Mekong Delta


Vietnam's 'rice basket', the Mekong Delta is a watery landscape of green fields and sleepy villages, everywhere crisscrossed by the brown canals and rivulets fed by the mighty Mekong River. Its inhabitants - stereotyped as friendly and easygoing - have long toiled on the life-sustaining river, with their labours marked by the same cycles governing the waterways. The delta, which yields enough rice to feed the country with a sizable surplus, was formed by sediment deposited by the Mekong. The process continues today, with silt deposits extending the shoreline by as much as 80m per year. The river is so large that it has two daily tides. Lush with rice paddies and fish farms, this delta plain also nourishes the cultivation of sugarcane, fruit, coconut and shrimp. Although the area is primarily rural, it is one of the most densely populated regions in Vietnam and nearly every hectare is intensively farmed. The uniquely southern charm with its welcoming introduction to life along the river is the real draw, and visitors can explore quaint riverside towns, sample fruits bartered in the colourful floating markets or dine on home-cooked delicacies before overnighting as a homestay guest. Other highlights include visits to local orchards, flower markets and fish farms. There are also bird sanctuaries, rustic beach getaways like Hon Chong and impressive Khmer pagodas in the regions around Soc Trang and Tra Vinh. Those seeking an idyllic retreat will find it in Phu Quoc, a forested island dotted with pretty beaches, freshwater springs and empty dirt roads (ideal for motorbike adventures). Good diving and white-sand beauty have led to its growing popularity, with a mix of cheap bungalows and five-star resorts along an uncrowded coastline.
Mekong Delta Vietnam
The Mekong Delta was once part of the Khmer kingdom, and was the last region of modern-day Vietnam to be annexed and settled by the Vietnamese. Cambodians. mindful that they controlled the area until the 18th century, still call the delta 'Lower Cambodia'. The Khmer Rouge tried to follow up on this claim by raiding Vietnamese villages and massacring the inhabitants. This led the Vietnamese army to invade Cambodia in 1979 and oust the Khmer Rouge from power. Most of the current inhabitants of the Mekong Delta are ethnic Vietnamese, but there are also significant populations of ethnic Chinese and Khmer, as well as a few Chams. When the government introduced collective farming to the delta in 1975, production fell significantly and there were food shortages in Saigon (although farmers in the delta easily grew enough to feed themselves). People from Saigon would head down to the delta to buy sacks of black-market rice, but to prevent 'profiteering' the police set up checkpoints and confiscated rice from anyone carrying more than 10kg. All this ended in 1986 and farmers in this region have since propelled Vietnam forward to become the world's second-largest rice exporter after Thailand.

Can Tho

The largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho is a buzzing town with a lively waterfront and a colourful mix of narrow back streets and wide boulevards that make for some rewarding exploration - especially after a few days spent in the wilds. As the political, economic, cultural and transportation centre of the Mekong Delta, Can Tho hums with activity; while its access to nearby floating markets make it a major draw for tourists, who come here to boat along the myriad canals and rivers leading out of town.

The enormous, well-presented Can Tho Museum has exhibits of the history of Can Tho resistance during foreign rule as well as displays on the culture and history of the province. There's a life-size pagoda and ample English signage.
The ornamentation of Munirangsyaram Pagoda (36 ÐL Hoa Binh) is typical of Khmer Hinayana Buddhist pagodas: it doesn't have any of the multiple Bodhisattvas and Taoist spirits common in Vietnamese Mahayana pagodas. In the upstairs sanctuary a 1.5m-high repre-sentation of Siddhartba Gautama, the historical Buddha, sits serenely under a Bodhi Tree.
Built in 1946. The Mumrangsyaram Pagoda serves the Khmer community of Can Tho, which numbers about 2000.
Occupying a splendid location facing the Can Tho River, this small Chinese pagoda (Quan Cong Hoi Quan; Ð Hai Ba Trung) was built by the Cantonese Congregation. The original one was constructed on a different site about 70 years ago. The current pagoda was built with funds donated by overseas Chinese more recently. Can Tho used to have a large ethnic-Chinese population, but most of them fled after the anti-Chinese persecutions (1978-79).
Many local farmers and wholesalers arrive at this market (Ð Hai Ba Trung) by boat to buy and Sell. The fruit section, near the intersection of Ð Hai Ba Trung and Ð Ngo Quyen, is par ticularly colourful and stays open until late evening.
Devoted to all things militaristic, this museum has the usual assort-ment of American War weaponry and Ho Chi Minh portraits. Missiles and a fighter aircraft sit on the front lawn.

