Tan Dinh: delicacies away from the spotlight


Locations – October 31, 2021 | 8:00 p.m. GMT + 7

In the northeast pocket of District 1, Tan Dinh is usually not on the radar of many visitors, but the densely populated area provides a welcome contrast to the more touristy HCMC.

Even the historic sites here are devoid of tour groups and teeming with treasures including great deals and sublime food.

The main points of interest in Tan Dinh are along Hai Ba Trung and Tran Quang Khai streets, but its network of side streets and alleys are also worth exploring.

Here is a collection of different delicacies to savor in Tan Dinh.

Alternative retail therapy

The lower half of Hai Ba Trung Street dissects downtown District 1, but its upper half, the main north-south axis of Tan Dinh and its westernmost boundary, has a completely different vibe.

Named after national heroines, the Trung sisters, this sprawling street lined with neon-lit signs offers alternative therapy to retail. Inexplicably, wall-to-wall pharmacies with open counters at the edge of the street (the hotspot for Covid-19 face masks), numerous Christmas pop-up stalls that magically appear at the end of November, specializing in the blinking of the Santa and sparkling garlands and an almost identical run of bright fabric shops coexist in chaotic harmony. There are also several local fashion boutiques, where, if you are under 25, have snake hips and can put up with some jaw-dropping techno music, you can shop for clothes cheaply.

Named after a 13th-century royal general, Tran Quang Khai is the main east-west axis of Tan Dinh, a picturesque wide street lined with an imposing old tree.

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

This part of Tan Dinh is said to have been an ancient Chinese ghetto and revealing remains remain, including many buildings marked with Chinese characters. And that’s not to mention several old-fashioned Chinese noodle shops and authentic no-frills “Chinese take-out” joints where roast ducks, chicken and pork hang from window hooks. Particularly worth mentioning is Huynh Ky (# 2Bis), which has been operating for over 70 years, as well as its bigger neighbor, Thanh Xuan Restaurant on Dinh Tien Hoang Street.

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

In neighboring Tran Khac Chan Street, there is even a Hong Kong-style tea room, adorned with striking “ancient Chinese” themed murals.

Built over a century ago, the Nam Chon Temple (Dinh Nam Chon) at No.29 Tran Quang Khai is officially recognized as a municipal cultural relic. After undergoing extensive renovations, this striking temple has been restored to its former glory with distinctive details on the edge of the roof, a tiger bas-relief at the entrance, and interiors adorned with carved unicorns and dragons.

In recent decades, Nam Chon has also become a major center of Vietnamese martial arts in HCMC – Nam Huynh Dao Kung Fu school.

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

Originally founded in northern Vietnam centuries ago, now with thousands of followers across the country, this traditional Vietnamese martial art differs from its Chinese counterpart, incorporating physical training, Kung Fu techniques , a philosophy of well-being and a strong community spirit. About four times a day, from dawn to dusk, local disciples as young as five practice Vietnamese Nam Huynh Dao together in the courtyard by the street. Watching the group go over their martial arts positions and techniques – from serene breathing exercises to high kicks – taught by experts is a memorable experience.

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

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

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

With the unusual pink hue, Tan Dinh Church ranks among the most striking buildings in HCMC for its unique fusion of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectural features.

Equally historic and fascinating is the lesser-known lining of the popular tourist haunt, the iconic Ben Thanh Market, Tan Dinh Market (338-310 Hai Ba Trung). At the end of the 19th century, it was one of the most important markets in the city. Its current building, built by the French in the 1920s, features a classic colonial architectural style and a “three-bell tower” facade, although its state of disrepair is endearing.

Tan Dinh offers a more authentic local market experience, and with relatively few tourists, is free from souvenir stalls, overpriced items, and the hassle of shoppers. Salespeople are generally a pleasant bunch.

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

Food products and fabrics are the main specialties, but locals are also drawn to a range of products, including housewares and kitchenware, ready-made clothes, shoes, toys, cosmetics. and jewelry.

Tan Dinh offers some of the city’s most authentic street food with varied cuisines – Saigon, regional, and Chinese-influenced dishes. There are too many good establishments to mention, although the following are noteworthy. English is not widely spoken; just point and order!

The food stalls along Nguyen Huu Cau Street backing onto the Tan Dinh market are famous for their cheap and tasty Vietnamese dishes, from Saigon’s signature dish brioche rieu (noodle soup with crab paste) at che (sweet soup dessert). Once the market is closed, nearby Com Tam Di Tam at 319 Hai Ba Trung is popular for another Saigon delicacy, “broken rice” with grilled pork. This is one of the oldest broken rice stalls in HCMC.

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 extremely popular. The house specialty, banh xeo, is one of the most famous dishes in southern Vietnam: pancakes made from rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk, with strips of pork belly, shrimps, spring onions and sprouts. soybeans, folded and pan-fried into a crisp, golden “shell”.

Tan Dinh received a Hollywood boost over a decade ago when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie dined at the famous Cuc Gach Quan in 2010. Hidden behind tall wooden doors at # 10 Dang Tat Street, Cuc Gach Quan is housed in a cavernous mansion resembling a country house in northern Vietnam.

This informal but upscale restaurant is loved by locals and visitors alike for its traditional home-cooked Vietnamese dishes with a southern orientation, many of which are made with organic produce from their own farm.

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 largest dedicated to the national hero of southern Vietnam.

Designed in the traditional North Vietnamese style, even after extensive restorations, it still bears the original T-shaped and stacked roofs, as well as impressive golden decorations of dragons, tigers and phoenixes. A statue of Tran Hung Dao dominates the front yard, with a series of reliefs depicting his legendary military successes. The richly decorated interiors feature striking lacquered poetry paintings, silk parasols and intricately carved altars. With few visitors, this temple is generally an oasis of peace, except on full moon days and the annual festival, Gio Ong, when local devotees flock here for special celebrations.

Cafes are among the city’s greatest assets and Tan Dinh is no exception, harboring a few gems. Cộng Ca Phe at 274 Hai Ba Trung is one of several branches nationwide that features a branded retro-vintage theme, serving addicting iced coconut milk coffees in a quirky ambiance. The upper floor terrace offers stunning views of Tan Dinh Church, making it an Instagram hotspot.

With its elegant North European-influenced decor and cold-brewed coffees, Cokernut Café (14 Tran Nhat Duat) seems almost too hip for this very “local” street. In addition to these, several atmospheric cafes are arranged along the green Hoang Sa and Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal. Owned by an artist, Chieu Café (377) evokes a Parisian-style terrace café, with an indoor lounge filled with works of art and second-hand books, while at # 355, Ca Phe Trung 3T is housed in a rustic-style half-timbered building, where the first-floor balcony reveals a view of the canal through the treetops. Its name comes from the signature drink – hot egg coffee.

At 247 Hoang Sa, Van Tho Pagoda (Chua Van Tho Co Tu) is an unexpected but spectacular sight along this waterfront suburb: a cluster of vaulted towers and pillars, whimsically adorned with Chinese influence rise from a complex with high walls – including a giant laughing Buddha raised in its own tower.

Dark and cavernous interiors reveal an evocative main hall with the Buddha at the center of the stage and a vast funerary vault, notably in the solemn upper chambers, filled with commemorative tablets and ceramic urns. Also known as the “Temple of Longevity”, this early 20th century pagoda runs a free medical clinic for the poor. Trained monks specialize in treating bone and joint injuries with traditional oriental medicines, some of which are grown in the courtyard gardens.

Samantha coomber

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