Chau Doc snuggles between the Bassac River (one of the Mekong array) and the Cambodian border, where until recently it was a main border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s location makes it a cultural melting pot: Cham, Khmer, Chinese, and the Johnny-come-latelies, the Vietnamese. So all varieties of Buddhist temples, Cham temples and mosques dot the area. Catfish farming dominates the waterfront, the fish pens suspended under floating homes. Stilt houses line the banks, standing on stilts above seasonal river fluctuations. The space among the stilts shelter livestock and provide shady places for hammocks.
Con Tien Island in the Bassac River hosts much of this cultural diversity, so that’s where I headed. I never saw any of the mosques, but I heard the call to prayer at one point and saw a few women wearing the hijab.
I watched two women sorting sticks for incense and smelled the sweet aroma of the finished product drying by the road.
I encountered surprise and delight by people seeing a westerner riding through the neighborhood. One of a group of women sitting around a small table in the street stood up and walked to the middle of the street, stretching her arms out to signal me to stop. I could sense the good humor of the situation, so I stopped. After a bit of sign-language chit-chat, she indicated she wanted a ride on the luggage rack of my bike! She was not a small woman, but I decided to see what would happen. Well, I quickly lost balance and ran into another table, ending the ride within a few feet of its start. But the group and I laughed ‘til it hurt. They invited me to sit and have tea with them. I sat but declined the tea due to its caffeine content. Google Translate came to the rescue to explain why I was being so antisocial. We only spent a few delightful minutes together, but they stand as highlights.
A 10 year old boy hollered “hello” and I responded in kind. We exchanged a couple other common questions and answers, the limit of his English that he felt comfortable using. I rode on but shortly found him at my side on a bike. The road dead-ended and we both turned around and rode back to his friends from whom he had borrowed the bike to chase me down. Giggles and pictures brought appreciative parents to the street.
A group of young men playing carom billiards on a converted pool table in which the pockets were covered by continuous rails, called out as I rode by. On my return from the dead-end, they invited me to come in and play and hammed it up for the camera. I declined the invite because it was getting late.
Under the bridge men transferred cargo from boats to trucks and pedicabs. Laundry baskets of catfish from the under-house farms on the river, weighed and carted to barrels of water in a truck. Hardwood rounds, beautifully finished, that took four men to lift, precariously perched on pedicabs. And the reverse trip for newly harvested (40-50 kg?) bags of rice; from truck to barge for the trip to market. Much banter and joking between the stevedores and the strange westerner on a bike.
The warmth and sometimes mischievous humor is so common, even among people whose lives are hard, endears the people of the Delta to me. These simple interactions bring me so much joy.