For a bit of glorious chlorinaled fun, try the Can Tho Water Park (Tell: 763 343; Cai Khe Ward; water park/pool only 40,000/25,000d; 9am-6pm). Among the attractions are water slides and a wave pool Children under 1m tall are admitted free.
One of the great rewards of travelling through the Mekong is sampling the extraordinary array of fruits available at markets, orchards and street stalls all over the region. A handful of fruits worth seeking include the following:
Buoi (pomelo) - this gargantuan grapefruit has thick skin and sweeter, less acidic fruit than ordinary grapefruit.
Chom Chom (rambutan) tiny fiery red fluit with hairy skin, and tender sweet white flesh. Most prevalent during the rainy season (May to October).
Ðu Du (papaya) - Vietnam boasts 45 species of papaya; it's great in juices or raw when ripe (orange to red flesh), and used in tangy salads when green.
Dua (pineapple) - another common Mekong fruit, some aren't so sweet. Locals sometimes doctor them up with salt and red chilli powder.
Khe (starfruit) - a five-pointed, shiny skinned fruit that is intensely juicy.
Mang Cau (custard apple) - inside this fruit's bumpy green skin lie black pips surrounded by white flesh - which indeed taste very much like custard.
Mang Cut (mangosteen) - violet, tennis-ball-sized fruit. Cut open to reveal white sour-sweet flesh. Kind of like durian for beginners.
Mit (jackfruit) - giant, blimp-shaped fruit containing chewy yellow segments. It's loaded with vitamins.
Nhan (longan) - this tiny fruit has light brown skin, a translucent juicy white pulp and is used for many purposes in the Mekong (it's even dried and used for kindling).
Oi (guava) -green, edible skin with pink flesh, the guava is loaded with vitamins and is great raw or in juice.
Sau Rieng (durian) - with a memorable odour, this huge spiky fruit has creamy rich interior of a taste somewhat resembling custard; you'll either love it or hate it.
Thanh Long (dragon fruit) - unusual in appearance, dragon fruit is a large red fruit with spiky fronds tipped with green. It has a mild, crisp flesh with numerous edible seeds.
Trai Vai (lychee) - very common, this small, round red spiky fruit has a white fleshy inside, which is particularly sweet.
Xoai (mango) - mangos come in several varieties; the sweetest are large round ones with bright yellow skin. Connoisseurs say the best come from Cao Lanh .
Vu Sua (star apple) - a round, smooth trust that produces a sweet, milky juice (its name means milk from the breast).

Chau Doc

Perched on the banks of the Bassac River, Chau Doc is a pleasant town near the Cambodian border with sizable Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities. Its cultural diversity - apparent in the mosques, temples, churches and nearby pilgrimage sites - makes it a fascinating place to explore even if you aren't headed to Cambodia. Taking a boat trip to the Cham communities across the river is another highlight, though its addictive market and peaceful waterfront make fine backdrops to a few days of relaxing before heading out.
Owing to the popular river crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia, many travellers pass through Chau Doc.

In 1926 the Chau Phu Temple (Dinh Than Chau Phu; cnr Ð Nguyen Van Thoai & Ð Gia Long) was built to worship the Nguyen dynasty official Thoai Ngoc Hau, who is buried at Sam Mountain. The structure is decorated with both Vietnamese and Chinese motifs. Inside are funeral tablets bearing the names of the deceased and some biographical information about them.
Domed and arched Chau Giang Mosque, in the hamlet of Chau Giang, serves the local Chain Muslims. To get there, take the car ferry from Chau Giang ferry landing in Chau Doc across the Hau Giang River. From the ferry landing, walk away from the river for 30m, turn left and walk 50m.
The Mubarak Mosque (Thanh Duong hoi Giao), where children study the Koran in Arabic script, is also on the river bank of posite Chau Doc. Visitors are permitted, but you should avoid entering during the calls to prayer (five times daily) unless you are a Muslim.
There are other small mosques in the Chau Doc area. They are accessible by boat, hut you'll need a local guide to find them all.
These houses, whose floats consist of empty metal drums, are both a place to live and a livelihood for their residents. Under each house, fish are raised in suspended metal nets: the fish flourish in their natural river habitat; the family can feed them whatever scraps are handy; and catching the fish re quires less exertion than fishing. You can find these houses floating around Chau Doc and get a close-up by hiring a boat (but please be respectful of their privacy). To learn more about the workings of these fish cages.
Fish farming constitutes around 20% of Vietnam's total seafood output and is widely practised in An Giang province, in the region near the Cambodian border. The highest concentration of 'floating houses' with fish cages can be observed on the banks of the Bassac River in Chau Doc, near its confluence with the mighty Mekong.
The fish farmed here are two members of the Asian catfish family, basa (Pangasius bocourti) and tra (P hypophthalmus). It is interesting to note that even with two tides a day here, there is no salt water in the river. Around 18,000 tonnes of fish are exported annually, primarily to European and American markets (as well as Australia and Japan), in the form of frozen white fish fillets.
The two-step production cyclo starts with capturing fish eggs from the wild, followed by raising the fish to a marketable size - usually about 1kg. Fish are fed on a kind of dough made by the farmers from cereal, vegetables and fish scraps. The largest cage measures 2000 cubic metres and can produce up to 400 tonnes of raw fish in each 10-month production cycle.
One of the more interesting developments affecting fish-farming was announced in 2006, when Saigon Petrol and An Giang Fisheries Import-Export Company (Agifish) agreed to set up a joint venture to produce bio-fuel from the fat of the tra and basa catfish. Some 400,000 tonnes of the two fish are consumed annually in the Mekong River provinces, and if some of its by-products could be utilised the effects would be groundbreaking. One kilogram of fish fat can yield 1L of bio-diesel fuel, according to one project specialist, meaning some 60,000 tonnes of bio-diesel fuel could be made yearly if all the tra and basa fat could be utilised from the processing plants in the region. Agifish, which sets its initial projections at producing 10,000 tonnes a year, claims the bio-fuel will be more efficient than diesel, that it's nontoxic and will generate far less exhaust. After the factory is up and running (it's slated to be built near Can Tho), Agifish claims it will be a boon to the local economy, to local fish farmers who will earn more money, and even to the environment. Those who've gotten a whiff of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and thought, 'you can power a dump truck on this stuff aren't far off the mark.

