Stretching across the western side of District 5, and parts of Districts 6 and 11, Cholon is home to Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest Chinese community and is considered to be the largest Chinatown in the world in terms of area. Established by immigrants fleeing domestic strife in south-west China — during the long and bloody takeover of the Ming dynasty by the Qing in the 1600s — the area has been a thriving trade zone for centuries. Cholon means “big market” and indeed it is jam-packed with shops selling everything from dried herbs, cooking utensils and other kitchen implements to bolts of fabric, bottles of shampoo and other toiletries. I split my time between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and whenever I’m in town I always find a reason to visit Cholon, visits that have so far always been hurried and brief — a quick bite, perhaps, or a small purchase — until I heard about Urban Tales, an outfitter of city-based adventures.
A rich and intriguing history of migration and assimilation lies beneath all that jumble of commerce, but for its sheer size Cholon is often hard to navigate, even for a part-time local such as myself and certainly for tourists. It’s one of the reasons why Urban Tales devised the mystery-solving tour called “The Strange Life of Dr Lam”. The three-hour, semi-guided tour requires participants to solve a murder mystery by following a trail of clues scattered about Cholon, leading them into hidden, off-the-tourist-track corners. Planted along the way are characters, played by local actors, that help guests move along the storyline, allowing them to soak up the unique atmosphere of a place they might not experience otherwise.
“It’s sometimes difficult for independent travelers to discover such a big city by themselves, and as a result Cholon is one of Vietnam’s best-kept open secrets,” says Nicolas Plesse, founder of Urban Tales, which also operates in Hanoi and Hoi An. Urban Tales is a product of Nicolas’ passion for role-playing games, mysteries and local history. “All of these things, I believe, will lead to a genuine experience for travelers.”
A murder mystery, a few clues, a dense and incense-filled Chinatown — and a chance to play detective. It all sounded irresistible to me, so I signed up for the tour.
At 8.45am, I stepped into my role as detective. The tour instructor, a “police officer”, escorted me into a dingy alley, tight with mom-and-pop shops, vegetables stalls and caged chickens, off Tran Phu in District 5. At the end of the alley, we entered an old apartment building, climbed all the way to the top floor and walked down the hallway into the last room. Here, at last, was the flat of the murder case’s tragic main character, Dr Lam.
A bit of backstory: Dr Lam, an unmarried herbalist, was born to a Chinese father, who traded in medicinal plants, and a mother who worked the home. After getting his training in traditional medicine, Dr Lam began practicing his trade in a clinic along Hai Thuong Lan Ong in 1981. In 2013, he retired and spent most of his time in his modest apartment in Cholon. The night before we arrived, he was found dead by a neighbor. The doctor’s lifeless body, the police officer told me, bore signs of foul play.
The scene of the crime was Dr Lam’s small and modest working room, decked with early 20th-century furniture. I had 10 minutes to track down my five initial clues. The first one, a prescription beneath an old Chinese abacus on his desk, was fairly easy to spot. I found the second clue, a small piece of metal featuring a black dragon, when I cracked open a tatty old suitcase. The third one, a written note by Dr Lam’s nephew, was tucked discreetly inside the inner pocket of his suit. In the outer pocket hid another note from an unnamed journalist. After rummaging through his wooden cabinet, I found the last clue, a personal note from Dr Lam, hidden inside a bottle that had already gathered dust.
Everything was so well-orchestrated, it was easy to believe it was all real. After I collected my clues, the guide handed me a booklet, a bottle of water, a sunhat, a compass and a cell phone with the number of the police to call up upon finding the murderer. Armed with essential items, and a guide who hung back so that I barely noticed him, I set off to discover who murdered Dr Lam and why.
I first headed to 114 Trieu Quang Phuc, where I met Dr Lam’s nephew, a bright and chatty young pharmacist, and writer of one of the three notes I found back at the apartment. He told me more about his uncle’s death, handed me a pack of herbal medicine and sent me on my way through the neighborhood. Walking through streets like Trieu Quang Phuc and Hai Thuong Lan Ong, it’s easy to see that traditional Chinese medicine still has a strong hold in Cholon. There is an abundance traditional herbal medicine houses, indicating the continued public enthusiasm for the practice. The aroma of herbal medicine blends with the eye-watering smoke of incense and the exhaust fumes of motorbikes and creates the quintessential smell of Cholon. I walked up towards 43 Luong Nhu Hoc, a local herbal medicine shop. Inside, I met the shop owner, played to focused perfection by a thin, middle-aged lady, who handed me an envelope containing the next clue.
My investigation was then punctuated by a quick stop at Tran Hung Dao, a street dotted with dozens of dilapidated yet colorful two-story shophouses with balconies, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These houses, once inhabited by wealthy traders, are a blend of traditional Chinese architecture and European elements. As in other colonial settlements in the region, these shops were taxed based on the width of their frontage and so they evolved as slim and tall structures that go in deep. I gazed in awe at the area’s collection of bagua, wooden or metal discs hung above the doors along with mirrors, believed to drive away demons. Carpets of dried leaves also hang above some doors to protect homes from bad spirits. Every Chinese New Year, families living in the district boil pomelo leaves and use the water to clean their houses and family altars.
The next clue sent me to Ha Chuong Assembly Hall, an ageing pagoda built by a group of Fujian people. Fascinating architectural details — false doors used to get rid of evil spirits and sanctuaries linked by circular arches representing the sun and the moon — almost distracted me from my mission.
Beneath a red drum, I found an envelope containing cutouts from old articles featuring the death of Dr Lam’s grandfather and another note from the unidentified journalist, an acquaintance of Dr Lam. My task was to decode the latter. After scratching my head for 15 tense minutes, during which sweat beads formed around my forehead, I finally broke the code. The note then led me to a local coffee shop at the end of an alleyway off 49 Ky Hoa, where I found the journalist herself. After a quick chat, she hinted that I should head over to On Lang Assembly Hall and meet the vendor selling incense sticks and votive papers.
Wandering down six different streets since I first began at Dr Lam’s apartment, I could feel myself closing in on the case. Along the way there had been intriguing detours — into the Thien Hau Pagoda, built in 1760 by a group of immigrants from Guangzhou; solving a feng shui puzzle at Tam Son Assembly Hall, built by immigrants from Fujian — that made the story of this particular Chinatown come alive.
If you’re waiting for me to tell you who killed Dr Lam, you’re not going to get anywhere. But spend a few hours stalking the streets of Cholon district and you might just find out for yourself. And even if you don’t, brushing shoulders with a living, breathing community where old traditions thrive as part of everyday life will be reward enough.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Smile magazine.