Before this trip, we hadn’t heard too much about Chau Doc, other than it was a border town between Vietnam and Cambodia and a nice, if not bland, place to break up our travel between Saigon and Phnom Penh. Friends cautioned that there wasn’t much to do or see and that one night would be plenty.
How glad we were that we decided to stay and explore Chau Doc, Gateway to the Mekong Delta!
We arrived in the afternoon from Saigon via Victoria’s Mekong Coach, a wonderfully spacious and comfortable bus with wifi and individual tablets to help pass the time! Pulling into The Victoria Chau Doc Hotel we remarked that it had a pretty facade from the street, but it was only when we walked through to the back that we could fully appreciate its place near where the Chau Doc River meets the Hau River (a branch of the Mekong).
Feeling a little travel weary, we made our way to the Victoria Spa located on the top floor of the hotel with magnificent river views. Magic fingers melted away the day’s stresses.
Late afternoon was a perfect time to saunter along Chau Doc’s river walk, a pedestrian-only area just next to the hotel where families come out to watch the river and where children play pick-up football games and kick around a shuttlecock.
Life is amazingly peaceful here, unlike frenetic Saigon where everyone is constantly on the go, and The Tan Chau Salon Bar, with its plush leather armchairs and a wall of French doors opening out to an outdoor terrace overlooking both the river and the swimming pool was the perfect place for a sundowner.
A light dinner and a quick early evening swim concluded the day. Tomorrow would be an early start!
Fueled with a hearty breakfast from The Bassac Restaurant, we board Victoria’s own covered boat for a closer look at the Chau Doc floating market. Soon we pull up to see about 30 boats congregate in the early morning hours. In a region with a vast network of waterways, large and small, having a market on the water simply makes sense.
The barges come from all over the Mekong Delta, laden with a variety of fruits and vegetables, conveniently displaying samples on long poles for everyone to see. With so much activity, it’s the perfect place to practice our photography skills, and we notice that all the boats have “eyes”, a distinctive feature of Vietnamese vessels, believed to ward off evil spirits or monsters, and to also guide the boats away from danger and safely back home.
We find river life fascinating in this part of the world, where people’s lives are so in tune with the ebbs and flows of the water. Even the houses are built on stilts to withstand the seasonal rise and fall of the river.
We notice that many boats along the river are semi-permanently moored house boats, often housing enormous fish pens underneath with hundreds of thousands of fish. We jump off and meet Oanh as she tells us of life lived on the river.
Further down, our boat pulls up to a small dock and we find ourselves in Phum Soai (literally “mango neighborhood” in Khmer), a small Cham community. Descendants of the ancient Champa civilization, the Cham people are now one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities. The broad, clean streets feature neat cement houses, a nice contrast from the typical wooden Vietnamese houses. We visit one of the community’s matriarchs, the beautifully regal, 81-year-old Ayesha as she tells us of life as a Muslim Cham in Vietnam.
It’s been a gorgeous day on the river, but we can’t seem to get enough. We watch nature’s TV from our room, boats big and small plying the river.
By 8 am the next morning, we’re back at it with a visit to the Chau Doc Market, led by the hotel’s Executive Chef. Colorful with fruits and vegetables and busy with food vendors, the Chau Doc Market represents a slice of life in the Mekong Delta.
The beautiful stone villas with their terra cotta roofs remind us more of Tuscany than Vietnam. In keeping with the nature theme, the rooms are simpler, more earthy than at the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel, but just as restful.
The afternoon is spent exploring some of the nearby temples and pagodas. Perhaps it’s the spirituality of communing with nature that has made this mountain the site of dozens of temples. Or maybe it’s the fact that Chau Doc, on the border with Cambodia, has served as a melting pot of religions including Cham, Buddhism, Hinduism and mother-goddess worship.
Whatever the reason, it’s fascinating to have such a mix of temples and architectural styles in such close proximity.
We’re back at the lodge by late afternoon, just in time to witness the sun set over the plains below. Simply. Magical.
We’re excited to take our first day trip into the countryside, first visiting Tuc Dup Hill, better known as ‘Two Million Dollar Hill’ for the amount of money the US purportedly spent on bombs in an unsuccessful attempt to take the hill during an intense 128 day battle in the late 1960s.
We meet up with Mr. Cu, at 82, one of the oldest surviving members of the resistance fighters from that epic battle. The reluctant career soldier explains how his love of country outweighed his love of peace, fighting first the French, then the Americans. It’s satisfying to put a face to the war stories we’ve heard over the years.
A short drive takes us to the stunning 850-hectare Tra Su Forest, an ecosystem of cajuput trees that line dusty dirt paths and a flooded mangrove forest that is a stunning backdrop for the paradisaic park’s plants and animals.
A series of boats, both motorized and row, take us further into the bird sanctuary, zipping through a living carpet of water lettuce with their pretty green rose-like petals, so dense that we have to remind ourselves that we’re actually on water.
The birds come home to roost as the sun begins its descent, filling the sky with wings of white and a cacophony of tweets and chirps.
Chau Doc has far exceeded our expectations and we’re thrilled to have spent a few extra days here. We’re reluctant to leave this peaceful corner of the Mekong Delta and are already looking forward to our return trip to explore more of the region.
But for now, we bid “xin chao” to the Victoria properties which have been our home for the past few days and board the Victoria Speedboat. Next stop, Phnom Penh!