To get a taste of life in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. There’s no better place than Chau Doc.
As a border town 244km west of Ho Chi Minh City, Chau Doc is a convenient stopover for travel to and from Cambodia.
But in addition, from here to the sea, no other area offers a greater range of attractions characteristic of the life and culture of the Mekong Delta its ethnic composition, typical river activities and scenic variety, including a bird sanctuary. Chau Doc lies in the Hau Giang River, one of the major components of the Delta’s system, a waterway busy with cargo boat, fishing pirogues and floating house. At a riverside park a tall sculpture of a fish marks local appreciation of the town’s most important resource.
From the fish statue the tip of the long, narrow Con Tien Island is visible. Just downriver is a covered market. Future on lie riverside restaurants, from where one can observe the river traffic. Small pirogues, some pulled with oars, others fitted with a motor at the back end, ferry passengers across to the island shore, lined with house on tall stilts. Seeing these in the dry season gives a hint of how much the river swells during the rains. Other pirogues hold one or two fishermen, who cast nets into the river. Some of them will row right up to the piers and riverside balconies to use smaller nets to catch fish around the supporting posts.
Upriver from the fish statue is the venue for another distinctive feature of Mekong Delta life the early morning floating market. Like the one near Can Tho, activity stars at dawn, peaks an hour after sunrise and dies down by mid-morning. From the top end of the each boat’s mast hangs a sample of the merchandise-bananas, coconuts, etc.-for sale on broad. Smaller boats carrying customers ply around and in-between the market boats, as do pirogues hawking cooked food and refreshments.
Individual fish men can usually count on decent results from their nets and traps, but the bulk of Chau Doc’s fish comes from fish farms managed by families living in house floating on empty oil drums just off the eastern shore of ConTien Island. Some of these are small, comprising one big room and a porch, but they can be quite pretty, painted in bright colors and festooned with potted flowers. Larger dwellings have an attached open-air balcony, where the live ones in cages underneath. Small dugouts convey people around the area. For the motorized vessels a floating petrol station lies just downriver.
Most of Chau Doc’s inhabitants are Vietnamese, with a few Chinese Hoa neighborhoods near the markets. Khmer and Cham people still make up part of the city’s population and have their own villages near the twon as well as further out in An Giang province.
The Cham also settled here rather recently, like the Vietnamese, they migrated from the east after the break-up of the Champa Kingdom in south-central Vietnam. Unlike most os those who remained in the original homeland, the Cham who moved into Cambodia, converted to Islam. The towering minarets and domed roofs of mosques identify the Cham villages that lie on both sides of the river.
The small boats moored near the fish statue that take visitors on tours of the floating houses usually continue to a riverside Cham village a few kilometers further. The houses near the river stand in stilts that are at least two meters in length. During the dry season the space beneath the house is occupied by weavers, who work on handlooms to produce the distinctive brocaded pillowcases. Towels and bedcovers that form the Cha, textile tradition.
Most of the village straddles the main road to the town. Wooden houses with tiled roofs stand on tall stilts. New mosques in the Arabian style, one white, one light green, lie on the other side of the road. No market places exist here, but vendors sell vegetables, fruits and spices out of curbside wagons.
Besides its own variety of attractions, Chau Doc is also the starting point for short excursions to other sites in An Giang province. The nearest and most popular, particularly with temple-studded, 300 meter-high hill, just five km outside of the town, the road from Chau Doc terminates at the foot of the hill and the entrance to the gaudiest temple at Nui Sam – Chua Tay An.
The main building blends Chinese and Indian architectural motifs, featuring both angled roofs with upturned corners, as well as minaret-like towns with a dome at the top. A rich, dark orange color dominates the walls, columns and roofs edges. Statues of a broad range of brightly painted Buddhist deities and guardian gods stand or sit at several interior altars, all lavishly decorated.
On the other side of the road, a little further down, stands the more austere temple to Ba Chua Xu, with gray concrete walls, tiered roofs of the green tile and little exterior decoration. But mare devotees come here to honor this goddess, said to be able to tell one’s fortune, dressed in the red gown and peacock feathers. The image originally stood at the summit of Nui Sam until the late 18th century, when Thai invaders tried to take it away. But the image is said to have grown heavier and heavier and the plunderers had to abandon their efforts halfway down the hill.
After their retreat an apparition claiming to the spirit of Ba Chua Xu appeared to villagers and told them to summon 40 virgins to move the statue. That they did, but when they reached the foot of the image once again became too heavy to move. So they built the temple on that spot and housed it there. At the end of the one km – long road lays the lovely Dinh Vinh Te, a classic Vietnamese building with wide, tiered and tiled roofs, yellow walls and columns. A path from here leads to the summit, passing various small temples and cave shrines on the way. This one of the very few sport in the delta where one can have a broad view of the plains, as well as Cambodia to the west and Nui Cam to the south.
Road 948, turning south just past Nha Ban village, runs past Nui Cam, which is much higher than Nui Sam and offers a broader view. On the way, the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary lies a few kilometers off tall trees; the sanctuary is dominated by egrets that cluster on the tress near the park entrance and nest deep inside its forest.
Khmer villages also lie along the road to Nui Cam. Their houses do not differ from those of their Vietnamese neighbors, but occasionally the village entrances features a gate in the style of the Cambodian, Theravada Buddhist style, featuring tall columns supporting angled roofs with brick towers mounted on the top. The buildings feature carved nagas—the giant serpents of Buddhist mythology-and the occasional odd image, such as a headless man with his face on his chest.
Thus, in just a few in and around Chau Doc, a traveler can appreciate just about every facet of the Mekong Delta’s material and cultural life. This makes the long bus trip worth it.
This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel
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