Salaam – Peace
Cool colors, green and blue, smooth, tiled, well shaded, the Central Mosque of Saigon provides a respite on a hot afternoon.
It has stood on this spot, in the now trendy district 1, for 75 years but the first encounter of Islam with Southeast Asia predates the start of the last millennium.
Seafarers and traders often stopped on the Vietnamese coast and influenced the Cham people in Central Vietnam; who now cluster in small villages in the Mekong and across the border in Cambodia.
The Central Mosque serves the handful of Muslims in Ho Chi Minh City but is on the tourist circuit (although on my many visits I am, absent worshipers and vendors, alone) and a place of worship for the many Muslims who are touring or doing business in Vietnam.
I visited ten years ago for the first time I explain to the Imam, who is curious as to whether I am a Muslim. I tell him no and start to explain my religious and spiritual beliefs. I think I lost him at hello.
A custodian/security guard sidles up to me with his son. He too asks me if I am Muslim but his English is adequate and better than my non-existent Vietnamese, so I tell him, no, but explain that I have Muslim friends, am a man of the book, and have been to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and to Dubai and Afghanistan. Dubai gets his attention. “Very rich Dubai” he says. I nod and we both laugh.
Taking off my shoes I enter the mosque, elegant in its simplicity. Several men are in prayer. A few feet away women are gathered. I put on my shoes and exit, commenting to the guard that I remember how ten years ago a sign here said “people of the female form please do not enter”. He understands and again smiles; Progress.
I leave before dinner is offered. It will be halal and I am sure delicious. I know that on previous visits I have enjoyed a meal here, with the Cham Muslims of Vietnam. They often have other guests who share a belief in similar values although practiced differently. Those guests are the small community of Hindus living in Saigon.
In a world with too much fundamentalism, fear and hatred I am struck that Hindus, Muslims and I have eaten together in Vietnam and somewhere in that there is a message.