Phu Chau (Tan Chau) District

Traditional silk making has brought fame to Phu Chau (Tan Chau) district across southern Vietnam. The market in Phu Chau has a selection of competitively priced Thai and Cambodian goods.
To get to Phu Chau district from Chau Doc, take a boat across the Hau Giang River from the Phu Hiep ferry landing, then catch a ride on the back of xe om (about 15,000d) for the 18km trip to Phu Chau district.
Sam Mountain
There are dozens of pagodas and temples, many of them set in caves, around Sam Moun-tain (Nui Sam), which is about 6km southwest of Chau Doc via Ð Bao Ho Thoai. The Chinese influence is obvious and Sam Mountain is a favourite spot for ethnic Chinese (both pilgrims from Vietnam and abroad).
Climbing the peak is a highlight of a visit to Sam Mountain. The views from the top are excellent (weather permitting) and you can gaze over Cambodia. There's a military outpost on the summit, a legacy of the days when the Khmer Rouge made cross-border raids and massacred Vietnamese civilians.
Walking down is easier than walking up, so if you want to cheat, have a motorbike take you to the summit. The road to the top is on the east side of the mountain. You can walk down along a peaceful, traffic-free trail on the north side, which will bring you to the main temple area. The summit road has been decorated with amusement-park ceramic dinosaurs and the like. But there are also some small shrines and pavilions, which add a bit of charm and also remind you that this is indeed Vietnam and not Disneyland.
This pagoda (Chua Tay An) is renowned for the fine carving of its hundreds of religious figures, most of which are made of wood. Aspects of the building's architecture reflect Hindu and Islamic influences. The first chief monk of Tay An Pagoda (founded in 1847) came from Giac Lam Pagoda in Saigon. Tay An was last rebuilt in 1958.
The main gate is of traditional Vietnamese design. Above the roof are figures of lions and two dragons fighting for possession of pearls, chrysanthemums, apricot trees and lotus blossoms. Nearby is a statue of Quan Am Thi Kinh, the Guardian Spirit of Mother and Child.
In front of the pagoda are statues of a black elephant with two tusks and a while elephant with six tusks. Around the pagoda are monks' tombs. Inside are Buddha statues adorned with psychedelic disco lights.
Founded in the 1820s, the Temple of Lady Xu (Mieu Ba Chua Xu) faces Sam Mountain, not far from Tay An Pagoda. The first building here was made of bamboo and leaves; the last reconstruction took place in 1972.
According to legend, the statue of Lady Xu used to stand at the summit of Sam Mountain. In the early 19th century Siamese troops invaded the area and, impressed with the statue, decided to take it back to Thailand. But as they carried the statue down the hill, it became heavier and heavier, and they were forced to abandon it by the side of thepath.
A high-ranking official, Thoai Ngoc Hau (1761-1829) served the Nguyen Lords and, later, the Nguyen dynasty. In early 1829, Thoai Ngoc Hau ordered that a tomb be constructed for himself at the foot of Sam Mountain. The site he chose is not far from Tay An Pagoda.
The steps are made of red 'beehive' stone (da ong) brought from the southeastern part of Vietnam. In the middle of the platform is the tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau and those of his wives, Chau Thi Te and Truong Thi Miet. Nearby are several dozen other tombs where his officials are buried.
The Cavern Pagoda (Chua Hang, also known as Phuoc Dien Tu) is about halfway up the western side of Sam Mountain. The lower part of the pagoda includes monks' quarters and two hexagonal tombs in which the founder of the pagoda, a female tailor named Le Thi Tho, and a former head monk, Thich Hue Thien, are buried.
The upper section has two parts: the main sanctuary, in which there are statues of A Di Da (the Buddha of the Past) and Thich Ca Buddha (Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha); and the cavern. At the back of the cave behind the sanctuary building is a shrine dedicated to Quan The Am Bo Tat.
According to legend, Le Thi Tho came from Tay An Pagoda to this site half a century ago to lead a quiet, meditative life. When she arrived, she found two enormous snakes, one white and the other dark green. Le Thi Tho soon converted the snakes, which thereafter led pious lives. Upon her death, the snakes disappeared.

Source: lonely planet



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