Delving into a Saigon alley where time stands still

A sneak glimpse into the city's soon-to-be doomed original Chinatown.

Nestled on the southern edge of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s equivalent of Chinatown, lies the quiet alley of Hao Sy Phuong.

Separated from the busy Tran Hung Dao Street by a narrow, dark entrance that at first glance looks like a two-story house, the neighborhood is almost the same as it was over a hundred years ago, with French-style houses sporting enchanting, colorful façades.

The entrance (with the blue balcony) at 206 Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5.

Being part of the Chinese community, many of the residents here can’t speak Vietnamese and instead converse in Cantonese. They are the offspring of Chinese merchants and artisans who flocked to the city and rented the in-demand property close to Cho Lon and Tau Hu Canal, a main waterway then.

The dark gateway into the lost community.

Tau Hu Canal, one of the main waterways to Cholon then. Photo via Flickr/manhhai

Ethnic Chinese, locally referred to as the Hoa people, arrived in the south of Vietnam over 300 years ago, and drove much of the country’s southward expansion.

Like their fellow settlers across Southeast Asia, the Hoa dominated local business and commerce, particularly in the rice industry during the colonial era. Before 1975, they made up a large proportion of the city’s middle, well-educated class.

The Chinese attributed their business success mostly to their beliefs and religions. Their houses are painted in vibrant colors as a way of praying for prosperity and a successful business.

The origins of the name Hao Sy Phuong vary. Many believe it to be a combination of three words, Hao – generosity, Sy – artisans, and Phuong – guild. However, A Ton, a senior resident of 50 years, explained that it was simply named by Hua Bon Hoa, then one of the wealthiest men in town, whose palace is now the city’s famous Museum of Fine  Arts.

A Ton said these were all tenements built by a rich businessman to rent out to merchants, but another tale says it was where workers hired by a man named Hao Sy lived.

The houses were built in the style of old apartment blocks, with long, proportionately narrow, single-room structures. Now they are shared by two or three generations of families.

The alley has somehow remained unchanged amid waves of urban development in Saigon – Cho Lon, and now Ho Chi Minh City.

“I was born here and this alley has not changed since,” said Ly Thang, 65.

The life

Thao, an eighty-year-old resident, spends most of her day at home. The most important part of her day, as she said, is burning incense sticks to Than Tai, or Caishen, the Chinese god of prosperity, and to Quan Cong, an ancient Chinese general worshiped for his loyalty, sincerity and integrity.

“This is a very important ritual for us,” Thao said. “We do it every morning to ask the gods for protection.”

Diep prepares for her grandfather's death anniversary. She takes a day off from work to buy offerings and cook an elaborate meal every year to mark the day. The ceremony ends with her extended family joining them for the meal.

For decades, this café stall in Luu’s house has been a meeting place for the neighbors. All it takes is an ice box and a few glasses, and no stools or tables needed.

Before 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the neighborhood was occupied by people of Teochew and Hainan origin, according to senior residents.

In recent years the alley has stirred up a minor craze among young people and photographers, who have dubbed it “Hong Kong Corner”. 

But the locals have also got used to visitors strolling in to take photos. Although lesser known than other famous Chinese landmarks such as Binh Tay Market and the temples and pagodas, Hao Sy Phuong is considered a cultural gem. 

However, the city has plans to tear down the alley because the houses have been deemed to be unsafe to reside.



By Quynh Tran, Nhung Nguyen.