SOUL OF THE DELTA
Chau Doc is a timeless region that straddles both Khmer and Vietnamese cultures
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