Kathleen Brown, her husband John and their two adopted children, Peter Quang and Claire Xuan, are touring around Vietnam during their Christmas holiday. Kathleen is a long-time television producer and /media consultant for humanitarian agencies and her husband, John, a professional photographer. Every couple of days, they will post a story along with photos on their travels and adventures.
Unlike most other adventures shared on the City Pass blog, this excursion is a self-guided tour. Armed with a map and guide book, my intrepid family decides to spend an afternoon exploring Cholon. Cholon, meaning "big market", is the heart of the ethnic Chinese community, where generations have lived, worked, and established their unique way of life since the late eighteenth century, in Saigon's District 5.
In the center of Cholon, is the venerable Binh Tay Market, a unique blending of both French and Chinese architecture. The colonial building constructed in 1928 houses thousands of shops, stalls, and produce stands where merchants sell every kind of food, clothing, plant, animal, vegetable, medicine, cd and dvd, electronic and home good. It is organized in sections devoted to each particular category of item for sale.
Photo by: Michelle Lee
Here buyers and sellers are doing business wholesale-- loading crates of eggs and mountains of bags of rice, noodles and towers of shrink-wrapped packages on the backs of their motorbikes. From time to time cages strapped to bikes holding clucking hens or squawking ducks roll by on their way to being raised or braised!
Enormous amounts of fresh fruits, greens, vegetables and herbs are sold here every day of the week. It is commerce on steroids; an organizational wonder and a chaotic brew for the senses!
Walking through the Binh Tay Market along the narrow indoor corridors you might, as we did, encounter customers riding by on their motorbikes, buyers and sellers conducting business deals, sales people returning to their shops balancing food and coffee for break times, other tourists wandering eyes "wide-open" in wonder at the mysterious grains, packaged items, herbs, as well as, dried, hanging meats, fish, clothing, potions, lotions and remedies, not seen on market days in our homelands.
Because we have no guide to lead us into the authentic Chinese restaurants for a lunch stop -- we ease into a KFC for a quick break, a rest stop with familiar fried chicken and french fries, caffeinated beverages and a birds-eye view. KFC's second story perch makes for a great place to view the remarkable frenzy as outdoor vendors conduct business street side!
It's a near-equivalent of the last ditch marketing opportunity at the supermarket check-out: our racks of gum, candy bars, People Magazines and tabloids are their toys, lighters, calendars, decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebration and other quick sale items.
Our next stop is Cha Tam Church. The Catholic Church is a beautiful tribute to both colonial and Chinese architecture -- revealing French influence in the main building behind a Chinese gateway entrance.
It is a quiet place in the constantly noisy community; a place of contemplation and reflection, prayers and offerings for God's mercy and grace, protection and healing.
In the back right side of the church a plaque marks a pew where General Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother took refuge on 1 November, 1963, before being led away to their deaths. It is a bench freighted with the weight of the dark times and enormous losses of life, both Vietnamese and American, both our combatants and our innocents.
Close by, we end our afternoon in Cholon visiting the Quan Am pagoda. We not only visit the God of Mercy in Cha Tam Church, but the Goddess of Mercy, in a famous nearby pagoda.
Built in 1740 by Chinese Fukien immigrants, Quan Am Pagoda is said to be the oldest and some report, the most stunning pagoda in the city. We are captivated by the tranquility of the space, the small pond near the entrance filled with fish and turtles, and two lovely statues of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy, before whom visitors light incense, bow and offer prayers.
Our youngest, Peter, by now schooled in the lighting of incense and the bowing ritual, performs this sacred rite with a seriousness and ease that is clearly modeled after the many pious pilgrims he's seen at numerous other temples, pagodas and ancestral altars along our journey.
As afternoon wanes we hail a taxi to return to our hotel in District 1, on one of the last remaining days on our visit. I am in a somber mood on that cross-town ride, until I spy a beauty salon sporting a picture of Zac Efron, the heartthrob star of Disney's High School Musical, on its store sign!
I laugh aloud as I recognize the oddball lunacy of global pop culture wondering whether Zac knows he's featured on a beauty shop marquee in far-off Saigon.
Packing for our departure, I just hope we can hold on to the generous lessons from our visit: the kindness and sincerity of our guides; the keen interest people show in our Vietnamese-American children; the Confucian tradition of honoring the ancestors and children; the remembering of "the source", yet the striving to move inexorably toward the future.
We shall always cherish this time in our 'adopted' country, Vietnam.
Cam On, until we meet again.
Family Trip by Kathleen:
Family trip in Vietnam - 1st episode: Enter the Dragon
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 2: Cai Rang Water Opera
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 3: Hoi An ancient town
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 4: Hoi An Countryside
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 5: the LifeStart Foundation
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 6: Hoi An Cooking Class
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 7: Project Runway in Hoi An
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 8: Water Puppets - Vietnam's Original Muppets
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 9: Time to Cha Cha with the Chả Cá
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 10: A Visit to the Hung Kings Citadel and Au Co Ancestral Site
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 11: Our Visit to the Perfume Pagoda
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 12: Can Gio Reserve
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 13: Saigon Street Eats
Family trip in Vietnam - Final Episode: An Afternoon in Cholon
Tribute Episode to our Guide Stars