Thursday, June 26, 2014

Châu Đốc--the Diamond of the Delta

                                          by Jim Goodman

the fish statue at Châu Đốc
    As a border town 244 km west of Hồ Chí Minh City, Châu Đốc is a convenient stopover for travel to and from Cambodia.  But in addition, from here to the sea, no other area offers so many facets of the life and culture of the Mekong Delta—its ethnic composition, typical river activities and scenic attractions, including a bird sanctuary.  Châu Đốc lies on the Hậu Giang River, one of the major components of the Delta’s system, a waterway busy with cargo boats, fishing pirogues and floating houses.  At a riverside park a tall sculpture of a fish marks local appreciation of the town’s most important resource.
fishing around the pie
    From the fish statue the tip of the long, narrow Con Tiên Island is visible.  Just downriver is a covered market.  Further on lie riverside restaurants, where one can observe the variety of boat traffic.  Small pirogues, some pulled with oars, others fitted with a motor at the back end, ferry passengers across to the island shore, lined with houses on tall stilts.  Seeing these in the dry season gives a hint of how much the river swells during the rains.  Other pirogues hold one or two fishermen, who cast nets into the river.  Some of them will row right up to the piers and riverside balconies to catch fish around the supporting posts.
early morning floating market
   Upriver from the fish statue is the scene for another distinctive feature of Mekong Delta life—the early morning floating market.  Like the one near Cần Thơ, activity starts at dawn, peaks an hour after sunrise and dies down by mid-morning.  From the top end of each boat’s mast hangs a sample of the merchandise—bananas, coconuts, etc.—for sale on board.  Smaller boats carrying customers ply around and in between the market boats, as do pirogues hawking cooked food and refreshments.
floating houses on the Hầu Giang Riv
    Individual fishermen can usually count on decent results from their nets and traps, but the bulk of Châu Đốc’s fish comes from catfish farms managed by families living in houses floating on empty oil drums just off the eastern shore of Con Tiên Island.  Some of these are small, comprising one big room and a porch, but they can be quite pretty, painted in bright colors and festooned with potted flowers.  Large dwellings have an attached open-air balcony, where the residents lay out the fish to dry, while they keep the live ones in cages underneath.  Small dugouts convey people around the area.  For the motorized vessels a floating petrol station lies just downriver.
Vietnamese students ferried across theriver
    Most of Châu Đốc’s inhabitants are Vietnamese, largely descendants of immigrants during the 18th century, with a few Chinese Hoa neighborhoods near the markets.  Khmer and Chăm people still make up part of the city’s population and have their own villages near the town as well as further out in An Giang province. 
    The Chăm also settled here rather recently, like the Vietnamese.  They migrated from the east after the annexation by Minh Mạng of Panduranga, the last Chăm state in south-central Vietnam, and an unsuccessful revolt in the mid-19th century. The towering minarets and domed roofs of mosques identify the Chăm villages that lie on both sides of the river.  Unlike
Chăm girl near Châu Đốc
most of the Muslim Chăm who remained in the original homeland, the Chăm who moved into the Mekong Delta, and further on into Cambodia, follow a more orthodox version of Islam, heavily influenced by Sunni Islamic practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.  But they are a matrilineal society and thus the women are not so secluded as in other conservative Sunni societies. They keep their hair covered, but do not wear veils and are quite active in local commercial life.
    The small boats moored near the fish statue that take visitors on tours to the floating houses usually continue to a riverside Chăm village a few kilometers further.  The houses near the river stand on stilts that are at least two meters in length and long, narrow bamboo walkways connect neighborhoods.  During the dry season the space beneath the house is usually occupied by weavers, who work on handlooms to produce the distinctive brocaded pillowcases, scarves, towels and bedcovers characteristic of the Chăm textile tradition.
    Most of the village straddles the main road to the town.  Wooden houses with tiled roofs stand on tall stilts.  New mosques in the Arabian style, one white, one light green, lie on the other side of the road.  No market places exist here, but vendors sell vegetables, fruits and spices out of curbside wagons and Chăm women make and sell snacks at roadside stalls.
Chăm weaver

