Dana Filek-Gibson ventures to the far corner of the Mekong Delta, also known as the River of Nine Dragons, with Victoria Hotel Chau Doc. Photos by Vinh Dao.
The houses on the Bassac River could pass for turn-of-the-century homes in the American south, if it weren’t for their colouring. With pastel blues and seafoam greens, every wide, covered veranda in sun-soaked Chau Doc is framed with flower pots. In the mid-morning heat, their owners lounge on hammocks, watching drivers traverse the generous thoroughfare that runs through this sleepy area.
Deep in the Mekong Delta, these brightly-hued homes are a world apart from the rest of Vietnam. Whereas in other parts of the country motorbikes whiz past and housefronts jostle for street space, Chau Doc’s riverine residents enjoy a much quieter existence, thanks in large part to one pivotal detail: their houses float.
It started a few hundred years ago with the fishermen, our guide Mr Phuong explains. Like many in the Delta, Chau Doc’s anglers once slept in houseboats. But as time went on and business changed, these fishing families held fast to their aquatic lifestyle by building proper homes – squat, square, pitched-roof houses – on the river itself. The resulting neighbourhoods, he tells us, are home to many families who now earn a living from metres-deep underwater fish farms built below their homes, where thousands of fish grow in captivity beneath the floorboards.
As far as tourism goes, Chau Doc has yet to earn a reputation as anything more than a border town when it comes to expat travelers. Slow-moving and serene, this faraway town may not be the place for an action-packed adventure but its laid-back pace, friendly locals and unique way of life offer a welcome change from the chaos of Saigon.
While the journey – an eight-hour trek from the southern hub out to the Cambodian border – might seem exhausting, it all depends on how you travel. For us, the journey began on a bus fit for royalty. Outfitted with everything from extra-wide seats to personal storage drawers to wifi, dining trays and individual ASUS tablets for each passenger, Victoria Hotels’ brand-new coach provided ample distraction along the way.
An early-morning departure from Saigon brought us to Can Tho, the Mekong’s economic hub, by noon. Just in time for lunch by the river, we feasted on Vietnamese cuisine, from beautifully-prepared stuffed squid and glazed pork to an array of desserts, including a mouthwatering cold passonfruit souffle. Soon after, our travels brought us to Binh Thuy, a late 19th-century house packed to the rafters with antiques. In addition to its fusion of French, Vietnamese and Chinese architecture, the house’s other claim to fame is as a filming location for the 1992 film adaptation of Margeurite Duras’ The Lover.
By the time we arrive at Victoria Chau Doc, darkness has fallen. Hugging the riverfront, our hotel faces west toward the border, a view which proves captivating in the morning as we have breakfast overlooking the water. Only an hour into our day, I’m prepared to spend the rest of the trip in this spot, watching the world go by, but Mr Phuong turns up with the boat and hurries us along.
This is how we come to pass between rows of floating houses, chugging our way toward Phum Soai. Home to a few thousand people, this sleepy village on the opposite riverbank is one of three Cham minority settlements in the area. As we wander through town, Phum Soai’s architecture represents a cacophony of influences, from French-inflected balustrades to the flared roofs of Buddhist pagodas, Vietnamese yin-yang tiles and the arched doorways of Islam, the primary religion of the Cham. Streetside shops advertise halal pho and bolts of woven cloth, a local handicraft. After our brief walk, stopping to wave hello and take in the river view, our boat heads onward to a low, sloping hill in the distance.
Speckled with shrines, temples and pagodas, Nui Sam is one of the holiest places in Vietnam. Each year, thousands of pilgrims trek from the foot of its long, winding steps up to the summit in honour of Lady Xu, a local goddess whose legend is connected to the mountain. We are saved the prospect of walking uphill by our driver, who ferries us up the road instead, arriving just in time for lunch.
To say Nui Sam’s vistas are breathtaking is an understatement: as the only elevated landscape in the area, the hillside looks over endless rice paddies in the dry season and watery plains during the rainy months. From the moment we arrive at Victoria’s three-star property, perched halfway up the mountain, a rare and precious sound follows us as we wander down to the vegetable garden or around the infinity pool clinging to a cliff: silence. High above the surrounding towns and blessed with an impeccable setting, we sit down to a Vietnamese feast of banh xeo, roast duck and claypot fish. Once again, it would be easy to while away an afternoon here, perhaps even the rest of the week, but Mr Phuong reappears and we move along.
The afternoon ends in Tra Su Forest, a flooded cajaput forest 30 kilometres from Chau Doc. Though not far removed from bustling highways and an international border, Tra Su’s myriad shades of green are a rarity in Vietnam. From the vibrant yellow-green plants floating just above the water to the willowy sage-hued limbs of the trees, the forest looks truly alive. In a country where nature is often caged in, storks swoop and wheel across the sky above, casting long shadows in the late afternoon. Closer to the water, small electric blue birds dart back and forth just above the surface, flitting about from tree to tree. As the day winds down, we return to Victoria Chau Doc to unwind before heading home the following day.
En route back to Saigon, the bus stops off one last time near Cai Be. Our final taste of Mekong hospitality comes from Le Longanier, a stunning, two-storey restaurant decked out in beautiful white and mint green décor. Hidden down a narrow lane, the pristine house specialises in elephant ear fish, a local delicacy, and hosts regular guests down from the city on day trips and overnight excursions on Victoria’s refurbished Song Xanh sampans. In the final hours of our journey, a breeze from the water rolls in through Le Longanier’s large windows, bringing with them a breath of fresh air before we head home.
Victoria Chau Doc offers an array of travel excursions and accommodations in the Delta. For more information or reservations, call 1 800 995 599 or email firstname.lastname@example.org