Funan and Oc Eo
Much of the early history of the southern part of Vietnam is closely associated with India. During the first century AD, Indian merchants voyaging to China established Hindu outposts en route, one of which was on the southern coast of Vietnam, near the present-day town of Rach Gia. Then known as Funan, it grew a city state based upon the port of Oc Eo. The History Museum in Ho Chi Minh City has a good collection of artefacts and relicts the site.
By the third century, Funan was the most important trading centre in Indochina with links as far as Europe, but gradually declined as new and more accessible ports developed. By the sixth century, it had more or less disappeared.
The Cham Kingdom
At about the same time, the Hindu Kingdom of Champa was spreading the centre of Vietnam the west. At its height, the Cham ruled over most of the southern half of Vietnam, with its base around what is now Da Nang. The UNESCO World Heritage site of My Son, a large complex of richly adorned sacred brick towers and temples, was the spiritual heart of the entire Cham Empire. Similar towers can still be seen all over the south of the country.
Ruled by divine kings, the Cham worshipped Shiva and other Hindu deities. They were highly skilled sculptors – excellent examples of their work can be seen at the Cham museum in Da Nang, the History Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and on the My Son site. Later they converted to Buddhism.
In the 16th century after the collapse of the Kingdom, most of the Cham remaining in Vietnam became Muslims and remain as an ethnic minority in the south, practising a highly modified version of Islam.
There is a small Hindu temple in Ho Chi Minh City, close to the famous the Ben Thanh market.
There are about forty thousand Muslims in Vietnam, mostly members of the southern K’hmer and Cham ethnic groups.
There is a sizeable Cham Muslim population in Chau Doc, very close to the Cambodian border, and a large mosque. Its religious leaders wear a fez with a golden tassel, or a white prayer cap. Elsewhere, they wear a white robe and a red turban. There is another large mosque in Ho Chi Minh City, and a much smaller one in Hanoi.
The establishment of Islam in Viet Nam
Like Hinduism, Islam first entered Vietnam along trading routes, but failed to take root in Vietnam until the Cham and K’hmer converted Hinduism. However, Vietnamese Islam bears little resemblance to that practised in more devout Muslim countries.
The practice of Islam in Vietnam
The Cham people pray once a week instead of five times each day and instead of fasting for forty days at Ramadan, they abstain only for three days. Both ritual cleansing and circumcision are conducted symbolically, and alcohol is allowed. The burka is almost unknown – on our last visit to Chau Doc, the only woman wearing one was married to a Muslim Saudi Arabia.
Islam in Vietnam follows the pattern of other religions – although referring to themselves as Muslims, they also worship Hindu deities and practice animism.
Those Vietnamese Muslims who have heard of Islamic fundamentalism look upon it in complete bewilderment!