved unicorns and dragons.

Over the last few decades, Nam Chon has also evolved as an important Vietnamese martial arts center in HCMC – the Nam Huynh Dao Kung Fu School.

A martial arts class at Dinh Nam Chon on Tran Quang Khai Street, HCMC, January 2021. Photo by Samantha Coomber

Originally founded in northern Vietnam centuries ago, with nowadays, thousands of disciples nationwide, this Vietnamese traditional martial arts differs from its Chinese counterpart, incorporating physical training, Kung Fu techniques, a philosophy of wellbeing and strong community spirit. Around four times daily, from dawn to dusk, local disciples as young as five practice Vietnamese Nam Huynh Dao together in the streetside courtyard. Watching the group going through their martial arts positions and techniques– from serene breathing exercises to jumping high kicks – instructed by experts is a memorable experience.

The big pink church

Tan Dinh Church is decorated for the Lunar New Year in early 2021. Photo by Samantha Coomber

At 289 Hai Ba Trung, the Tan Dinh Catholic Church officially stands in District 3. Its name refers to the Tan Dinh parish just across the street that it serves. It is the neighborhood’s most recognizable landmark and reference point – a frothy pink towering church resembling something from a fairy-tale.

After iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, Tan Dinh is HCMC’s second largest church and inaugurated in 1876, one of its oldest.

Along with the unusual pink hue, the Tan Dinh Church ranks as one of HCMC's most striking buildings for its unique fusion of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectural features.

The market life

A lesser known understudy to popular tourist haunt, the iconic Ben Thanh Market, the Tan Dinh Market (338-310 Hai Ba Trung) is equally historic and fascinating. In the late 19th century, this was one of the city’s most important markets. Its present day building, constructed by the French in the 1920s, presents a classic colonial architectural style and ‘three steeples’ façade – albeit its endearingly rundown state.

Tan Dinh provides a more genuine local market experience and with relatively few tourists, is free of souvenir stalls, overpriced items and hassling of buyers. Vendors are generally an amiable bunch.

A stall selling dried seafood, nuts and household utensils at Tan Dinh Market, HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber

Foodstuff and fabric are the main specialties, but locals also gravitate here for a range of commodities including household goods and kitchenware, readymade clothes, footwear, toys, cosmetics and jewellery.

Street food hub

Tan Dinh boasts some of the city’s most authentic street food with diverse cuisines - Saigonese, regional and Chinese-influenced fare. There are too many good establishments to mention, although the following are noteworthy. English isn’t spoken much; just point and order!

The food stalls along Nguyen Huu Cau Street, backing onto Tan Dinh Market are renowned for their inexpensive, tasty Vietnamese dishes, from Saigon’s signature dish bun rieu (noodle soup with crab paste) to che (sweet soup dessert). Once the market shuts, Com Tam Di Tam, nearby, at 319 Hai Ba Trung, is popular for another Saigonese delicacy, ‘ broken rice’ with grilled pork. This is one of HCMC’s oldest broken rice stalls.

Chefs prepare banh xeo at Banh Xeo restaurant on Dinh Cong Trang Street, HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber

A beloved Saigon institution since 1941, Banh Xeo (46A Dinh Cong Trang) is hugely popular. The house specialty, banh xeo, is one of southern Vietnam’s most celebrated dishes: crêpes made of rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk, with pork belly slivers, shrimps, spring onions and bean sprouts, folded over and pan-fried to a crispy, golden brown ‘shell.’

Celebrity dining

Tan Dinh got a Hollywood boost more than a decade ago when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had dinner at the acclaimed Cuc Gach Quan in 2010. Hidden behind high wooden doors at #10 Dang Tat Street, Cuc Gach Quan is housed in a cavernous mansion resembling a northern Vietnamese countryside home.

This informal yet upscale restaurant is favored by locals and visitors for traditional Vietnamese home-cooked fare with a southern focus, many made with organic produce sourced from their own farm.

National hero

A statue of Tran Hung Dao on Vo Thi Sau Street, HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber

Across Vietnam, countless streets and statues honor Tran Hung Dao, one of Vietnam’s greatest national heroes who thwarted Mongol invaders in the 13th century. A temple dedicated to Tran Hung Dao at 36 Vo Thi Sau Street, is the biggest one dedicated the national hero in southern Vietnam.

Designed in northern Vietnamese traditional style, even after numerous restorations, it still bears the original T-shape and piled roofs, and impressive golden dragons, tigers and phoenix decorations. A statue of Tran Hung Dao dominates the front courtyard, with a series of reliefs depicting his legendary military successes. Richly ornamented interiors feature striking lacquered poem boards, silk parasols and intricately carved altars. With few visitors, this temple is generally a peaceful oasis except on full moon days and the annual festival, Gio Ong, when local devotees flock here for special celebrations.

Cafés galore

Cafés are some of the city’s greatest drawcards and Tan Dinh is no exception, hosting some gems. Cộng Ca Phe at 274 Hai Ba Trung is one of many nationwide branches that feature a trademark retro-vintage theme, serving addictive coconut milk iced coffees in a quirky ambiance. The upper-floor terrace provides great views of the Tan Dinh Church, making it an Instagram hotspot.

With its stylish North European-influenced decor and cold brew coffees, Cokernut Café (14 Tran Nhat Duat) almost seems too hip for this very ‘local’ street. Besides these, several atmospheric cafés are strung along leafy Hoang Sa and Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal. Owned by an artist, Chieu Café (377) evokes a Parisian-style pavement café, with an indoor salon filled with artworks and second-hand books, while at #355, Ca Phe Trung 3T comes housed in a rustic-style, timbered building, where the first-floor balcony reveals canal views through the treetops. Its name originates in the signature drink – hot egg coffee.

Healing touch

At 247 Hoang Sa, the Van Tho Pagoda (Chua Van Tho Co Tu) is an unexpected yet spectacular sight along this waterfront suburb: a cluster of vaulted, whimsically ornate and Chinese-influenced towers and pillars rise from a high-walled compound – including a giant laughing Buddha elevated in his own tower.

Dimly-lit, cavernous interiors reveal an evocative main hall with the Buddha taking centerstage and a vast funerary vault, notably in the solemn upper chambers, crammed with memorial tablets and ceramic urns. Also known as ‘Longevity Temple,’ this early 20th-century pagoda operates a free medical clinic for the poor. Trained monks specialize in treating bone and joint injuries with traditional oriental medicines – some of which are cultivated in the courtyard gardens.

Samantha Coomber