“Usually when you don’t eat for the whole day,” my Ramadan-observing friend Youssef says, “you just eat a little bit and you get full so quickly. So I’m not super-super-starved.”
It’s already 7pm, and the day’s fast has been over for nearly an hour. As SaigonNezumi.com’s Kevin Miller, Jr. — our guide to the world of Vietnamese halal — looks over the list of hot pots, my stomach rumbles. I’m not fasting but I’m still starved, and beginning to feel some solidarity.
We’re in a little halal place behind the Jamiul Islamiyah Mosque — aka Nancy Mosque — a Tamil Indian-built mosque that’s now attended by Cham Muslims. When the French influence fell away from Vietnam in 1954, so did the trading connection with the French Indian colony of Pondicherry, whose cultural influence was responsible for the construction of this mosque and others as well.
We’d been searching for Pho Muslim (505, TK 25/18 Tran Hung Dao, Q1, HCMC), a halal pho place Kevin had recommended. But due to the unpredictability of Ramadan opening schedules and a white-capped local’s directions, we ended up at Sulayman Restaurant (459/25/40 Tran Hung Dao, Q1, HCMC).
In keeping with the Shafi’i school of thought most prevalent in Vietnam, seafood is permitted, and on the menu. Those who follow the Hanafi school of thought, like Kevin, only eat fish. And there are other differences.
“A Turk,” he says, “when he’s opening a restaurant, he’ll go all the way to the source of the meat. A Shafi’i will say, ‘Well, he’s a Muslim and he says it’s halal, it’s fine.’ Which, in Vietnam, it’s not fine. People can take advantage of that.”
This confusion over dietary guidelines is a byproduct of Muslim Saigon’s melting pot of nationalities and beliefs. On Kevin’s other blog, GoHalalVietnam.com, he gives an example of the kind of hoops the only strict halal Turkish restaurant he knows in Ho Chi Minh City — Berru (Sc3-1 My Khang, Nguyen Luong Bang, Q7, HCMC) — has to go through.
They are “one of the few halal restaurants that imports all of their meat. They do not trust the local Muslim communities’ halal meat. In short, if they do not consider the ‘halal’ meat in Vietnam as halal, it IS NOT halal. Devout Turks will only eat at Berru.”
Just southwest of Ben Thanh Market lies Nguyen An Ninh — aka ‘Malaysia Street’. But again Kevin warns of false claims, with one restaurant going so far as to force “Vietnamese female staff to cover their heads even though they are not Muslim. They even paid a former imam to sit in the restaurant to attract Muslim travellers.”
In the Halal in Hanoi section, Kevin writes, “It is nearly impossible to get halal meat in Hanoi. Most Muslims in Hanoi butcher their own meat. The current sources of Halal meat have not been confirmed. The majority of travellers bring halal canned food with them.”
Ramadan with the Cham
According to Kevin, most mosques in Saigon are in Cham areas — the Cham are usually in charge of running the temples. Although most of the Muslim temples in Ho Chi Minh City were built by the former Indian population, they’re now attended by Cham Muslims.
The mosque we attend on the second-to-last Friday of Ramadan — and the last Friday before most Cham Muslims traditionally go back to their hometowns — is Cholon Jamial Mosque, a District 5 temple home to a congregation of about 100. Built in 1932, it’s the oldest mosque in the city.
At 6.10pm there’s a short prayer, then at 6.20pm a break for fruit — the first food of the day. After that there’s another prayer, and at 6.50pm a proper meal — bowls of chao, laid out in long rows on a carpet on the mosque’s front veranda.
We’re introduced to the congregation’s leader, a friendly older man in an orange plaid longyi, with no shirt and a pink towel across his shoulders. “I wish I would have known you were coming,” he says. “I would have set a place.” He hurriedly calls over some water bottles for us.
Here, all the food is paid for by members of the congregation. At some mosques they eat pho, at others curry. The iftar meal after a day of fasting isn’t a time for splitting checks. As the congregation leader tells us, “Ramadan is the time to think of the poor” — or just of others.
As the men eat, photographer Kyle takes pictures and kids in bright headscarves and skullcaps run around. One 20-something asks if Kyle’s taking pictures for Playboy.
A fire alarm-sounding bell goes off. Men in jeans, longyis and traditional white robes stream into the mosque for the post-meal prayer. The Kaaba at Mecca is embroidered on their prayer rugs, and men stand contemplating their open, upturned hands before the amplified wail. The paint is perfect, unblemished baby blue. Little girls play leapfrog on the white tile just outside, screeching as they land.