A Day in the Life on Cho Lon’s Phung Hung: A street with two personalities.

Photo journalism by Jim Selkin

Nestled in the historic Cho Lon section of District 5, Phung Hung Street runs from the canal along Vo Van Kiet through to Hong Bang. Within its length, the street has two distinct personalities.

There is the mostly commercial part, spanning Vo Van Kiet to the broad Hai Thuong Lan Ong and then the more historic stretch anchored by the distinctive Phung Hung Market.

Starting my sojourn north at Vo Van Kiet on this quieter section of Phung Hung, I encountered many small shops selling silk screen supplies, paints and cardboard boxes. Tri Nguyen, who owns the namesake silk screen establishment at #56, told me she set up shop over 20 years ago, seeing an opportunity to supply signs to the stores in the market and the surrounding area.

Next door, the friendly and loquacious Mỹ, proprietress of Phương Mỹ, has been selling new and recycled cardboard boxes to traders for over 30 years. She came to the area because she was able to purchase the building, and lives upstairs from the first two floors of her cardboard kingdom. With a wry smile, she added: “I never felt boxed-in selling cardboard.”

The bubbly Mỹ on the first floor of her cardboard emporium
The round-about at the intersection of Phung Hung and Trinh Hoa Duc

Crossing Trinh Hoai Duc Street, Phung Hung takes on a colorful, brighter demeanor, with many paint and lighting appliance shops. It was here that I noticed two paint shops right next to each other and was struck by the oddity of adjacent stores essentially selling the same products. The manager of Tri Phuong told me: “Many of us came here more than 25–30 years ago, as prices were affordable. We all had our clients and can co-exist as businesses.”

Adjacent paint supply stores (above) and colorful bags of powdered paints on display (below)

Adding to the bright displays on the street were two lighting supply stores. Sơn, the owner of Son Hanh Lighting at #96, moved onto the street six months ago: “I scouted the area, found an affordable location, and brought in modern fixtures. I sell both to interior designers as well as the general public.”

Son adjusting a futuristic display in his lighting store

Up the block at #116, Nhân, the daughter of the owner, and her enthusiastic young staff at QD Lighting have smiles as bright as their lights. “My dad started the business about 30 years when he was the only lighting store on the street. We’ve had a loyal customer base for a number of years. Now, as the second generation, I’ve expanded the business via a website and social media channels.”

Nhân (right) and her staff at QD Lighting

Although its individual markets pale in size to Tan Dinh Market, Cho Lon is also known as one of the wholesale fabric centers of the city. Bolts of colored fabrics in adjacent shops shone in the bright sunshine, like those at Như Ý on the roundabout at Tran Hung Dao.

An employee at Như Ý Fabrics rolling meters of material

Getting across the broad Hai Thuong Lan Ong can be challenging at any time. The avenue serves as not only the halfway point in the walk but also a divide in the tempo of Phung Hung.

Situated on the corner is the imposing Ong Bon Pagoda. First built in 1730 by Hoa people, (immigrants from Fujian Province in southeastern China), the pagoda, temple, and assembly hall have served the descendants of this community for almost 400 years and helped preserve their culture.

Colorful entrance to Ong Bon Pagoda
Worshipper at one of the various holy shrines within the pagoda

Paralleling the pagoda on Phung Hung is an array of stationery and school supply stores. Tu and her family have been selling these supplies to both wholesale and retail clients for over 40 years. “We moved here over six years ago for cheaper rents and convenience of location. Though there are many similar shops, we all have our client bases and get along with our neighbors.”

Tu and staff know where each item is in their overflowing, one aisle store

Crossing Nguyen Trai, I encountered the imposing red sign of Tang’s bánh mì shop, standing like an imperial gate at the entrance to Chợ Phùng Hưng. I had a chance to talk with Quận, the son of the original founder, who now manages the shop. “My father first opened a stand at this location in 1968. He and my mom used to prepare all the components at home and then bring them to the stand. Four years ago, we finally bought the house and installed a kitchen on the ground floor. But we still sell from the same stand out front.”

A signature, freshly served Banh Mi at Tang’s

After the solemnity of the Ong Bon Pagoda, the street literally bursts with energy through the blocks of the marketplace all the way to Hong Bang. Upon entering the market, I was met by the cacophony of merchants and customers bantering over prices of clothes and household items. These were accompanied by the tantalizing whiffs from food stalls serving both Vietnamese and Chinese delicacies. Navigating the single aisle between stands, proved quite challenging between customers, vendors, and motorbike deliveries.
Overview of the Phung Hung Market
Weathered paint and plants give an Impressionistic feel to an old apartment overlooking the market
A monk seeking alms at a busy intersection in the market

Following the aromas of fresh fish and meats, I turned onto Lao Tu, one of the extensions of the market. Amidst all the sellers and eating stalls, I discovered a brightly lit jewelry store specializing in all forms of jade. I had a chance to talk with the gracious manager, Trần Diệu Yên, who told me, “My mother, Bích Quyên, started this namesake store over 30 years ago. She was looking for a quiet location with little competition. I have since expanded to sell all kinds of gold and silver jewelry as well as jade sculptural items.”

Yên amidst some of her jade items
Traditional Vietnamese drip coffees being prepared at Café Giai Khat at the end of Phung Hung

Phung Hung Market is one of the most historic in Saigon. Its energy and dual culturalism have fostered a sense of community pervasive through every aspect of life here. Whether carrying on a generational business or being an entrepreneur in search of a new opportunity, the commercial sections of Phung Hung have maintained a diversity of shops over the last half-century. Even with three or four adjacent shops selling the same products, there is a sense of cooperation with little apparent rivalry.