There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Chau Doc: Part 3 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

At 6.48 on a clear, fresh Mekong morning we slipped our moorings and headed out into the main western channel of the delta.

Leaving our overnight mooring, Mekong Delta
Our breakfast on the move was much the same as yesterday but included the sweet yellow mango from Sa Dec market. I love mango, or I used to until Lynne said it tasted like swede – now that thought pops uncomfortably into my head as soon as I pick up my spoon.

The main western channel of the delta

For the first time we saw cultivated fields beside the river; green beans, taro, chillies, sugar cane and aubergines ('egg plants' in the US). Tai called them 'eshk plants'  the combination of ‘e’ and a hard ‘g’ is problematic for Vietnamese speakers.

Cultivated fields beside the Mekong
After the fields were yet more fish farms and soon the city of Chau Doc (more correctly Châu Đốc) came into view. We passed through a floating market....

Floating market, Chau Doc

.... and by 10 o’clock were tying up at the jetty of the Victoria Hotel. If our arrival at the boat had involved a little confusion, the Hotel, owned by the same company, had no such problems. We were met with a cup of tea, Cambodian visa application forms and a lunch menu with ‘In Honor of wife and Mr David Roger’ printed on the cover. It was a western menu featuring ‘roasted US beef rib eye with lamb jus sauce’ which seemed a little odd.
We said ‘goodbye’ to Tai and the boat crew who had looked after us so well, settled into our new surroundings and took a walk along Chau Doc prom – which has potential but is currently being dug up – and through the market which was busy and, as always, interesting.

Waving 'goodbye' to our sampan

Although it was not obvious Chau Doc is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Vietnam. 300 years ago the region was part of Cambodia and there is still a Khmer community who following Therevada Buddhism, while the Kinh (Vietnam’s majority community) are largely Mahayana Buddhists. The Cham community are Sunni Muslims while the region is also a stronghold of the Hoa Hao form of Buddhism. Founded locally in 1939 Hoa Hao once had 1.5 million adherents and financed a militia that fought both the French and the communists. It still exists, but is now far less influential.

At 12.30 we turned up for lunch and found a table laid with knives and forks bearing a copy of our ‘special menu’. Another long table had been laid out for a tour group and they had a Vietnamese menu.

We suggested we would prefer the Vietnamese menu, too. This was met with incredulity, our ‘personal’ menu ‘would be better for you’ we were informed. We meet a lot of people who think they know what we want to eat better than we do. After a little gentle persistence we were served banana flower salad, caramelised basa, beef with rice and a palm heart fruit salad. It was all washed down with a small can of the cheapest beer, which set us back 57 000 Dong (£1.80) which may sound modest in western terms, but in Vietnam comes into the ‘you can’t be serious’ category.

A little later a local guide turned up to take us to a Cham village in the Chau Giang district. We made our way down to the jetty to discover that a 35-seater boat had been provided for the two of us.

Two years ago we encountered the Cham in central Vietnam, visiting the ruins of the religious capital at  My Son and the museum of Cham artefacts in Da Nang. Groups of Cham still live in the central highland and practice Hinduism as did their forebears. We did not then realised that their historic territory extended across much of Cambodia and down to the Mekong delta. They were the main rivals of the Khmer before their defeat in 1181 by King Jayavarman VII (of whom more later) in a naval battle on Tonle Sap Lake. The Cham in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta converted to Islam in the 17th century.

Fish farms, Chau Doc
On the way we stopped at a fish farm. These typically consist of a floating platform with living quarters, sometimes a hut, sometimes rather more comfortable, while the fish are in an enclosure below. Here they claimed to have some 6000 tonnes of fish beneath their feet, mainly catfish (they are sold the UK as basa - their Vietnamese name - presumably because the British would not buy ‘catfish’).
Feeding equipment and shrine
fish farm, Chau Doc

Government loans are provided to set up fish farms and some are very successful, but it is a risky business. In overcrowded conditions the fish are susceptible to disease, while poor maintenance of the nets can lead to them escaping. In the farm we visited, the tilapia were too small for the wholesalers last year, too big this, but as they cannot be separated from the basa the owners continue to feed them. Despite these problems they are making a satisfactory living by local standards.

The fish beneath our feet, fish farm, Chau Doc
Further upstream we moored at a rickety jetty and crossed an even more rickety walkway over marshy ground to reach the outskirts of the village. We were met by a lad of 7 or 8 with his hand outstretched asking for money. He looked well fed and reasonably well dressed.

Our overlarge boat (the one on the left!) at the rickety jetty
Cham village, Chau Giang

The village consists of several houses on stilts. Beneath, chickens scratch in the dirt and small children run round among the chickens. Slightly larger children descended on us with bags of coconut sweets which they were sure we needed at inflated prices. A girl sat at a loom making silk scarves while older women had stalls selling scarves which may or may not have been silk – one of which we now own. There were no men at home, but all the women wore headscarves so we knew it was a Muslim village even before we heard the call to prayer.

Cham village, Chau Giang
The photo manages to miss all the chickens and most of the children

Our Vietnamese guide clearly had little respect for her Cham neighbours. Some, she told us, have relatives in the US or France who send back money so they have no need to work, others are very poor because they cannot be bothered to work.

The path up to the main road
Cham village, Chau Giang

We climbed the stairs up to house level and then followed the path up to the main road back to Chau Doc. A roadside shop had the name Mubarak Saddam over the door, though whether it was deliberately named after two tyrants or it was just a coincidence I have no idea. Men were making their way towards the mosque wearing skull caps and loose trousers. We followed them as far as the entrance, but as it was prayer time we could not go it.
A worshipper enters the Mubarak mosque, Chau Giang
We returned to the village and then to our overlarge boat.....

Back over the rickety walkway

.... which took us back to the hotel where we decided to walk over the road for a coffee. When we reached the coffee shop we looked at the menu and chose to have a beer instead. Leaving the 4-star, foreigner orientated hotel caused the price of a beer (same brand, same size) to drop from 57 000 Dong to 16 000 (50p).

We spotted the tables of a restaurant lining the alley behind the coffee shop, so later in the evening we returned to join a mixed clientele of locals and hotel escapees. The waiting staff consisted of one somewhat disorganised 13 year-old boy who was continually being called over by one party or another to bring items he had forgotten. He brought us menus quickly enough and then a couple of cans of Tiger beer (a refreshing brew at a refreshing 15 000 Dong) but then seemed to forget about us. I was beginning to think we should have gone somewhere else, but eventually we attracted his attention and ordered ‘beef dipped in sweet and sour boiling water’, stewed chicken with garlic and sautéed spinach, also with garlic - it is always good to ensure the vampire problem is solved.

We did not have to wait long before a plate of sliced raw beef arrived. We looked at it for a moment, then it dawned on us that we had ordered a hotpot. Next came a pan of cold water with spices floating in it, followed by some equipment to boil that water and finally the spinach and chicken. Despite my prejudice against going to a restaurant and cooking my own meal, I must admit it was very good. The ‘hot water’ was well flavoured as was the accompanying dipping sauce, the beef was tender, the chicken succulent and spinach garlicky.

Lynne and a hotpot, Chau Doc

Well-fed at very reasonable cost we dropped into the coffee shop again and this time actually had some coffee. Vietnamese coffee is usually served dripping through a metal filter on top of the cup. I like its vicious strength and underlying chocolaty flavour. It may not have been the wisest thing to drink before retiring to bed, but so what.

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