Muslims struggle to find Halal food in Vietnam

By Anh Hoang   August 16, 2023 | 12:31 am PT
When he came to Vietnam 6 years ago, Mohamed Baro could not find a restaurant selling Halal food.

So, in order to remain true to his Islamic tradition, he had to eat vegetarian food and eggs for the duration of his stay in Da Nang.

Baro, a Muslim from Egypt, told VnExpress that during his two-week visit, he had to cook everything at home after searching through the whole city and failing to find Halal restaurants, or even Halal-certified beef and chicken at modern supermarkets.

"Fortunately, I used to own a restaurant so I know how to cook and could buy my own ingredients to cook for my family," Baro said. "Vegetarian food is among the foods that Muslims can use."

Muslims like Baro use the standards the Halal food tradition to guide their diet entirely, especially when it comes to meat. The term Halal in Islam is used to refer to a product or an action that followers are allowed to use. In terms of food, it has to do with the way it is processed.

Muslim people are not allowed to use products made from pork, lard, or any carnivorous animals. Herbivores are only considered Halal when slaughtered according to regulations. Animals must also be fed a natural diet, using no products made from other animals, and the slaughtering process must also follow a strict process that requires certifications.

Only when Baro came to Ho Chi Minh City did he find a brand of Halal-certified chicken at supermarkets and convenience stores near where he worked.

Some Halal-certified products sold at a supermarket near Baros workplace. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Hoang

Some Halal-certified products sold at a supermarket near Baro's workplace. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Hoang

For products that do not have the Halal stamp, Baro must read the ingredients carefully to see if they comply with Islamic regulations.

"It's a long process, but it’s the only way for me to be sure of what I’m eating," Baro said.

Baro has also encountered some obstacles when going out to eat with friends in Vietnam, especially when going to restaurants with nothing on the menu for Muslim people.

He often informs friends in advance to note the foods he is not allowed to eat according to Islamic regulations.

"When a few friends asked me why, I was happy to explain it to them. All my friends and colleagues respect my religion, just as I respect other religions. After a few meetings, we agreed on some places where we can dine together," he said.

Despite this, Baro is also concerned that some restaurants advertise vegetarian food but still use animal fat and ingredients derived from pork, both of which are forbidden in Islam.

"If I ask the cooks to prepare halal ingredients only [and they agree], but I still accidentally consume these [non-halal] ingredients, then technically, I did not violate the rules because there was nothing more I could have done to avoid it," he said.

While "moderate" people like Baro can accept products with the right ingredients without being required to be Halal certified, there are "strict" followers who only use products that are certified.

These people only pick Halal-certified products, most often imported, sold in foreign supermarkets to ensure their peace of mind.

For Muslims who come to Vietnam to travel or work short-term, finding Halal food or restaurants is a difficult challenge.

To help his fellow Muslims from becoming reluctant vegetarians, Bara founded a group on social media called Muslims in HCMC. It now has more than 1,300 members and each one is prepared to help those in need of Halal food in the city.

Stores selling Halal food in Ho Chi Minh City on July 28, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Hoang

Stores selling Halal food in Ho Chi Minh City on July 28, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Hoang

Vietnam could be going more Halal

Realizing the increasing demand for Halal products in Vietnam, Ramlan Osman came to Vietnam from Malaysia in 2019 and established Vietnam Halal Certification (VHC) to promote this unique market.

Ramlan said he has 13 years of experience working in the Malaysian Halal. "Halal economics and Halal certification are part of my job," Ramlan said.

The global Halal market is currently worth $7 trillion, estimated to reach $10 trillion by 2028, according to Angus Liew Bing Fooi, Senior Vice President of Malaysia Business Chamber (MBC) Vietnam.

Ramlan estimates that the Halal food sector alone accounts for about $3 trillion. The rest comes from many other sectors of the Halal industry such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, health products, toiletries, and medical devices.

With increasing demand in the global Halal industry, experts believe that Vietnam can take advantage of its labor resources and domestic production capabilities to enter this attractive sector. According to World Population Review, there are 1.9 billion Muslims in the world, and about 50 countries and territories are home to a majority Islamic population.

However, Ramlan said that if Vietnam wants to accelerate its participation in the Halal market, it needs a roadmap and a solid foundation. Starting with building an agency to develop and commercialize Halal products, similar to other Asian countries: like the Korea Halal Association (KOHAS) or the Japanese Muslim Association (JMA).

According to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), Halal food products mainly include livestock meat, poultry, processed seafood, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, oils, fats, and confectioneries.

According to Islamic traditions, to be considered Halal meat, the animals must be alive before being slaughtered. Slaughtering tools must be sharp so the animal does not suffer, and the carcass must be drained of all blood. Slaughterers often have to perform some Islamic rituals before slaughtering.

Ramlan said that Vietnam currently does not have a slaughterhouse for cattle according to Halal regulations, and must import all its Halal beef products from other countries. Limited production and low domestic demand mean that Halal products are usually only sold in a few Vietnamese supermarkets and restaurants.

With the desire to further help more Muslims in Vietnam gain easy access to Halal products, Ramlan is thinking of collaborating with partners to build an app. This app would not only provide information about Halal restaurants in Vietnam, but also mosques and stores that sell Halal ingredients, as well as tourist attractions, hotels, and clothing stores suitable for Muslims.

Ramlan outside the Halal kitchen at a hotel in Hanoi he helped build this year. Photo by Ramlan Osman

Ramlan outside the Halal kitchen at a hotel in Hanoi he helped build this year. Photo by Ramlan Osman

During talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on July 20, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh asked Malaysia to support Vietnam in developing its Halal industry and to sign a cooperation document on the matter soon.

Angus Liew, Vice President of MBC Vietnam, said that strengthening cooperation in the Halal industry with Malaysia could be a way for Vietnam to penetrate the global market, because Vietnam has a strong food production and export industry, while Malaysia has the expertise in Halal certification.

However, according to Nguyen Tuan, deputy director of the Investment & Trade Promotion Centre of Ho Chi Minh City, food export activities by Vietnamese businesses in the Halal market are only in their early stages.

Every year, about 50 companies across the country are granted Halal certification, with their main products being seafood, beverages, canned food, confectionery, vegetarian food, and pharmaceuticals.

Ramlan, the founder of VHC, believes that the development of academic courses on the Halal industry to raise awareness for businesses and entrepreneurs in the field could help the local industry grow.

He believes that selling Halal products is not only about complying with ingredient requirements, but also about understanding the culture and desires of Muslims.

"That's why I'm working hard to connect companies and production facilities in Vietnam to get raw materials in the country. Halal certification is the last step," Ramlan said.

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