Chinatown, San Francisco: little HongKong in California

Feel like walking in Saigon again!

Dylan Thomas , poet

“The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills.”

Duration: 1-2 hours of walking

It has been a long time I came back to Chinatown, San Francisco since I moved to Orange County. I always feel overwhelmed whenever I walked in Chinatown as there are so many people here.

San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest and 2nd largest Chinese town outside of Asia. One can always feel the some Asian vibe while walking around the town. It is the quickest way to travel to Hong Kong’s present and past in California!

Growing up in Saibuilding_in_chinatowngon, I was always surrounded by multi-level and multi-purpose houses which have commercial stores on the first floor and residential purpose on the top floors. Like Saigon, Chinatown in San Francisco is crowded and smelly! If you are not familiar with Asian style of living, you will probably be shocked with the smells of garbage on the streets and cigarette smoke everywhere. As a Vietnamese living in SoCal for many years, I was pretty shocked too!

We were pretty happy to see small alleys among tall buildings with protruding balconies just like those in Saigon! It’s not that I love crowded areas as I’d prefer spacious houses like SoCal, but it brings back some good old memories of where I grew up.

One more thing that looks strikingly familiar is the pedicab. I saw a man riding one and it reminded me of “xich lo” in Vietnam. I thought it would be fun to be on one and enjoy the ride around the town, although I felt pretty sorry for the guy as he would have to carry one person up and down the hills of San Francisco. The guy must had really strong legs!



cable_carI came from Orange County so driving 10 miles usually takes only a few minutes. It’s not the same in SF as there are very small streets and tourists are everywhere. Driving 3-6 miles here can easily takes 30 minutes, especially when the cable car is slowly going up hill right in the middle of the streets!

Also, the streets are pretty steep in SF so you may end up stopping at the red light right in the middle of the slope while a cable car is going to you. Make sure that your brakes are ok and use hand-brake if you have to stop right in the middle of the slope.


We spent about an hour walking around Chinatown, which is not very big. I would not recommend driving around here as it would be much slower than walking. Parking in San Francisco is pretty expensive, especially inside some parking structures. You will have to pay up to $18-20/day or $4-8/hour for some tiny spots inside old and crammed parking garages. If you are lucky, you can park on the streets but I’d not recommend parking on the streets if you are not good at parallel parking on the slope and you don’t want your car broken into.


As I used to work in San Francisco as an intern for Autodesk Inc., I know the area pretty well. Even though it is relatively safer in the US than a lot of developing countries like Vietnam, you should be careful here. If you are from relatively safer areas in the US like Irvine, you might be careless by leaving stuffs inside your cars, which will entice some criminals to break into your cars.

Also, there have been some incidents in San Francisco where people got robbed at gunpoint while walking and talking on the phone so be careful with your shiny new iPhone here.








Alex is a Software Engineer at Google, an educator and an amateur photographer living in the beautiful Orange County

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