Cho Lon and Last Days

An on bus to Cho LonAn on bus #86

It turns out that the Ben Thanh market, which I found overwhelming, is not the real market. It is the market for tourists.

The real market is Cho Lon, which means “big market.” You go into HCMC on the 86 and get off at the Ben Thanh market stop, Then you change to the 01, which goes west about 11 K into District 3 and ends at a big bus station near Cho Lon.

Cho Lon buses

There were maybe 20 buses in this lot. Most of the buses are fairly new and air conditioned, and full.

Vy and An took us there Friday morning. We met An at the 86 bus stop at 7:30 am and rode in, and met Vy who had come on her motorbike at the Ben Thanh stop. The yellow tower in the rear, behind Vy, is the entrance to the Cho Lon Market.

Vy near Cho Lon

Cho Lon was a separate city, the city where the Hoa (Chinese) people lived. They fought on the side of the Nguyen lords against the Tay Son in the 1770s and the place was burned in retaliation. During the American War, this was a center for deserters and apparently a big trade in contraband American war materials took place here. During the 1968 Tet offensive it was a staging area for NLF and North Vietnamese fighting units. House-to-house combat took place in the area.  It is still very Chinese; you see a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese in the  market itself.

Interior of Mkt_1

The market itself is so huge that it’s impossible to give any sense of it through photographs. The goods are not tourist goods; they are commodities like cooking equipment, bolts of cloth, tools, pepper, shoes, candy, fish, vegetables, hats, baskets, flowers, crabs. If you can carry it on a motorbike, you can sell it here. You could have a life in this market; it’s a microcosm of the world. You could be a second or third generation stall-operator. Trade itself would become an art in a place like this. If you wanted to really study how a market works, this would be the place to come. Maybe this is market that people have in mind when they talk  with excitement about the Viet Nam economy transitioning into a market economy. If you could imagine that the global economy was one vast market like Cho Lon, densely woven with relationships and neighbors exchanging things, then I can see where the enthusiasm might come from. The invisible hand is not very invisible here, when you’ve got ten stalls selling pomelos one after the other.

In the center of the market is a courtyard with a small temple with topiary dragons, an altar, and some big concrete dragons spitting water into a fountain. It is in honor of the man who founded the market in 1929.

One way this market differs from the Ben Thanh market: the WC. At Ben Thanh, you pay 3,000 D and go into an air conditioned space with cubicles, toilet and toilet paper and actual classical violin music being played. At Cho Lon, the women’s room consists of a long room with doors. Presumably, behnd the doors are squat toilets (holes) but people who only want to piss don’t bother. They just squat down in the common space and piss on the floor. When I went in at first I didn’t realize what people were doing — all these women squatting? But then I got it. Afterwards, you just take a bucket of water and slosh it on the floor. You have to all slosh in the same direction, though.

Nearby is the Quan Am temple. Throughout the temple are these pediments filled with small ceramic depictions of stories and characters from history. Hundreds of tiny figures all doing things, talking to each other, walking around.

Quan Am temple

Devils on pediment

The tourists in this temple are mostly Chinese.

An then goes off to work. She’ll work 8 hours today, on top of guiding us through Cho Lon. She will be doing an internship this spring at the garment company where Vy’s father is now a supervisor. Vy will be there, too. An will work at her job at the furniture store and then work 3 days a week at her internship. These internships are part of the regular curriculum; students write a report. They have a faculty person to work on their reports with them. Vinh doesn’t know yet if she will be An or Vy’s advisor yet.

Two more days in HCMC, then up to Hanoi, a few side trips, and then home.

How will we stay in touch with Vy and An? Vy has said she will send me things she has written. An has accepted some books; we have tried to give English books to other students, but they say “It is too heavy.” Even Dang, who did all that translation. But An has accepted some books.

Monday morning: Dean Hoa comes by at 8:30 am on his motor bike to say goodbye. He hopes his English will be good enough when we come back so that he can translate in our classes. Last night, at a huge meeting, the President told the teachers that they could get time off with pay to learn English. Afterwards there was a banquet with long tables of great food. The President came by our table with Mr. Tung, Dang Ngoc Tung, the President of the VCGL, so I shook hands with him for the first and only time in this 6 months.

An came a minute later and helped load the taxi.

Dean Hoa and An help load taxi.jpg


Gofor it


Then she rode behind our taxi all the way to the airport where she met Vy and they made sure we went and got in the right line.

An and Vy at airport


Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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