Every year, thousands of people flock to Chau Doc Town near the Cambodian border in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to pay their respects to Ba Chua Xu, the famous goddess of wealth, at a temple on top of Sam Mountain.
The trip is usually taken during the 15th day of the first lunar month or in the second half of the fourth lunar month, which is typically in February and May, respectively, on the Western calendar.
But I think the beauty of this incredibly friendly town is revealed best during the rainy season, or what is more commonly known in this low-lying region as the high-tide season.
Recently, I took a 280km trip from HCM City to Chau Doc to sightsee and shop leisurely on a xe loi, a pedicab drawn by a bicycle, as in the old days.
I planned to venture deep into the forest to come face-to-face with thousand of storks, cranes and other feathered friends, and taste delicious dishes made of linh fish and dien dien flowers.
Departing the city at 6am, I marvelled at the view of verdant fields and the swift-moving rivers of the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta during the six-hour bus trip.
Although there were few accommodations in the town, I was impressed with the French architecture and gracious welcome from the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel, which offered me a lemon-and-ginger tea and a cool lemongrass-scented towel.
Located on the bank of the Bassac River at the Three-River Fork, the hotel, which opened in 1999, is built in a colonial style.
Entering the hotel conjured up that unmistakable feeling of arriving at a new place and transported me to a different place and time when art and culture intersected with the generous spirit of comfort and good company.
For lunch, I ate at the hotel’s Bassac restaurant, where I had linh fish tempura, sauteed dien dien flower with baby shrimp and steamed rice.
I then took a xe loi around town before visiting the Chau Doc market, only 500m from the hotel.
The market was a jumble of special foods, including dried linh salted fish; sun-dried sac (gourami) fish; mam Thai, a fish sauce made with snakehead fish, palm sugar, fried rice flour and grated papaya; mam long (salted fish’s gut); may fruit; and duong thot not (palm sugar).
I bought gifts for friends and family, and did not forget to purchase a kilo of fresh lotus seed, which was an inexpensive VND20,000 (US$1). During the evenings, I loved sipping this drink as I watched my favourite HBO film channel in my hotel room.
My second day started early when I joined the hotel’s environmental campaign, the seventh annual Green Day on September 11, the date of a series of coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda upon the US nine years ago.
It was fun but I nearly lost my breath when climbing up Sam Mountain for the clean-up with 20 local students from the Thu Khoa Huan Secondary School, local community members and hotel guests.
Halfway up the mountain, the hotel staff showed me a beautiful, unoccupied resort built by Victoria Hotels&Resorts eight years ago. The corporation has yet to put it into operation because of the limited number of tourists who visit Chau Doc.
However, the brick-and-wood resort was creatively designed, with its five rows of bungalows looking like fingers of an outstreched hand hanging down the side of the mountain.
From anywhere on the resort grounds, guests can enjoy splendid views over Chau Doc’s paddy fields and Cambodia.
I continued my “day of exercise” by hiring a bicycle from the hotel for a promenade around the ethnic Cham community in Da Phuoc Commune (An Phu District), 2km away from the hotel. I visited authentic houses on stilts, where young Cham women and elders worked on wooden spools and weaving machines that turned out attractive sarongs, towels and shirt fabrics.
The Cham people still retain their distinctive dress of brocade and culture. Young women wear bright purples, yellows and greens while the married women wear darker colours.
In order to satisfy my curiosity, a young girl showed me how to weave.
First she warped the loom and then wove a few rows of a straight weave. There was about a centimetre worth of weaving, which was a good base to begin our brocade pattern.
Then, she opened a shed and left the primary shuttle inside. As she held the top threads in her left hand, she counted how many threads she had to pass from her left to her right hand before she got to the place where the pattern would begin.
I finished the day by travelling 17km to Nha Ban Town in Tinh Bien District. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to Cam Mountain, right next to Tra Su Cajeput Forest.
Jumping in a sampan, we rowed the remaining kilometre and a half to the forest while taking in the view of the mysterious green landscape along both riverbanks.
We cruised smoothly around the swamp with its wildlife and were greeted by the sounds of whistling ducks, kingfishers, cuckoos, coucals, spotted doves, cranes, water-hens, egrets and herons.
As we passed by, we spotted a group of storks on their way home nestled among the dense mangrove jungle.
“Beside the abundant and splendid flora, this is home to more than 70 species of birds, including two rare species of Indian stork, the Mycteria leucocephala and the dien dien or Anhinga Melanogaster,” the forest guard Uyen said.
Climbing a lonely watchtower built of mangrove logs high over the serenity of the jungle, I saw a vast panorama of greenery punctuated by thousands of snow-white wings.
As the sun set and night arrived, the view changed and became livelier as the screeching birds returned home, covering the dark sky with a huge mass of feathers. — VNS by Hoang Ha