An­other Side To The Las Ve­gas Of The East

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vil­lagers were bru­tally slaugh­tered. Their dried blood still stains the walls to this day. The all-to-graphic black and white pho­tos in the me­mo­rial are im­mensely dis­turb­ing, and cer­tainly not for the faint of heart.

Cham Charm

With the shad­ows be­gin­ning to draw long over the pad­dies and dykes and the golden hour fast ap­proach­ing, we leave death and its at­ten­dant hor­rors be­hind and strike out for the wa­ter world of Tra Su bird sanc­tu­ary. The drive is an idyl­lic one, trail­ing the banks of an­cient canals still bear­ing Cam­bo­dian names, and un­der copses of trees, which arch over the road. We pass stilt houses, Kh­mer tem­ples, and canals traf­ficked with col­or­ful barges with painted eyes. It’s a back­wa­ter won­der­land of net­worked water­ways, play­ing Cham chil­dren, and bask­ing wa­ter buf­falo: a world burst­ing with green and life on the tail end of rainy sea­son. If any­where car­ries the soul of the Mekong Delta re­gion in all its star­tling vi­brancy and di­ver­sity, then surely it’s here.

The road be­comes in­creas­ingly greener as we turn off for the bird sanc­tu­ary, with clouds of birdlife com­ing back to roost as evening draws close. Tra Su started off as a rub­ber plan­ta­tion, its trees planted in rows with clear paths cut be­tween, though now the whole for­est is flooded and trans­formed into a mag­i­cal float­ing par­adise and sanc­tu­ary for the re­gion’s en­dan­gered herons and other birdlife. For­ma­tions of them come glid­ing in V for­ma­tions, and the whole for­est is clam­or­ing with bird life. It’s a truly ethe­real place, and there is no bet­ter way to see it than by boat, and no time more mag­i­cal than the day’s end with the sun melt­ing into the pad­dies.

We nab tick­ets onto the last boat of the day and clam­ber aboard at the tiny land­ing. The pi­lot fires up the out­board mo­tor and within mo­ments we’re skim­ming across a car­pet of green al­gae and wa­ter lilies and into the flooded for­est, trans­ported into a world of green. Though it’s only a short dis­tance in be­fore we’re switched over along with an­other small group of strag­glers into row­boats, and silently float our way into the in­ti­mate heart of the sanc­tu­ary. It’s surely one of the most oth­er­worldly

ex­pe­ri­ences Viet­nam has to of­fer, like a scene from Apoc­a­lypse Now, float­ing silently past nest­ing herons barely an arm’s reach away down the tun­nels cre­ated by the over-arch­ing trees.

But there’s one fi­nal sur­prise in store for us yet. The next morn­ing we set off in search of the rel­a­tively un­known Cham vil­lages, cross­ing the lethar­gic Bas­sac River by ferry. The Chams were a maritime civ­i­liza­tion who once thrived along the coasts of Cen­tral Viet­nam, neme­sis of the Angko­ri­ans, and ar­chi­tects of the tem­ples of My Son and other relics, a Hindu cul­ture now all but ex­tinct save but a few vil­lages, a large con­cen­tra­tion of which are lo­cated around Chau Doc. Those which re­main have con­verted to Is­lam, and what a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence it is to see teal-blue mosques and vil­lage girls in hi­jab, and hear the call to prayer in the midst of the Mekong. The mi­nori­ties of eth­nic Chams and Kh­mers liv­ing in this bor­der re­gion give it a uniquely exotic taste, and its thrilling to get lost in it on the back of a scooter. Cham ladies, skill­ful ar­ti­sans, sit in front of their stilt houses weav­ing scarves, sarongs, and shawls as they have for gen­er­a­tions. Some of their looms have been in con­tin­u­ous use for over a cen­tury. Their vil­lages have be­come renowned for this craft of late and, as a re­sult, a trickle of much­needed tourism has started to flow, most of whom take boat tours out from Chau Doc, where the vil­lages are able to share some of their unique cul­ture.

It’s an area burst­ing with vari­a­tion and vi­brancy, and lit­tle-vis­ited be­yond those cross­ing into or out of Cam­bo­dia. If there’s any one place in the Delta which serves as a mi­cro­cosm for the whole, surely this is that place.

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