Southern Vietnam is well-known throughout the world for its historical significance. In its capital Ho Chi Minh City, its historical importance can be felt through its architectural treasures, and the landscape is full of majestic and often imposing French colonial buildings.
Looking at these buildings, which have been preserved and are still in use today, made me feel as if the city was trying to tell me of the time when it was the envy of many.
However, it is also clear that Ho Chi Minh city is not simply a city stuck in the past, as rapid development – indicative of Vietnam’s economic rise – is evident almost everywhere. Construction sites and new infrastructure projects are a reflection of a rising South-East Asian power.
There are also modern tourist attractions, such as the Artinus 3D Art Museum, which is quite popular.
However, halal food seekers have largely shied away from visiting South Vietnam due to the common misconception that the region does not cater to their dietary requirements. Such concerns might have been justified in the past, but the growth of the halal food industry in the area in recent years has allowed Muslim travellers to make South Vietnam a travel destination not to be missed.
Ho Chi Minh (previously known as Saigon) is a busy city of over 8 million people, and it is easy to get distracted by the myriad of captivating sights and sounds. There are many museums and cultural centres to explore; one of the places that stood out to me during my trip was the War Remnants Museum.
A ticket costs only around RM3 and is definitely worth paying. Having previously been to the war museum in Hanoi, I was quick to notice the similarities. In the front of the building are American jets, tanks, artillery and other war machines left behind from the Vietnam War.
However, what distinguishes this museum from the one in Hanoi is the noticeable absence of grand displays of Vietnamese nationalism and communist propaganda. Instead, visitors are subtly introduced to the horror of the conflict through the powerful and often pain-evoking images on exhibit. All the time I had spent learning about the Vietnam War in school and later at university did not prepare me for a deep and eye-opening experience.
Another interesting sight is the Ar-Rahim mosque. The significance of this mosque has perhaps more to do with the history of its founding. Built in 1885 by Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, it is located in an affluent part of the city, and currently its congregation averages around 200 people.
The building’s design is simple yet it still attracts a sizeable group of curious tourists. Unsurprisingly, the area also has many halal restaurants, including the Malaysian-run Dnyonya Halal Restaurant that serves fish curry that is to die for.
I was astonished to learn that Ho Chi Minh is a city that celebrates the arrival of Malaysian tourists. After a little investigating, I was told that the reason for such preferential treatment is due to a well-known “secret” among the locals: that Malaysians are huge spenders and shop constantly while on holiday.
Some locals have gone out of their way to learn Malay, and I found that traders do not shy away from using the language to call out to you as you pass by their shops. What I found to be more surprising is that many shops in Ho Chi Minh accept the ringgit as a form of payment.
I never really felt like I was away from Malaysia. Malaysian tourists are everywhere. There is even a little corner of Ho Chi Minh along Nguyen An Ninh that is informally known as Malaysia Street. Here, I found many Malaysian restaurants and shops.
The street is also located near the Cho’ Ben Thanh market, one of Ho Chi Minh’s three major markets where you can find lots of attractive items. Between 7.30pm and midnight each day, a lively night market opens just outside the main market hall which recreates a similar atmosphere to our pasar malam.
Mekong Delta’s life force
My Tho City is located some 70km from Ho Chi Minh, that translates into a two-hour bus ride. The journey will take you through the South Vietnamese countryside and you don’t have to look hard at all to find evidence that the Mekong River is the heart of life here.
From My Tho, a 10-minute boat ride across the Mekong River will take you to Con Thoi Son island, also known as Unicorn Island. My first stop on the island was a local bee farm. Honey from bees is harvested here and those looking to enjoy a freshly made cup of refreshing honey tea can take pleasure in knowing that the food served here is completely halal.
The owner of the farm, Ali Quy, also owns a restaurant on the other end of the island, named Halal Mekong Restaurant. Speaking to him about his trade, I learnt that Ali had chosen to cater specifically to Muslim tourists as he wanted to dispel the idea there is no halal food outside major Vietnamese cities.
The 52-year-old excitedly proceeded to list several names of former patrons, including Malaysians. Ali also described the challenge he faces in getting meat directly from the city as opposed to the local market to ensure his food is 100% halal.
Unicorn Island is inhabited by around 200 people who actively participate in the local tourism industry. A narrow canal connects one part of the island to the other, and taking a boat ride is a quick way for tourists to get around. But do note that the ride is quite bumpy and you can expect to collide with other boats more than once.
One stop along the canal is a fruit stall that also features live traditional Vietnamese music by a local amateur band. Realising that the group I was travelling in comprised Malaysians, the band proceeded to sing Sayang Kinabalu (a song made popular by the Sabah Tourism Board), with a heavy accent. It caught me off-guard to hear the language being spoken by locals this deep in the Mekong Delta and so far away from Ho Chi Minh.
My next stop was Can Tho City, which is the largest city in the Mekong Delta. Can Tho is around four hours away from Ho Chi Minh but only two hours from My Tho. It used to be an important US naval port during the Vietnam War. Today, however, Can Tho is known for its floating markets.
The Cai Rang floating market is among several floating markets that can be found here. The boat ride to the market takes around 40 minutes and costs as much as RM6 per person.
Traders at the floating markets sell mostly fresh tropical fruit at reasonable prices. You can either pull up to a boat or simply wait for a trader to engage you in a similar fashion with an offer on a cup of coffee you simply cannot resist.
I would recommend getting up early as it gives you the opportunity to get a glimpse of life in the Mekong Delta as it wakes up. If ever things go wrong while on this trip, at least you can rest easy while taking in the gentle breeze and the calm waters of the Mekong River.
This trip was sponsored by the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) and Malindo Air. Malindo Air flies daily from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City, and vice versa. The service operates 12 times a week from Monday to Sunday.