Just when I thought I had been doing a fairly decent job of staying mostly off the tourist trail here in Saigon, I met Kevin who keeps a website at gohalalplanet.com to assist halal travelers find appropriate dining choices in Southeast Asia. He took me on my latest food adventure where I crossed paths with a community I didn’t even know existed. And ironically enough this slice of off the trail Saigon lurks right near Dong Khoi Street where I had smugly perceived things as too on the trail. And having no clue what halal is other than a word I see on restaurant signs, I was ready to jump right in. I am all about immersing myself into cultures different than my own since this food journey has more ingredients than just the plate of the food.
While living in Hanoi frequent work overnights brought me to Saigon’s District 1. Somehow I missed Dong Du Street’s mosque just across from the Circle K as many times as I walked through what is now my newly discovered hub of the halal restaurant universe. Lonely Planet describes the Saigon Central Mosque as “an immaculately clean and well-kept island of calm in the middle of the bustling Dong Khoi area.” So even Lonely Planet knew about it and I didn’t? Well, at least something besides the Sheraton Hotel is clean and well-kept in the area. This also explains the large number of Indian, Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in the area we all enjoy such as Warda. I always wondered how in the world these types of places landed in the heart of District 1. And now that I know, how did I miss all this?? Just when you think you’ve got a place all figured out…
Kevin had received a tip on a halal food stand possibly called “Hajj Basireh” setting up shop near the Ben Thanh Market every evening. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and off we went looking for this tiny stand seating 2 to 3 people at a time. Our only directions were to find this hidden joint in front of the “Hoang Loang Hotel,” neither of which we ever found. With our hunger building, Kevin then suggested a nearby halal bowl of Bun Bo Hue, and a nonpork version of a pig based dish intrigued me.
The noisy swirling traffic of thousands of motorbikes sucked us in and spat us out ten minutes later down a quiet alleyway off Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1’s southernmost reaches. This place turned out to be closed, so back into the chaotic traffic we went to a Malaysian restaurant called Bon Mua at 2F Thi Sach Street. For me to get on the back of a motorbike in this town, I really need to be on a mission, and hunger is a great motivator. Picture tens of thousands of people atop their death machines with the skillset of a Boca Raton blue hair barreling out of the nursing home neither looking or yielding and then obliviously drifting around the highway, and we have driving in Saigon.
After safely arriving at Bon Mua, I ordered the $3 Penang Char Kway Teow which could easily find a $10 slot on a menu back in the States. Though not truly Vietnamese, this is a decent yet colorless dish of broad noodles, soy sauce, shrimp, bean sprouts, spicy heat, and finally some onions green, white and fried. I asked Kevin what is halal exactly and in the simplest terms it means “permissible” and describes how the Muslim community slaughters meat and adheres to dietary rules. Though I am about as far on the other side of the spectrum from halal as a person can be, I am very happy to know these restaurants exist and that I have choices away from the mainstream. A little food diversity never hurt anyone’s diet and this fairly inexpensive Malaysian Restaurant adds a little spice to the daily phos and rice.