One of the very beautiful place of the Mekong delta – Chau Doc, as close as you can get to Cambodia without being in it. The Bassac River flows through the town and is a border crossing for river borne traffic, and the small Sam Mountain has an excellent view of the flat plain on the other side. It’s an attractive, busy place with a good hotel and several interesting attractions.
It became part of Vietnam in the middle of the 18th century as a gift, a reward for helping the Cambodian monarch to put down an insurrection. Unsurprisingly, it has a high proportion of ethnic Kh’mer people among the population here, easily identifiable by their darker skins and a chequered scarf instead of Vietnam’s ubiquitous conical hat. There’s also a fair number of ethic Cham and Chinese people, and enough Christians to fill a local cathedral, making up a rare pot-pourri of cultures and religions.
There’s a large market selling local products and commodities. As might be expected, there’s also plenty of smuggled goods changing hands in both directions. Deep in the market, the Quan Cong (a Chinese character) Temple is a rewarding visit. It’s a flamboyant Taoist structure with good murals and effigies dominated by a ruddy-faced Quan Cong. Further along the riverfront there are several traditional stilt houses.
A short boat trip across the Bassac takes you to several floating fish farms and villages. They’re modified house-boats – a trap-door in the floor provides access to nets under the boat where the fish are grown. A little further takes you to the other bank and a Cham community. Once you’ve tip-toed across the stepping stones to avoid the mud, you walk through the stilt house village to the mosque.
Although sharing the same linguistic and historical tradition, the Cham are divided into two quite distinct religious communities, the Hindu Chams and the Cham Bani, or Muslims. The latter live mainly in the Chau Doc region and are easily distinguished by the men’s preferred headgear – a crimson fez with a long golden tassel, or white Muslim prayer cap.
The mountain is a tourism destination in its own right. Everest it isn’t, although the pancake-flat plains of the Mekong make it look higher than it is. It’s a ‘holy’ mountain, full of caves, shrines and temples. The most significant in religious terms is the Ba Chua Xu, dedicated to the ‘Lady of the Region’. Her festival is held in the spring. It attracts huge numbers of devotees and, of course, swarms of vendors hoping to make a killing.
Less important, but more interesting, is the Tay An Pagoda. It’s architecture is sometimes described as Hindu/Muslim, which is a bit fanciful. However, there’s a definite Chinese and Islamic influence, and the interior contains a small army of colourful effigies. Further along, the Cave Pagoda isn’t really worth the climb for ones with no interest in pagoda.
Your energy is best saved for the ascent of the mountain. This is a gentle stroll rather than mountaineering. The road winds gently past the new offshoot of the Victoria Hotel (the main building is down in the town) and culminates in a Vietnamese Army lookout post. Thoughtfully, there is a path on the left that allows you to look across at Cambodia and back to Chau Doc and the Mekong Delta – both as flat as a board.