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.


All eyes on Salah as Egyptians await Champions League final

Updated 27 May 2018
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All eyes on Salah as Egyptians await Champions League final

CAIRO: An owner of a Cairo coffee shop supervised last-minute arrangements for Saturday’s European Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, giving instructions to his employees as they lined up chairs and set up a bigger television set.
“Today is the big day for us. No match is more important than tonight’s, simply because Mohamed Salah is playing,” Mohamed Fathy, the owner of a cafe located in the affluent district of Maadi in southern Cairo, told Arab News.
Salah has enjoyed a record-breaking debut season with Liverpool and could cap a remarkable campaign by leading the Reds to the most-coveted European title as they face serial winners Real Madrid, who are eyeing a third successive triumph.
Nicknamed the Egyptian King, Salah has racked up a record 32 Premier League goals in a 38-game campaign and netted 10 Champions League goals to help Liverpool reach their first final since losing 2-1 to AC Milan in 2007.
He has become a national hero in Egypt, with his popularity hitting unprecedented heights. Saturday’s Champions League final is given more attention than any fixture for Cairo giants Ahly or Zamalek, who each have a huge fan base in the football-mad country.
“We raised our prices a bit because this is the probably the most important day of the football season. We expect to welcome the same number of people who came to the cafe when Egypt defeated Congo (last October) to reach the World Cup,” Fathy said.
Salah ‘gatherings’
Friends have been making plans for weeks to watch the game, choosing between a plenty of options as Cairo’s cafes and mega-malls gear up for the final.
Cairo Festival City, a mall in the upscale Fifth Settlement district, installed a huge screen for its visitors, creating a stadium-like atmosphere. Vodafone, Egypt’s leading mobile operator, launched a competition and invited customers to watch the match and have the pre-dawn Suhoormeal at Cairo’s upmarket Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Coffee shops in poorer areas also replaced their television sets with larger models, which were placed in the streets in order to accommodate as much people as possible.
Many friends are planning to come together in large gatherings at homes after the Ramadan iftar meal to watch Salah in action, but some have mixed emotions.
Spanish giants Real Madrid, the world’s most successful outfit, are popular in Egypt and favored by millions of Egyptians, who will be equally keen to see Salah lift the Champions League trophy in Kiev.
“I really don’t know who I should support now; my heart is split between Real Madrid, the club I have been supporting since I was child, and Salah who deserves to finish his season by winning such a prestigious title,” said Mahmoud Raheem, a 32-year-old fan.
But Liverpool and Salah still enjoy the unique support of their own fans. The club, England’s most successful in Europe, has an official fan club in Egypt, which includes thousands of supporters.
They plan to watch the game on a huge screen in Cairo’s Nasr City district, hoping Salah could play an instrumental role in giving them a title they have long sought.
“It will be difficult against Real because of their experience, but we still have deadly counter-attacking abilities that could help us a lot. Salah has had a great season and it would be great if he can finish the season by leading us to the trophy,” said Ahmed Maher, a 36-year-old Liverpool fan.
If Salah wins the Champions League, he will only become the second Arab to taste that glory after Algerian great Rabah Madjer, who was on target in Porto’s famous 2-1 comeback win over Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup final.