Sunday, May 5, 2013

Chau Doc (part 1)

My husband and I were in Vietnam for about 1 week and we were curious to visit Cambodia for a few days, crossing over in the delta by Chau Doc and returning by Ha Tien.  Partly we wanted to see what the new Ha Tien border crossing is like and partly because we were interested in the changes in Cambodia.  We last visited Cambodia in 2007.

We woke up at 5:00 am which was way too early for me, and took an air conditioned bus out of Nga Ba An Trach to Can Tho.  From Can Tho we took another bus to Chau Doc bus station.  During the ride to Chau Doc I met a Chinese-Vietnamese couple from Saigon.  They were on their way to Chau Doc temples.  I chatted with the woman and she explained how to make shrimp chips.  I enjoyed the discussion of food and cooking ideas, it made the ride feel shorter.  At the bus station we were transferred into town by a mini-van.  We did not have any travel arrangements, our plan was to find a hotel in town, find the best travel option for the next leg of the trip, and then check the area out later.  Luckily we got the van to stop in a location where there was a hotel right in the town center and close to the market.  From past travel experience I always make it a point to view the rooms in person prior to booking if possible.  This way there will be fewer surprises.  The hotel rooms were decent and clean enough for a night stay.

By 2:00 pm we had already checked in, took a quick cold shower, and booked a motorbike tour up to Sam Mountain for sunset.  After many visits to the delta where the land is completely flat, this mountain really stood out and deserved a visit.  The mountain and the temples at its base are one of the main tourist attractions in the region.  We ventured to the nearby market towards the aroma of mắm, a term for pickled or preserved fish/shrimp/crab which is a well-known specialty in Chau Doc. We met a French couple in the market who commented that the whole town smells like mắm!  I was excited to see this amazing market with an array of beautiful and colorful mắm neatly stacked up from their containers.  I was in mắm heaven!!  What was interesting was that I did not see a single fly! Mắm is something you either like or don't.  Some Vietnamese even find the scent to be offensive!  I came from a village where many people I know love a good mắm.  One of the vendors let me tried her ba kia (preserved small crabs) and it was delicious!  It pained me that I could not buy any to take back.  My husband reminded me that we were at the beginning of our trip to Cambodia and we need to keep our bags light.  Secretly I think he just did not want me to drag this stinky food all over Cambodia!

ba kia
At the market everyone seem to be selling sugar palm.  They looked so fresh so I bought some to try. They were sweet and delicious.  We left the market and returned to the hotel and ate the food my relatives gave us.  We finished all the food and left via motorbike up to Sam Mountain with our two drivers.  Our drivers took us on local roads up the mountain.  We got a chance to glimpse into how people live and some of the farms in this area of Chau Doc.  We stopped to look at a fish farm. There were miles of land and I am glad to see it was not overcrowded with homes and development.

My driver is named Diep and he has lived in Chau Doc all his life.  During the day he has another job and in the evening to make extra money he works for the hotel. As we rode up the steep bumpy mountain, avoiding huge pot holes I had to really hang on to my seat.  There were a few people living on the mountain.  As we drove by a small home Diep yelled out something and kept driving.  I did not hear him clearly and thought he was sending some greetings to the people he knew.

We arrived at the top and my driver told me the best view for the sunset was at this cafe and pointed to one. There were basically two and the one he pointed toward obviously was up higher and has less obstruction. We walked around to get our bearing and to scope out views for photos.  We decided that my driver's recommendation was the best choice.  We went in the cafe and sat by the back. There was a van full of Western tourists who came up for the sunset and they took most of the good seats. However, once the sun barely set they all evacuated.  Our drivers did not seem to be in a hurry to get us back to down so we stayed.  Perhaps after working hard all day they were happy to take a break! We enjoyed the cool breeze and stayed until well past sunset.

When Diep drove me back down he stopped at that same place where he called out earlier and paid for 2 bags of hot soy milk.  He explained that this is the best place in Chau Doc for soy milk.  It was getting quite dark and there was not much of light so I could not see well.  I saw a large pot with what looked like milk so I decided to buy 2 bags of the same.  The soy milk was creamy and delicious with a hint of pandan leaves.

sugar palm on ice (sugary sweet hence its name)
sugar palm fruits (purple green fruits seen on left of photo)
local road in Chau Doc
typical fish farm
feeding the fish
Chau Doc
depending on the time of the year this part of Chau Doc
can be packed full of people coming here to worship and pray
3 friends enjoying the view of Chau Doc
(from Sam Mountain)
Chau Doc in the distance
fertile land for farming
more farm land
sunset looking into Cambodia
a cool place to hang out
enjoying sunset with a cool drink
Once we returned to our hotel.  We dropped off our day packs and left the hotel to wander the street again.  We wanted to make the most of this place and check out the sites since we had only one night. As we walked we were followed by a cyclo driver.  He was very persistent and kept following us.  We finally walked to this restaurant called Bay Bong and ate a classic Vietnamese meal of canh chua and ca kho to with steaming rice.  We met the delightful and chatty grandson who helped run this joint. The food was good and it hit the spot!

dinner at Bay Bong
(lau canh chua ca--fish soup hot pot)
After we left the restaurant we attempted to walk back to the hotel.  My husband quietly told me that the cyclo driver is still following us.  I finally asked the driver how much he wants for taking us on a short trip. He gave us a price that sounded reasonable.  The last time I was on a cyclo was in Hue and the guy basically gave me another price before the trip was over.  I have not been on a cyclo since that bad experience!  Finally I told my husband that we should give this guy a chance since he was so persistent and worked hard to sell us this ride.  He also did not have a single customer all evening.  He seemed honest and that was the most important part of the whole negotiation.  By then we both were tired and were barely interested in any ride, even just a short one, but agreed to a half hour tour to give him some business.  Well, our ride ended up lasting over an hour and he took us all over Chau Doc. He explained to me a lot about the town and I also learned a great deal about his life.  He has been a cyclo driver since he was 15 years old and now he is 35.  His name is Diep (same as my driver earlier).  After sitting over an hour on the tiny hard seat our butts were sore and I finally asked him to take us back to the hotel.  He was kind, courteous and honest so we paid him twice as much as what he asked for.  He was very happy to receive the extra money and we were grateful for the pleasant ride.  By the time we made it back to the hotel the building was dark and the door was closed.  There was no hint of life inside or outside. Luckily Diep knew what to do and someone opened the door for us! What an amazing day we had!

here I tried to capture what it felt like being on a cyclo
we decided to get off the cyclo so Diep can walk it up
the bridge since we could tell he was struggling a bit
(I think at this point I took the opportunity
and told him to quit smoking!)
*To be continued...

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