Published on :   08/05/2015

A First Glimpse at Vietnam in Chau Doc

I learned a lot of things today.

Firstly, that I will never have what it takes to be a fisherman, secondly that Vietnam is amazing and last but not least, that if you want to see Southeast Asia, river cruising is the way to do it.

I’ll start with that last lesson first.

For the past couple of days, I have been enjoying life on board the Toum Tiou I, floating happily past fishing villages and calm stretches of countryside. Often with a fresh coconut in hand, I’ll take in these views from the comfort of one of the cruise’s many lounge spaces, decked out with cozy furniture and a relaxing ambiance that is perfect for watching the world go by. Most of our morning today was spent cruising towards the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, and it was while relaxing on the sundeck that I realized how unique an experience it was to be cruising through Southeast Asia. Not only is there no need to unpack more than once, you also get a direct peek into the daily lives of locals and of course, have an attentive crew to take care of you at all times. I must say, on this small 12-passenger boat, it’s hard not to feel like a real VIP! Now, I only have a few days left on board, but I plan to make the most of it. I really can’t imagine a better way to enjoy this part of the world!

After a relaxing morning of navigation, we boarded a small local boat to visit a floating fish farm, one of many which can be found near Chau Doc. Most of these farms are in fact residential homes with fish cages suspended beneath them, holding often over 100,000 fish. As the owners invited us into their home, it was fascinating to hear about their fish farming practices, which have been cemented in tradition for decades. While at one point a highly lucrative business, today fish farming is faced with a variety of challenges. For instance, due to the high cost of fish food, often families will have to take loans out from the bank at the beginning of the season to fund their business. In addition to that, a great deal of money goes into raising and feeding the fish, which means smaller overall profit margins.

As we huddled around one of the fish cages, we got to witness a feeding, and it was absolutely insane! As the food pellets fell into the water, the fish began to jump and thrash about in a flurry of frenzied chaos… I’ve never seen anything like it. I was even given a chance to feed the fish myself, but, in my moment to shine, I failed miserably, completely missed my target and ended up spilling fish food all over the wooden planks of the floor. Though woefully embarrassing, it was a lesson learnt: perhaps it’s best if I stick to photography and blogging…

After lunch, we headed out to explore the city of Chau Doc, found in the An Giang province of Vietnam, just along the Cambodian border. Here, I learned my third main lesson of the day: Vietnam is amazing! While largely untouched by tourists, Chau Doc attracts over a million pilgrims every year, who flock to the city’s many temples and pagodas, particularly during the city’s five-day Ba Chua Xu Temple Festival, during which wishes are said to be granted to those who pray to the local goddess Lady Xu.

As a fan of high-up panoramic views, I was ecstatic to hear that our first stop of the day would be to the top of Sam Mountain, the highest mountain in the province, which towers over 200m above the city and its surrounding countryside. Our driver’s breakneck speed through the impossibly narrow and winding roads was both impressive and terrifying, but I am happy to report I made it up in one piece:  

Afterwards, we were dropped off in the city center, where we got to explore the vibrant markets of Chau Doc, filled with stands selling produce, temple offerings and the city’s specialty: pickled fish. The sight of fish neatly piled into mounds is a common one in this city, and one that you will immediately detect with not just your eyes, but your nose. Let’s just say, it’s not difficult to understand why Chau Doc’s nickname is “the Kingdom of Pickled Fish”:

After some time in the market, we made our way to the Ba Chua Xu Temple, site of the annual festival where the famous Lady Xu goddess statue is ceremonially bathed and given a new gown and headdress. While this festival is undoubtedly a popular time to visit the city, pilgrims are actually a common sight throughout the year. As my guide explained, during the festival, people will come to pray and wish for something (usually for their parents or their business). If their wish becomes a reality, then they must return to the temple with offerings for the goddess. These offerings typically consist of food like roasted pig and fruit, which are then shared with the town’s poor and hungry.

For the rest of our visit, we strolled around Chau Doc, stopping by a few main points of interest including tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau, located at the base of Sam Mountain and the colourful Tay An Pagoda whose vibrant details made it a very fun last stop:

As I said earlier, today I got a taste of what an amazing country Vietnam truly is. There is so much to see, so much to do, and so much culture to absorb. I love this feeling of being someplace completely new and I can’t wait to continue our adventures tomorrow in Sa Dec.

Talk to you all soon!

- Christina