The holy mountain calls – and many answer. In the mornings around five o’clock, before cockcrow and before the sun has even opened its eyes, the narrow road to the summit is already black with people. Those who elect to drive to the top will save themselves aching muscles, but probably earn a guilty conscience at the sight of the energetic Vietnamese, many of whom start their day with tai chi exercises while others use the early hour to pray. The holy mountain of Nui Sam, just outside the village of Chau Doc, welcomes them all.
The summit, which is not a peak but actually a broad plateau 230 meters above the sea level, unfolds a panoramic view of the flat, expansive landscape which is unequalled in the whole of the Mekong delta. From up here, the water in the rice paddies glitters like diamonds in the first ray of the sun.
The horizon slashes a sharp boundary between earth and sky as if it had something to hide. And perhaps it does. Beyond the horizon the landscape rolls onward, deep into Vietnam’s history. To the northwest is Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia. While the Vietnamese can now turn their eyes to that direction once more, they are unwilling to look back. For years, the neighboring country represented the source of the calamity that was the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s guards repeatedly terrorized the farmers in the borders regions. In 1978, the Vietnamese finally succeeded in defending themselves, and since then there has been peace.
A road leads directly from the foot of Nui Sam towards Chau Doc in the northwest, running straight for 5 kilometers. In comparison, the road back to Chau Doc is the smallest unit of measurement. On its lower stretches we can indulge in a good deed in front of the Tay An pagoda; by paying a coupel dong to release a “lucky bird” from its bamboo cage and making a wish as it flies away. The little market in Chau Doc is positively bursting at the seams with color; flowers, fruit, and fish as far as the eye can see. Friendly market women patiently explain the names of the treasures they carry from the Mekong Delta. The market has such a rich variety of produce on offer that we are gripped by an irresistible idea; thisis always described in this way. Our idea takes on reality in the bustle of the market. The riverbank promenade is opposite the market. Newly renovated with some pretty gross neon candelabra, it is a meeting point for young and old. Inquisitive foreigners are not a problem; quite the opposite, in fact – a cheery exchange of “ Hello” spreads good humor all round. This is the departure point for private boats going to all corners of the upper Mekong. Tagging along on a short trip is enjoyable, provided you don’t mid sitting on fishnets coated with fresh scales.
Families here have farmed the delicious pangasius fish for generations – directly in the living rooms of their houseboats. These angular, rocking pontoons are the focal points of whole lives and careers. The main room houses the stove and dining area and has a large hole in its floor sealed with nets which extend into the river itself. The waters flow through the nets, catching the precious fish which can be kept under permanent observation from above and fed with rice flour or bananas.
Visitors should join the ride to Sa Dec, the village of flowers. And having seen the village Sa Dec, visitors are certain, too, the glorious village is a sea of color. Even non-garderning enthusiasts are in ecstasy. We’d love to gather armfuls of bouquets.
Mangroves to the left, swamps to the right, and flocks of birds in the middle. Here, amid the musty smell of mold and surrounded by mosquitoes eager to attack the white-skinned targets, we lie motionless for hours in the boats, silent but happy, watching the birds flitting around. The most zealous bird-watching sleuths commission the professional guidance of ornithologists such as Hanno Stamm or Richard Craik, rowing through Tra-Su National Park in little aluminum canoes. Equipped with binoculars, camera notebook, we rapidly learn how to pick out the birds among the dense mangroves and determine their species, under the approving eye of the ornithologists. They also readily supply information on other secrets of this vulnerable natural world. No one is more keenly aware than they are of the threat looming over these final outposts of a tropical primeval landscape.
The market at Chau Doc is no more crowded than other markets in Vietnam, but it’s crammed with so much delicious fruit, vegetables, and fish that there’s hardly room to move. Yet the market
women are a little friendlier to visitors here than elsewhere – perhaps because they’re so proud of their appetizing, fragrant, and tasty wares. They are happy to let us sample the produce, and some even attempt, in a cascade of incomprehensible yet mellifluous words and graphic gestures, to explain how the various plants grow.
Price, however, should not be mentioned. The people here would never understand the exorbitant amounts Westerners pay for a mango in a delicatessen store.