Friday, July 17, 2015

Chau Doc, Sam Mountain and Tra Su Forest

Two nights at Chau Doc turned out to be a good idea. It helped to not only to look around the interesting natural, historical and cultural sights in the area but also to recover from the week of non-stop bike riding. The Chau Doc district borders Cambodia, and there are a huge number of temples, as well as a few remnants of the impact of the attacks of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army in the late 1970s. The green rice fields are an amazing and soothing sight.  

Riding further south west along narrow roads to Tri Ton, traffic is pleasantly thin. 

We stopped at Cafe Pho Nui to meet a friend of Nam from Nha Trang who is an teacher in Tri Ton. The cafe was full of bikes and people. Now I know why the roads are deserted. Looks like most folks chill out in coffee shops in Vietnam. 

While in Tri Ton, Nam headed over to a Honda workshop. The hex nuts that hold the front shock absorbers in place needed a bit of attention. The efficient mechanics did that in 10 minutes, even though ours was a Suzuki bike. They declined to charge for their services. While this was happening, a lottery ticket sales lady also managed to joined the conference. 

Oh, this was super timing. It rained like crazy for about 20 minutes. It was barely 10 AM, and the morning had been bright and sunny. Talk about monsoon short, sharp, moody rainfall.

The skies cleared up soon after, like magic, while we headed to the Tra Su Forest, a bird sanctuary with Mangrove forests. 

You need to go out deep into the forest in two boats. First, a larger boat takes you up to a point.  

The canals go through the Mangrove forests with a large variety of birds. The trees form a green canopy, as if to greet and welcome you.

The second trip is on a kayak, go ride further inside the forest. It gets incredibly quiet, except for the chirping sounds of birds and the almost non-existent sound of the paddle slicing effortlessly through the water. 

For whatever reason, a sense of anxiety struck me while we were deep inside the mangroves in Tra Su forest. Probably the scariest moment of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Maybe the eerie silence was the catalyst of such thoughts. I began to think...  what if the boat lady stops the kayak...  what if she gently rocks the kayak... and blackmails me...  what if... 

Oh well... Banishing such nasty thoughts, I returned to admiring the scenery and the low bird sounds. As we were riding around in the dense forests, I figured I need to take a photograph of the boat lady. She actually stopped paddling and posed for me. Later, she used her limited English on me, saying "This way" and "Bye bye" as I got off the kayak and headed back to the larger boat to head back to the start point. She took off her conical hat and flashed a wide, happy smile. Little did she know that I had been suspecting her intentions not too long ago.  

Tra Su Forest is indeed extremely beautiful. And haunting. Looking back, the dense vegetation and the silence of the kayak ride all combined to make up a rather eerie atmosphere. A perfect recipe to get weird thoughts flying. 

A few kilometres outside Tra Su Forest, the landscape is quite different from further up the Mekong Delta, with acres of palm trees growing all over the area. 

After the hard work since morning (!!), it was time for a well deserved break. This time to sample the cool drink from the black palm fruit. 

In addition to the cool drink, a variety of candies and other products are made from the crushed palm fruit.  

The rest stop turned out to be a super chilling station. I counted about 100 hammocks distributed across three sections. The  largest chill zone I had encountered in a week of travel! 

The other attraction in the Chau Doc area is the Sam Mountain, a holy mountain for the local people. The road to the top is in reasonably good shape, and gets steep towards the top. 

Views overlooking the paddy fields into Cambodia are quite pleasant. 

Nam said it is important that I have a picture at the top of Sam Mountain. A picture would convince family and friends that I've had the privilege of visiting the holy Sam Mountain. So, for the records, here we go. 

Sam Mountain was also the site of several battles involving the resistance against the French. Guns or cannon were poked out of the slots in the thick walls. Bunkers were built to shield the soldiers on the top of Sam Mountain. This spot could be maintained better, I thought. I guess the focus is on the Pagoda further below.

The tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a local military chief from about the early 1900s is situated at the base of the mountain. The entire monument is very well preserved. Looking back, the overall excellent state of care for historical monuments in Vietnam, including ancient Khmer temples actually surprised me.

Nam and I also went to the Lady Xu Temple, one of the major religious sites in South Vietnam located at the base of Sam Mountain. Burning incense sticks are offered in prayer by devotees. Nam did so, and invited me to join him. While visitors offer burning incense sticks, a roast pig is offered to the deity by the priests as an ritualistic offering. 

The roads outside the Lady Temple are choc-a-bloc with little stores selling fruits, incense sticks and other offerings. An extremely colourful street. Some shopkeepers try to stop you as you ride along, imploring you to buy from their store. A number of food stalls are also located on the street outside the Lady Temple.

Our order that afternoon was large bowls Noodle Crab soup, with the usual generous portions of Greens and Vegetables. As always, cooked fresh and hot. 

Hiding inside the Noodles, Crab cakes, Greens and Vegetables was a large dark cube. Turned out to be congealed pig blood. 

The ride back from Sam Mountain to Chau Doc was smooth, the very last leg of my trip around the Delta. Nam was scheduled to drop me off in the hotel and head back to HCMC. 

So, it's been a busy yet relaxed week. Starting with the trip through the back roads of HCMC, I had set off on the motor-bike trip through the Mekong Delta. The Laughing Buddha in My Tho. The Canals and local hospitality in Ben Tre.  Khmer villages and temples, and steering the huge ferry across the mighty Mekong in Soc Trang. The floating markets in Can Tho. Canals, boats, rice fields, rain and smiles all over. It's been a unique trip.

Said good bye and exchanged best wishes with Nam, he had an 8-hour ride back to HCMC. For me, it's been an extremely unique trip. Certainly raised further possibilities for the future. 

In case anyone wishes to get in touch with Nam, this is how you can do so: 
Nam: +84 979 636 879

I would be hopping on to the Speed Boat from Vietnam to Cambodia early the next morning. That should be a memorable ride!

Previous: Riding west to Chau Doc


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