The surprising halal delights of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh City is named after the revolutionary socialist leader who united North and South Vietnam. (Shutterstock)
Updated 16 May 2018
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The surprising halal delights of Ho Chi Minh

  • As its the gateway to the “real” Vietnam and its stunning natural beauty, golden coastlines, rural culture, great food and war history, most travellers rarely spend more than a day or two in HCM
  • Here in the ‘capitalist’ south, HCM’s abundance of glassy towers, business centres and wide boulevards lined with popular Western brands

LONDON: Forever ‘Saigon’ to many, Ho Chi Minh City (HCM) — named after the revolutionary socialist leader who united North and South Vietnam — curiously ‘feels’ like Vietnam’s capital city, but it isn’t. That would be Hanoi in the ‘socialist’ north.

Here in the ‘capitalist’ south, HCM’s abundance of glassy towers, business centres and wide boulevards lined with popular Western brands — absent in the north — represent modern Vietnam. There is another curious difference between the two cities. Whilst it is almost impossible to find a mosque or properly certified halal restaurant in Hanoi, HCM, home to nearly a tenth of Vietnam’s 65,000 or so Muslims, has a mosque in almost every district and plenty of halal food options.

As its the gateway to the “real” Vietnam and its stunning natural beauty, golden coastlines, rural culture, great food and war history, most travellers rarely spend more than a day or two in HCM. But the city has plenty to occupy you for that time.

For a start, you can immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of a typical Vietnamese market inside the covered Binh Tay. Originally built by French colonialists in the 1880s, then rebuilt by Chinese philanthropist Quach Dam, it’s a delightful atmosphere in which to grab your morning coffee, maybe a souvenir or two, and dip into the apparent chaos of Vietnamese life.

No trip to Vietnam is complete without eating Pho; the delicious noodle soup made by cooking sliced thin strips of beef in boiling broth, topped with local green veg and garnished with a freshly squeezed lime. For Muslims, Nguyen An Ninh, a ‘halal’ street off the western edge of Binh Tay, is the place for Pho. Try Halal Osman Restaurant, Kempung Melayu and Restaurant Basirah, or if you’re really lucky you might stumble across one of the rare local halal Pho foodcarts. This street is also a great place to meet Vietnamese Muslims.

After your fill of Pho, take a short walk northeast towards the River Saigon and listen out for the dhur adhan emanating from four ornate minarets. Saigon Central Mosque was built in 1935 by South Indians on the site of an older mosque and is a colourful mix of bright lime-green and pink on whites and blues. Perform your wudu in the large pool, before stepping in to join the small congregation.

From the mosque, you can head directly north for 20 minutes to the city’s botanical gardens — a colonial legacy of wonderfully lush and exotic greenery, and the perfect place for an afternoon stroll with the family. If you have children, there is also an onsite zoo with an impressive variety of animals, including African rhinos and Madagascar lemurs — though their living conditions need improving. A visit here is also easily combined with the History Museum, which is literally next door and the best place in which to learn about Vietnam’s cultural evolution. Their exhibits include artifacts from the period of the Champa — the only local rulers to embrace Islam.

We’d recommend ending your day by following the river back south to The Bitexco Financial Tower, which shoots 262 meters into the sky with a round ‘tambourine’ 48 floors up — the impressive ‘Skydeck’, offering the finest views across the city, particularly at sunset. Jumping into the vertigo-inducing lift and heading to floor 48 is the best way to end your time in HCM.


On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

Updated 17 August 2018
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On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

  • Hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups
  • Hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans

KUALA LUMPUR: For the millions of sun seekers who head to Thailand’s resort island of Phuket each year in search of stunning beaches and clear waters, cutting down on waste may not be a top priority.
But the island’s hotel association is hoping to change that with a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of plastic, tackling the garbage that washes up on its shores, and educating staff, local communities and tourists alike.
“Hotels unchecked are huge consumers and users of single-use plastics,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association and managing director of the Trisara resort.
“Every resort in Southeast Asia has a plastic problem. Until we all make a change, it’s going to get worse and worse,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Established in 2016 and with about 70 members — including all Phuket’s five-star hotels — the association has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list.
Last year the group surveyed members’ plastics use and then began looking at ways to shrink their plastics footprint.
As part of this, three months ago the association’s hotels committed to phase out, or put plans in place to stop using plastic water bottles and plastic drinking straws by 2019.
About five years ago, Lark’s own resort with about 40 villas used to dump into landfill about 250,000 plastic water bottles annually. It has now switched to reusable glass bottles.
The hotel association also teamed up with the documentary makers of “A Plastic Ocean,” and now show an edited version with Thai subtitles for staff training.
Meanwhile hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups.
“The association is involved in good and inclusive community-based action, rather than just hotel general managers getting together for a drink,” Lark said.
Phuket, like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines, has become a top holiday destination in Southeast Asia — and faces similar challenges.
Of a similar size to Singapore and at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia, Phuket is easily accessible to tourists from China, India, Malaysia and Australia.
With its white sandy beaches and infamous nightlife, Phuket attracts about 10 million visitors each year, media reports say, helping make the Thai tourism industry one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy.
Popular with holiday makers and retirees, Phuket — like many other Southeast Asian resorts — must contend with traffic congestion, poor water management and patchy waste collection services.
Despite these persistent problems, hotels in the region need to follow Phuket’s lead and step up action to cut their dependence on plastics, said Susan Ruffo, a managing director at the US-based non-profit group Ocean Conservancy.
Worldwide, between 8 million and 15 million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UN Environment says.
Five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for up to 60 percent of plastic waste leaking into the seas, an Ocean Conservancy study found.
“As both creators and ‘victims’ of waste, the hotel industry has a lot to gain by making efforts to control their own waste and helping their guests do the same,” Ruffo said.
“We are seeing more and more resorts and chains start to take action, but there is a lot more to be done, particularly in the area of ensuring that hotel waste is properly collected and recycled,” she added.
Data on how much plastic is used by hotels and the hospitality industry is hard to find. But packaging accounts for up to 40 percent of an establishment’s waste stream, according to a 2011 study by The Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity.
Water bottles, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and even food delivered by room service all tend to use throw-away plastics.
In the past, the hospitality industry has looked at how to use less water and energy, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator at the “Break Free From Plastic” movement in Manila.
Now hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans.
“A lot of hotels are doing good work around plastics,” adopting measures to eliminate or shrink their footprint, said Hernandez.
But hotels in Southeast Asia often have to contend with poor waste management and crumbling infrastructure.
“I’ve seen resorts in Bali that pay staff to rake the beach every morning to get rid of plastic, but then they either dig a hole, and bury it or burn it on the beach,” said Ruffo. “Those are not effective solutions, and can lead to other issues.”
Hotels should look at providing reusable water containers and refill stations, giving guests metal or bamboo drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and replacing single-use soap and shampoo containers with refillable dispensers, experts said.
“Over time, this could actually lower their operational costs — it could give them savings,” said Hernandez. “It could help change mindsets of people, so that when they go back to their usual lives, they have a little bit of education.”
Back in Phuket, the hotel association is exploring ways to cut plastic waste further, and will host its first regional forum on environmental awareness next month.
The hope is that what the group has learned over the last two years can be implemented at other Southeast Asian resorts and across the wider community.
“If the 20,000 staff in our hotels go home and educate mum and dad about recycling or reusing, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Lark.