|the fish statue at Châu Đốc|
|fishing around the pie|
|early morning floating market|
|floating houses on the Hầu Giang Riv|
|Vietnamese students ferried across theriver|
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|
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.
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|
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|
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|
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|
|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|