Al-Noor Mosque in Hanoi's vibrant Old Quarter. (JG Photo/Antony Sutton)

Hanoi's Old Quarter a Haven for the Muslim Tourist


JANUARY 22, 2015

Getting lost in Hanoi's Old Quarter is easy. It is also fun. The narrow, teeming streets are a nightmare to navigate, even crossing the road can be fraught with danger from all those motorbikes, while the footpaths exist in name only. But venture forth without a map, guidebook or concern for personal injury and you enter a South East Asia that is disappearing under concrete and glass.

The Old Quarter is vibrant; a place of business far removed from the slick trendy offices architects would like us to inhabit. Here, old-school business is king, with street traders sitting on short-legged plastic stools next to their wares, hoping to tempt passers by while a supervisor lurks sternly nearby, notebook, pen and calculator in hand to record the transactions of the day.

Yet amid the crumbling shophouses there are a few surprises I uncovered when I decided to venture forth into the chaotic streets.

Environmentally friendly golf carts take tourists pushed for time on a well-established route round the Old Quarter, taking in the sights like the old city gate, a lake and the French built cathedral.

Yet just a short walk from the market where the tours start from is a building of interest yet found on few tour maps.

The Al-Noor Mosque is nestled along a tree lined lane in the north west of the Old Quarter. More than 100 years old, it caters to some 60 Vietnamese Muslims who call Hanoi home. In addition to the local faithful, many tourists, expats and diplomats use the mosque to fulfil the tenets of their religion.

The government estimates there are some 63,000 Muslims in Vietnam with the vast majority centered in the southeast of the country.

Islam has long been present in Vietnam but it was not as enthusiastically embraced by the local population as it was further south in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

It was Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam, who first sent an official Muslim envoy to Vietnam and Tang Dynasty China in 650 CE but it was the Cham people, an ethnic group from Cambodia and the southern areas of Vietnam, that fully embraced the new religion and helped spread the word in the 17th century.

During the 19th century many traders from India moved to north Vietnam to work in the growing silk trade and some of them came together to build a mosque to meet their spiritual needs. In 1890, just after the more familiar St. Joseph Cathedral opened, Al-Noor Mosque was ready for its first worshippers.

Following the Second World War numbers dropped rapidly and soon it was serving mostly embassy staff from countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Algeria and Iraq. Following the end of the Vietnam war, attendance has risen steadily though even today the foreign worshippers still outnumber locals.

In keeping with Islamic traditions, the mosque is an austere place complete with tower, dome and prayer hall. The white front wall with arched entrance makes it stick out among its other more drab colored neighbors, while the mosque's name is written in green in Arabic, English and Vietnamese.

Inside, things are quiet as the caretaker of Vietnamese Pakistani descent sweeps up leaves and the Libyan trained Imam prepares for his next sermon.

While the number of worshippers at the Al-Noor Mosque may be on the small side, the rise of budget airlines throughout South East Asia has seen an increase in Islamic tourism with visitors, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia, keen to find out more about their coreligionists in the area.

In the past two years alone, Vietnam has seen the number of visitors from Malaysia increase by almost 50%.

The local community has responded positively with a number of websites aimed at promoting Islamic tourism in Hanoi with the Al-Noor Mosque at the heart of the visitor's experience.

Indeed, with Hanoi hosting the Asean Football Federation Championship in November, visiting footballers, officials and journalists from Indonesia and Malaysia took time out from their busy schedule to visit Al-Noor Mosque.

And it is not just the mosque that is attracting foreign visitors. One shop in the Old Quarter receives so many tourists from Indonesia and Malaysia the staff there have learnt to serve customers in a form of Indonesian!

Catering for the increase in visitors, a growing number of halal restaurants have opened in recent years boasting dishes like fish head curry familiar to visitors from countries like Malaysia and Singapore, while others offer local Vietnamese fare prepared in the more traditional Islamic way.

For all the history attached to the mosque and increased interest in Islamic tourism, it remains overlooked by most visitors as they continue to visit the numerous traditional pagodas or the churches, such as St. Joseph Cathedral, leftover from French rule in the country.And that is a shame for the mosque and its small but thriving community has its own story to tell; a story that reveals another side of the fascinating and complex city of Hanoi. Al-Noor Mosque

12 Hang Luoc Street, Hanoi, Vietnam