A day in the life of Saigon's Muslim community

By Quynh Tran   August 20, 2017 | 05:21 am PT
Despite the religion's strict traditions, the women are becoming more financially independent.

A man from the Cham ethnic group hops on a motorbike taxi in front of an apartment building on Phan Van Han Street in Binh Thanh District. Nearly 200 people from the Cham ethnic group occupy around half of the building, and have been living here for more than two decades.


The women wear head scarves most of the time. “We only take them off when we take a bath, go to sleep or when we have permission from our fathers or husbands,” Sophia, a 50-year-old woman, said.


Sikho (left), 69, said their prececessors migrated from An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta during colonial years. They first lived along the Thi Nghe Canal but were relocated to the building in 1995 following the canal cleanup project. There are other Cham communities in District 8 and Phu Nhuan on the city’s outskirts, she said.


The families here share an apartment on the top floor and use it as a mosque. Women are strictly prohibited, except during Ramadan.


“During prayers, we don't touch each other and think of nothing but God,” a man named Mohamah said.


A boy at the mosque with his father. All children are instructed in the religious practice by their parents.


Karim, 32, points to a set of clocks which reminds believers of prayers and other ceremonies during the day. They pray five times a day.


Mariyah, 49, burns incense for her late mother, who belonged to the Kinh ethnic group but converted to Muslim after marriage.


A death anniversary gathering at another family home, where the men eat first. Many follow traditional Muslim customs and eat with their bare hands. “It depends on our finances, and we do not have to hold the ceremony every year,” one of them said.


Traditionally, a married Cham woman is not supposed to take care of the family finances, but many of them have opened grocery stores or tailor shops at home. Young women go to school and take office jobs.


The apartment block is most crowded during the early morning and the evening. Maryram is trying to sell clothes and jewelry she picked up on a trip to An Giang to her neighbors. “It’s very hard to find authentic Muslim costumes in Saigon,” she said.


Free Cham language lessons are open in the building every night. “The children learn to read and write, and adults come to learn the Koran. That’s how we preserve our traditions,” said Mohammad Amin, the 59-year-old teacher.

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