SOUL OF THE DELTA

Chau Doc is a time­less re­gion that strad­dles both Kh­mer and Viet­namese cul­tures

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Tayne Ephraim Im­ages by Ngoc Tran

THE MEKONG IS TO VIET­NAM per­haps some­thing like what the prairies are to Amer­ica, or the Red Cen­tre is to Aus­tralia. There is some­thing vi­tal in this vast wa­tery land­scape of rice pad­dies and linked canals that is dis­tinct to the essence of Viet­nam. Some­thing like a soul.

How­ever, it’s a re­gion with­out a dis­tinct lo­cus, stretch­ing from the out­skirts of Saigon down to the tip of Viet­nam in Ca Mau. I’ve for­ayed to var­i­ous parts of the Delta over the years, but find­ing some­thing like a ‘ heart’ to the re­gion proves no easy task. But I feel as if I may have found it at last.

Chau Doc, which strad­dles the bor­der be­tween Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam un­der the pointy shadow of Sam Moun­tain, marks the cul­tural fron­tier be­tween the two lands, back to the time of the Nguyen Lords. It’s a time­less re­gion, where the Mekong Delta slowly melds with the low­lands of Cam­bo­dia, just a stone’s throw away. And for much of this land’s his­tory, the two cul­tures were one, back to the misty pasts of the an­cient king­dom of Fu­nan and be­yond.

Chau Doc it­self as a city is fairly un­re­mark­able as far as Viet­nam’s in­ter­change­able pro­vin­cial cities go.

Few ves­tiges of colo­nial her­itage re­main, hinted at only in the odd re­main­ing French villa crouched be­tween pas­telshaded shop houses. How­ever, the city, with its un­crowded small-town at­mos­phere, is not with­out its charms. The in­hab­i­tants are end­lessly friendly, cu­ri­ous, and quick to laugh­ter.

Af­ter a sim­ple and hardy bowl of bun

ca Chau Doc for break­fast and ca phe da to wash it down, we rent a scooter and hit the road be­fore the full glare of Mekong sun takes ahold. First stop is Sam Moun­tain, a bearded out­crop of vol­canic rock jut­ting up from the plain a few kilo­me­ters out of town like a scruffy Bud­dha. Some­what like Black Lady Moun­tain near the city of Tay

Ninh, it’s a lit­tle hard to miss, be­ing the only sub­stan­tial rise in land­mass within sight. In an­cient times a shrine be­lieved to have be­longed to the Oc Eo cul­ture, a civ­i­liza­tion which once traded with the Ro­mans but is now all but lost to time, ex­isted at the moun­tain top, home to a stone idol, which may have been an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the In­dian god Shiva. Re­dis­cov­ered in the 1820s by lo­cal farm­ers near the moun­tain base, the idol has since be­come the lo­cus of a pop­u­lar cult, draw­ing pil­grims from all over the re­gion and far be­yond. What­ever the true ori­gins, nowa­days the icon has found new life as Lady Xu. The Lady, who re­sides in her epony­mous tem­ple, an ar­ti­sanal struc­ture of wooden beams and slop­ing green roofs, is a feisty de­ity of the pad­dies, re­spon­sive to her faith­ful, vin­dic­tive to those who cross her. Folk leg­end has her strik­ing dead an at­ten­dant who dared bathe her five min­utes early dur­ing her fes­ti­val, and in a de­li­ciously bru­tal twist, break­ing the arms of mis­chievous chil­dren. You’ve been warned.

We strug­gle up the steep in­cline of the nar­row road, which snakes its way up the moun­tain, past in­tri­cate shrines and her­metic abodes, and the nu­mer­ous tem­ples dot­ting the way to the sum­mit. From the top, Cam­bo­dia stretches away into the haze, and a lit­tle chain of Mekong moun­tains be­comes vis­i­ble, ris­ing up from the pan­cake­flat ex­panse of pad­dies and march­ing west­ward to the sea. We find a ma­roon­col­ored tem­ple with a pond of koi fish and med­i­ta­tive wind chimes, and walk bare­foot through the cor­ri­dors, past monks swish­ing qui­etly in their robes. Be­yond, on the hori­zon, fin­gers of smoke wag­gle up be­hind the lines of co­conut palms from the burn­ing of dry straw at har­vest sea­son’s end.

With plenty of gas left in the tank and a sky full of sun, we strike out next for the nearby ham­let of Ba Chuc, a pi­caresque vil­lage ringed around the base of two tiny moun­tains that holds a dark se­cret. This site was wit­ness to a largely for­got­ten atroc­ity dur­ing the reign of the Kh­mer Rouge, when their way­ward sol­diers would fre­quently cross over into Viet­nam and launch sur­prise at­tacks on un­sus­pect­ing vil­lages. These raids were com­mon oc­cur­rences across the por­ous Viet­nam-Cam­bo­dia bor­der re­gion, from the Mekong up as far north as the south­ern high­lands. But, by far, the most horrific oc­curred here

in Ba Phuc, where in 1978 a force of Kh­mer ir­reg­u­lars armed with knives and cud­gels fell upon the vil­lage and mas­sa­cred its in­hab­i­tants in ways that are scarcely con­ceiv­able, an event that may have sparked Viet­nam’s in­va­sion of Cam­bo­dia in reprisal. To­day a stark me­mo­rial stands wit­ness to the hor­rors com­mit­ted there. More than 3,000 were killed, in­clud­ing an in­or­di­nate num­ber of women and chil­dren, and their skulls and bones are dis­played in a white, lo­tus-shaped os­suary rem­i­nis­cent of the Choe­ung Ek killing fields in Phnom Penh. On the grounds is a tem­ple where more than 300

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