Curiosity of foreigners aids Muslims in Vietnam


While they can practise their faith, Vietnam’s Cham Muslims have been sidelined economically, writes MARK GODFREYin Chau Doc, Vietnam

THE NONDESCRIPT river town of Chau Doc is home to one of Vietnam’s less likely attractions, Islam. It’s an easy sell for tourists who are surprised to find a Muslim village on the Hau river, a wide brown-watered branch of the Mekong often depicted in Vietnam war film scenes of patrol boats fading into a jungle sunset. This is also home to the Cham, one of oldest, most idiosyncratic Muslim communities in Asia.

Colourful apparitions amid the banana and coconut trees of this tropical town, the Cham women’s long, flowing dresses and veils set them apart in socialist Vietnam, where working women wear a simple blouse over three-quarter length trousers. Leant over motorbikes, their men set themselves apart with white skull caps and the sarong-style wraps more common to south Asia.

This settlement of 10,000 Muslims traces its roots to the early Arab caliphs, leaders of Islam and free traders who encouraged Arab sailors to spread the faith across the Asian seas. They found willing converts in Chinese south coast cities.

Converts were plenty in today’s Malaysia and in the seaports of Cambodia and Burma. Similarly among the Cham, an Indic people with a kingdom sprawling across southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. The fall of the Cham kingdom in 1471 to Vietnamese forces triggered an exodus into Cambodia and southward across the strait to Malaysia. Those who remained retained their religion, although in an increasingly syncretic form that meshed local Buddhist and animist beliefs.

Even today in Chau Doc few locals can read the Arabic script stuccoed into the gables of the imposing candy-coloured mosques, which, in their newness, tower over the stilted wooden homes of locals. Donations from the Middle East have helped build these mosques, explains a local shopkeeper. Yet believers here meet only twice a week for prayer, rather than five times a day elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Literacy in Arabic appears sufficient qualification in Chau Doc to become a mullah, although several locals say younger Cham are increasingly studying faith and language in Malaysia.

Cham Muslims have never had an easy relationship with the Vietnamese state. Many left for Malaysia and Yemen when the Communists came to power, fearing discrimination. Yet the Vietnamese Cham fared better than their counterparts in Cambodia, who suffered horribly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – Pol Pot’s cadres were not content just to destroy mosques, they also forced Cham Muslims to eat pork.

Vietnam by comparison was tolerant. This is an officially atheist country, but the Chinese-style Buddhist temples that dot Vietnam are rarely empty. Across the river from the town’s Muslim settlement, Chau Doc’s Buddhist temples, with their stone lotus and dragon sculpture and the murals of verse in Chinese characters, have stood for centuries here.

While they’ve been able to practise their faith, the Cham have been sidelined economically compared to the country’s Kinh ethnic majority. “They lack education, connections and access to state power,” according to Philip Taylor, a Vietnam expert at the National University of Australia, who has published a book on the Cham. He points to the Cham’s inability to cash in on a boom in aquaculture on Mekong tributaries like the Hau. The Cham lack the know-how and access to credit enjoyed by the Kinh, who dominate business and officialdom. Though there’s money coming in from tourism, local Muslim communities have come to rely on overseas aid to build mosques and madrassahs.

Aside from the shiny newness of the mosques, Chau Doc is a modest place of canvas-roofed shacks turned terrace restaurants, where locals tilt forward on red plastic chairs to scoff bowls of rice with leek and boiled chicken soup.

Officially, the constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, adapted after Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces emerged victorious in a bloody civil war, guarantees freedom of religion.

Officially 30 per cent of the population actively adheres to a particular faith, although most non-Buddhists are Catholics, like those who perch on plastic seating for Mass every Sunday outside the gothic-styled St Joseph’s cathedral in Hanoi.

In crowded Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, the Cham mosques are modest, often little more than a domed series of courtyards behind a green gate, distinguishable for its wrought iron crescent symbol and Vietnamese-language lettering, which denotes official sanction. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis still travel into southeast Asia on the ritual missionary “Dawa”, seeking new converts around city mosques.

The migration of Islam has many forms in southeast Asia. Chinese Muslims, converted by Arab traders, brought the faith overland from Yunnan province into Laos and Burma. Second waves came with southern Asians serving as colonial administrators, while north African soldiers in the French colonial army prayed at mosques in Hanoi and Saigon up to the country’s independence. Islam may be making a comeback of sorts in Vietnam: Chau Doc’s Muslims may be marginalised, but they’re also thriving on the curiosity, and help, of foreigners.