The ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, first began to settle here around 1900; many came from existing enclaves in My Tho and Bien Hoa. The area soon became the largest Hoa community in the country, a title it still holds, with a population of over half a million. Residents gravitated towards others from their region of China, with each congregation commissioning its own places of worship and clawing out its own commercial niche – thus the Cantonese handled retailing and groceries, the Teochew dealt in tea and fish, the Fukien were in charge of rice, and so on.
The great wealth that Cho Lon generated had to be spent somewhere. By the early twentieth century, sassy restaurants, casinos and brothels existed to facilitate this. Also prevalent were fumeries, where nuggets of opium were quietly smoked from the cool comfort of a wooden opium bed. Among the expats and wealthy Asians who frequented them was Graham Greene, and he recorded his experiences in Ways of Escape. By the 1950s, Cho Lon was a potentially dangerous place to be, its vice industries controlled by the Binh Xuyen gang. First the French and then the Americans trod carefully here, while Viet Minh and Viet Cong activists hid out in its cramped backstreets – as Frank Palmos found to his cost, when the jeep he and four other correspondents were riding in was ambushed in 1968.
Post-reunification, Cho Lon saw hard times. As Hanoi aligned itself increasingly with the Soviet Union, Sino-Vietnamese tensions became strained. Economic persecution of the Hoa made matters worse, and, when Vietnam invaded Chinese-backed Cambodia, Beijing launched a punitive border war. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese, many of them from Cho Lon, fled the country in unseaworthy vessels, fearing recriminations. Today, the business acumen of the Chinese is valued by the local authorities, and the distemper that gripped Cho Lon for over a decade is a memory.