Cabramatta: a rich snippet of Vietnam

On a visit to Cabramatta, be prepared to step into a street life like nowhere else in Australia, writes Tanya McGovern.

There are three reasons to visit Cabramatta – atmosphere, food and shopping.

Cabramatta, known to the well-acquainted as ‘Cabra’, has come along way from its beginnings as a community of Vietnamese and Eastern European refugees. Although it will always be known for its turbulent history of gang violence, heroin-fuelled crime and Australia’s first political assassination, today, its sense of community and culture shine.

This suburb in Sydney’s south-west has become a gem of cultural diversity. Whether you’re walking through the crowds of John Street with its one way traffic, browsing the incredibly fresh produce of Dutton Lane or taking in the distinctively South-East Asian feel of Freedom Plaza, be prepared to step into a street life like nowhere else in this country.

SEE & DO

Lunar New Year gift baskets for sale
Lunar New Year gift baskets for sale

Tet Festival (Lunar New Year)

The beginning of the Lunar New Year is an important occasion for many Asian cultures. It is known as ‘Tet’ in Vietnamese culture and it’s an opportunity to share time with family and seek good fortune for the coming year.

Festivities will take place in Freedom Plaza, Cabramatta Town Centre on Saturday, February 1 and Sunday, February 2 from 9am-5pm, with main entertainment from 10.30am-3pm.

Many local businesses will set off firecrackers outside their door to bring prosperity for the new year. A pyrotechnics expert sets off the red chain of fire crackers, standing back to allow teenage performers from local martial arts schools to beat their drums and perform lion dances. If you’re lucky, you may witness a dance off between rival martial arts schools. This is a scene is simply not to be missed. Head down in the next few weeks to see the action.

Firecrackers will be lit on selected days at various locations around Cabramatta from January 31- February 16. More information on times and locations can be found here.

Buddhist monks line up during a shop blessing
Buddhist monks line up during a shop blessing

Buddhist Monks

If you’re lucky, you’ll see the lone Buddhist monk slowly walking down the street. During the Lunar New Year period, there are bound to be many more out giving blessings to stores and store owners.

Fabric Shops

There are many fabric shops around the town centre. The rolls of fabric often stand out in the street, so these shops are not hard to miss. Sogo Fabrics at Shop 2/73-79 John Street, Cabramatta stocks a range of bridal and formal fabrics. The rolls of fabric are packed into these shops pretty tightly, and navigating the aisles can be challenging if you’re wearing a backpack.

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One of the many seafood stores

Vegan & Vegetarian Grocery Stores

In Cabramatta, there are a few grocery stores specialising in vegan and vegetarian food products. Try Just Green for vegan versions of almost every food imaginable. It’s located at Shop 20/70, John Street in the Belvedere Arcade. It’s the last shop at the end of the arcade, and a Subway store marks the arcade entrance at the John Street end.

EAT

There is no shortage of places to find a feed in Cabramatta. Here’s a list of must try Vietnamese foods and drinks. Be sure to have a light breakfast if you intend on tasting the best of this flavour packed culture.

Pho

Lunch from Bau Truong
Lunch from Bau Truong

This noodle soup dish known as pho is synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine. Combined with a good helping of aromatic basil, it is sure to lift your appetite in humid weather. Numerous restaurants serve pho and there are often photos in the window to tempt you inside. Following the crowd is often a good indication of quality food. At peak times, some restaurants have people queuing out the door. If you’re overwhelmed by the vast number of choices, visit  Pho Viet Restaurant at 11-15 John Street, Cabramatta for a traditional beef pho or try some of the highly acclaimed modern dishes at Bau Trong Vietnamese Restaurant at 42 John Street, Cabramatta.

Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguettes filled with meat and salad)

You’ll be able to find stalls selling bánh mì in the arcades along John Street. The baguette was first introduced to Vietnam by the French during the colonial era and has since been adapted by the Vietnamese to include a variety of delicious Vietnamese style meats, salads and sauces.

Pandan Waffles & Sugarcane Drinks
Nothing embodies fresh, tropical South-East Asian cuisine more than waffles infused with the flavour of pandan and coconut or the sweetness of cup of sugarcane juice. These treats can be found at food stalls at the entrance to arcades at the western end of John Street.  For the more adventurous, try a Vietnamese avocado shake.

Freedom Plaza
Freedom Plaza

WHEN TO VISIT

The day of the week you choose to visit Cabra is crucial if you want to get the most of the market atmosphere.

On Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll find everyone is out and about. Families fill the streets to do the grocery shopping, making the most of the many fresh produce stores.

Elderly ladies pull trolleys behind them and set up hawker stalls on park benches in Freedom Plaza and along John Street. They sell home grown vegetables, jewellery, small crystal and porcelain figurines, and traditional handmade sweets.

In Freedom Plaza, small children throw bread and chase pigeons while elderly men congregate outside the Subway across the road.

GETTING THERE

Mural at Cabramatta Train Station
Mural at Cabramatta Train Station

Drive

Car park spaces around the town centre are limited. You’ll have the best chance of finding a car park in the multistorey Dutton Lane Car Park. If you intend on driving down, aim to arrive around 9am as the car park starts to get congested then.

Train

Catch a train to Strathfield Station on the Central Coast & Newcastle line. Alight at Strathfield and change platforms for services to Cabramatta. See Sydney Trains for train times. A student return ticket from Newcastle to Cabramatta costs $8.60. Fares can be calculated here.

If you’re looking for a convenient yet fulfilling weekend cultural experience, look no further than the vibrant and rich Cabramatta.

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Images: Tanya McGovern