    Besides its own variety of attractions, Châu Đốc is also the starting point for short excursions to other sites in An Giang province.  The nearest and most popular, particularly for religious-minded Vietnamese, is Núi Sam, a temple-studded, 300 meter-high hill just five km outside of town next to the village of Vĩnh Tế.  The road from Châu Đốc terminates at the foot of the hill and the entrance to the grandest temple at Núi Sam—Chùa Tây An.
    The main building blends Chinese and Indian architectural motifs, featuring both angled roofs with upturned corners, as well as minaret-like towers with a dome at the top.  A rich, dark orange color dominates the walls, columns and roofs, with green trimming around the roof edges.  Statues of a broad range of Buddhist deities and guardian gods stand or sit at several interior altars, all lavishly decorated.
Chùa Tây An, Nús Sam
    On the other side of the road, a little further down, stands the more austere temple to Bà Chúa Xứ, a recent structure with gray concrete walls, tiered roofs of green tile and little exterior decoration.  But more devotees come here to honor this goddess, said to be able to tell one’s fortune, who is dressed in a red gown and peacock feathers.  According to one local legend, the stone image, a Khmer sculpture from the pre-Angkor period, originally stood at the summit of Núi Sam until the late 18th century, when Thai invaders tried to take it away.  But the image is said to have grown heavier and heavier and the plunderers had to abandon their efforts halfway down the hill.
    After their retreat an apparition claiming to be the spirit of Bà Chúa Xứ appeared to villagers and told them to summon nine virgins to move the statue.  That they did, but when they reached the foot of the hill the image once again became too heavy to move.  So they built the temple on that spot and housed it there.
    The origin and even the ethnic identity of Bà Chúa Xứ are still somewhat unclear.  To some she is a form of the Chăm goddess Po Nagar.  To others she is an incarnation of the Chinese Mazu, Goddess of the Sea and protector of sailors and fishermen.  Still others claim she was originally the wife of a late 18th century Vietnamese general, or one of Nguyễn Ánh’s Thai supporters during his war with the Tây Sơn regime.  Her name means Lady of the Realm and she has been invoked as a guardian of the border since the early Nguyễn Dynasty.
temple to the popular Bà Chúa Xứ
    In the popular view she is a goddess of prosperity, health, business success, fertility, domestic harmony, scholastic achievement and the secrets of the future.  Bà Chúa Xứ is the most popular goddess in the western part of the Delta, especially among female entrepreneurs, who form a large portion of the devotees who make pilgrimages to her temple.  Beginning on the 20th day of the 4th lunar month, the temple hosts a week-long festival in her honor, featuring pig sacrifices, rituals, operas, martial arts demonstrations, magic acts and stage performances, drawing hundreds of thousands of devotees and spectators.
    From her temple, continuing past smaller, rather gaudy temples, at the end of the one km-long road lies the lovely communal house Đình Vĩnh Tế, a classic Vietnamese building, with wide, tiered and tiled roofs, yellow walls and columns.  A path from here leads to the summit, passing various small temples and cave shrines on the way.  Sculptures of deities riding one sort of winged beast or another seem to dominate the sites.  At various points on the summit one can have a broad view of the plains, as well as Cambodia to the west and Núi Cấm to the south.  The latter is one of the Seven Mountains of An Giang province, the only part of the Mekong Delta between the Cambodian border and the river’s mouth that is not completely flat.
Trà Sư Bird Sanctuary
    Road 948, turning south just past Nhà Bàn village, runs past Núi Cấm, which is much higher than Núi Sam and offers a broader view.  On the way, the Trà Sư Bird Sanctuary lies a few kilometers off to the east.  A large, rectangular swamp with neat rows of tall trees, the sanctuary is dominated by egrets that cluster on the trees near the park entrance and nest deep inside the forest.  It’s possible to take a boat ride through the swamp, to view the nests high up in the trees.  Early morning and dusk are the most active times of day.
    Khmer villages also lie along the road to Núi Cấm.  They were the aboriginal inhabitants of the province, whose settlement perhaps dates back to the Funan Period, from the 3rd to 6th centuries.  The area was sparsely populated, and Châu Đốc hardly more than a small fishing village, until Vietnamese migration commenced in the early 18th century.  Cambodia was that century continuously convulsed by succession struggles among the royal family members.  Contending princes were never strong enough to win on their own, so sought outside assistance from their Thai or Vietnamese neighbors.  In the course of one such struggle, the victorious Khmer prince, to reward his Vietnamese allies, ceded Châu Đốc in 1757.  Vietnamese migrants did not displace the Khmer, but simply cleared land and established new villages in places not occupied by them.  Eventually they became the majority community and now comprise over 90% of the province’s population.
Khmer Buddhist temple near Núi Cấ
   Châu Đốc’s importance rose from 1815, when the Nguyễn Emperor Gia Long ordered the construction of a fort in the city and placed Thoại Ngọc Hầu in charge.  He oversaw the construction of the Vĩnh Tế Canal, connecting Châu Đốc with Hà Tiên on the coast.  The work took six years, employed 80,000 workers in harsh, often deadly conditions.  Upon completion the canal ran 91 km, was 25 meters wide and three meters deep.  Still in use today, it also ran right along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, fixing the frontier boundaries here once and for all.
unusual Khmer temple carving

    While few Khmer live in Châu Đốc or other provincial towns, their villages dominate the area around the Seven Mountains.  Khmer houses do not differ from those of their Vietnamese neighbors, but occasionally the village entrance features a gate in the style of the Angkor Wat monuments.  Fancy gates also stand at the entrance to the village temples, built in the Cambodian style, but differing somewhat from Khmer Theravada Buddhist temples in the coastal provinces of Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng, the home of 70% of Vietnam’s Khmer community.  They feature taller columns around the building, supporting angled roofs with cone-shaped brick towers mounted on the top. A few ornate chedis stand in the temple courtyard.  Carved nagas—the giant serpents of Buddhist mythology—and the occasional odd image, such as a headless man with his face on his chest, adorn the compound buildings.
    Thus, in just a few days in and around Châu Đốc, a traveler can appreciate just about every facet of the Mekong Delta’s material and cultural life.  Here are floating fish farms and centuries-old rice fields, traditional religions like Buddhism, both Mahayana and Theravada, as well as Islam and Christianity, esoteric sects (Hòa Hảo, for example, has many followers in the area) and popular divinities like Bà Chúa Xứ, mountain views and flocks of birds, Vietnamese rural and river life, Khmer, Châm and Chinese communities.  No other destination in the Delta offers so much.                      

casting a net on the Hầu Giang River
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