PARIS -- Ask a Parisian about the city's Chinatown and you're likely to get an answer that's uncharacteristically reticent. "It's not exactly where I'd bring someone," natives will demur politely. It's the rare person who will say what most locals feel: "There's nothing to see there."
It's true that the high-rise buildings of the Quartier Chinois (Chinese Quarter), as it's formally known, seem somewhat soulless, especially compared to nearby monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The Quartier Chinois also feels quieter and less crowded than Chinatowns in places like New York and San Francisco -- though here, as in those cities, it's not unusual to see people practicing tai chi outdoors.
But this is the largest Chinatown in Europe, and its hidden charms include, among other things, an impressive diversity, drawing on the heritage of French colonies like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as well as other parts of Southeast Asia. For visitors adventurous enough to wander off well-worn tourist tracks, and who relish the possibility of redefining the unforgettable Parisian meal, the Quartier Chinois' vibrancy awaits discovery, with something for all five senses.
Getting there: Take the 5, 6, or 7 Metro lines to the Place d'Italie station or the 14 to Olympiades. Stroll down the triangle that's formed by the forking of the two main arteries, Avenue de Choisy and Avenue d'Ivry. For the biggest slice of the action, head there from Wednesday through Sunday; as in other areas of the city, many places are closed on either Mondays or Tuesdays. It's located in the 13th arrondissement and is not to be confused with a smaller Asian enclave in Belleville.
Sights: No trip to the Quartier Chinois is complete without a stop to Tang Freres, 48 Avenue d'Ivry, one of the largest Asian supermarkets in Europe, which offers a dizzying hodgepodge of produce, spices and meats, and even rice cookers.
Produce is the main draw at the smaller and more easily navigable Thai Fruits Center, 189 Avenue de Choisy, as well unusual beverages, such as canned bubble tea from Taiwan and Bourbon-brand beer from Reunion, the French-speaking island off the coast of Madagascar.
On the outskirts, the shopping center at Les Olympiades, 44 Avenue d'Ivry, doubles as a popular gathering spot, with stalls hawking kitschy bric-a-brac from Asia. There's even a Buddhist temple here.
Sounds: Easily spotted by the eye-popping mural painted onto one of its facades, the Notre Dame de Chine, 27 Avenue de Choisy, is a modern Catholic church that offers the occasional concert alongside Mass and traditional hymns.
Scents: Durian, the notoriously pungent Southeast Asian fruit, makes its way into tarts at Patisserie de Choisy, 62 Avenue de Choisy. Less adventurous eaters can sample pastries with milder flavors like pandan leaf and coconut, or pick up steamed buns with savory meat fillings. Wash it all down, if you dare, with durian-flavored bubble tea at Teawan, 129 Avenue de Choisy (4 euros for a small, 5 for large.)
Tastes: Don't miss the mouthwatering and surprisingly inexpensive banh mi sandwiches at Hoa Nam, 51 Avenue d'Ivry, where flavorful vegetables and meats on fresh baguettes can be had for 3 euros. For another quick bite, the cafeteria-style offerings at Tang Gourmet, 188 Avenue de Choisy, include dumplings, rolls, and rice-and-meat plate combos to stay or to go.
For a hearty sit-down meal, follow the hordes to Pho Banh Cuon 14, known locally as Pho 14, 129 Avenue de Choisy, a Vietnamese noodle place whose runaway success has inspired many imitations in the area. The real deal has lines flowing out the door, though casual and efficient service make for short waits.
For Chinese cuisine, Sinorama, 23 Rue du Docteur Magnan, has long been a neighborhood institution. The Cambodian fare at Mondol Kiri, 159 Avenue de Choisy, is among the pricier options, but also offers the most upscale ambience and experience in the vicinity. And for the trendy, Lao Lane Xang, 102 Avenue d'Ivry, pairs Laotian cuisine with modern decor.
Touch: Pick up a paddle and test the ping-pong tables at Parc de Choisy. On sunny days, the fountains, foliage and carousel also make the park very picnic-friendly -- nothing like the feeling of grass beneath your feet.