Every Friday noon, the sidewalk on Hang Luoc Street is crowded with vehicles.
It is prayer time, and around 300 faithful Muslims from Hanoi and surrounding areas gather to pray at Al-Noor, the only mosque in northern Vietnam, which has been built for over a century.
The small mosque has typical Islamic architectural features, including a dome, curved doors and pointed towers.
The small prayer room cannot accommodate all the followers, so many woolen carpets are placed in the yard for people to kneel down in rows.
A small community
There are an estimated 72,000 Muslims across Vietnam, according to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
"For Muslims who are originally from Hanoi, there are around 100 people. There are more than 300 foreign Muslims (in the capital city)," Ta Hoang Thuc, former vice-chairman of the Al-Noor mosque management board, told VnExpress International.
Islam entered Vietnam at different eras in peace, mainly via traders and immigrants. The Islamic faith has been present in the country since the 10th century, during the reign of the Champa Kingdom (now part of central Vietnam).
More recent conversions to the Islamic faith have happened mostly through marriages of Vietnamese women to Muslim men.
Phuong, 37, has been a Muslim for a year since her marriage. She entered the mosque wearing green hijab, a veil worn by many Muslim women. After four years of working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Phuong got married to citizen there before returning to Vietnam.
"I come here to pray every Friday, since the custom is important," she said.
Living in Hanoi, Phuong does not find many Muslims around her neighborhood, so it is only when she visits the mosque every Friday that can she meet her Muslim friends, mostly women who follow Islam after their marriage to Muslim men.
"Some people simply like Islam. But many of us, when we get married, we learn about Islam and think that it is practical and good to follow," Phuong said.
Muslims in Vietnam have to make adjustments in their lifestyle to deal with differences in Islamic regulations and Vietnamese laws.
Muslim in Vietnam cannot have the right to some actions acceptable under Islamic laws. "Vietnamese followers of Islam abide by two sets of rules: Islamic rules and Vietnam’s laws," said Hussein, 27, an Imam (priest) who leads prayers at the Al-Noor mosque, adding that certain Islamic rules are not compatible with Vietnamese law.
Citing an extreme example, Hussein noted that a married woman who cheats her husband can be stoned to death under Islamic law, something that can never happen under Vietnamese law.
Muslims cannot practice polygamy in Vietnam.
"In Islam, a man can have several wives," Phuong said. "But Vietnam only allows marriage between one man and one woman."
Not a big problem
Huong, a Hanoi resident who became a Muslim after marrying her Bangladeshi husband, said it was not too difficult to obey Islam’s rules in daily life.
"The rules are not harsh," Huong said. "We just cannot wear tight pants, and need to cover our skin and hair. The beauty is reserved for the husband."
Phuong highlighted some major differences in eating habits. "Actually Islam has some different rules; for example, we must not eat pork, but you see in Vietnam, most people eat it."
Islam religion forbids the consumption of pork or dog meat, or animals that use their claws, said Hussein. The animals that can be eaten need to be butchered appropriately by a Muslim.
"We only eat the meat from animals whose necks are slit by Muslim. We can’t tie them or butcher them until they are dead." Thuc said. "So, one time, I went to the market, bought a chicken and slit its neck by myself before the sellers did the rest."
Phuong said that Vietnamese Muslims find ways to follow as many of the Muslim traditions as possible, including praying five times a day.
"My company supports me. At the praying time, I can usually go to a corner to pray," said Thanh, a 28-year-old engineer in Hanoi.
Thanh converted to Islam after learning about it through family members.
"My wife's sister had a husband who followed the religion, then she introduced it to my wife," Thanh said.
"When I found out that Islam loved peace, and received the encouragement of my wife and people in the community, I converted to the religion last year."
"It is perfectly fine for us to lead our daily life", said Phuong. "What I love about following Islam is that people really love each other.
"Everyone here is very close-knit, like brothers and sisters. If someone has a problem, people can tell and help each other emotionally or financially, even."
However, there are some culture clashes that seem unavoidable once a Vietnamese person converts to Islam.
While it is very important for Vietnamese people to worship ancestors, Muslims are not allowed to do so.
Phuong recalled her worry when she first considered following Islam. "That time I was hesitant, because some questions arise like ‘when our parents pass away, will I able to worship my parents?’ It is not allowed in Islam. I have to explain everything so that my parents understand the difference.
"I can help my mom to cook or decorate during the celebration, but it is impossible to join hands and pray like I did before marriage," said Phuong.
Thanh, the engineer in Hanoi said the Lunar New Year celebration was one of his concerns. During this most important festival for the Vietnamese, it is a tradition to burn offerings for their ancestors, place food on the altar, and eat traditional food.
Thanh is not allowed to eat altar food from other religions. "But sometimes it is very hard to avoid it during the celebration," he said.
He also mentioned Vietnam’s drinking culture as a headache.
"We cannot drink alcohol or stimulants. But when it comes to Vietnamese culture, people can make you drink. I may decline once or twice, but for the third and fourth time, it will be hard."
Thanh also felt it might take a lot of effort to clear the prejudices against Islam. "Sometimes the press and the media did not carry out thorough research, and what many people perceive about the Muslim community is not true."
Thanh became a Muslim last November, but he has not announced this to his parents.
"I need some time to tell them and clarify everything, since my religion and Vietnamese traditions have many differences."
Story by Bao Ngoc