Once inhabited solely by the Khmer, the southern expansion of the Vietnamese brought with it a wave of Muslim Cham migrants from central Vietnam. Close behind was a growing population of Chinese who by the 1700s were trading the lower end of the Mekong. And as the land got swallowed up by the ethnic Kinh, so Vietnamese from the centre and north also arrived.
It wasn’t to stop there. Even during the colonial era the Cham reached out, and from overseas came religious forebears from Malaya, Indonesia and even as far afield as India, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. With more than 10 mosques on the north side of the river scattered over An Phu and Tan Chau, the sarong-wearing Cham of today are a hybrid of bloodlines. Even the design and detailing of their mainly wooden stilt houses bears the hallmark of this influence.
If you’re going to cross the river and explore the Cham villages in Tan Chau and An Phu, then just 24km north of Chau Doc is the quite idyllic but un-touristed lake Bung Binh Thien in Quoc Thai. Surrounded by paddy, jungle and vegetable farms, here you will get a real sense how the local people live side by side. At one point it’s all Vietnamese. Then the darker Khmer appear. And not far on you encounter a mosque and a small community of Cham. That’s what it’s like out there.
Inside one of Chau Doc's Cham mosques
Life’s a Boat
But it’s not just the people that make Chau Doc unique, it’s the river life, too. On Bung Binh Thien it’s all about net fishing and farming crops on the water. Back in town everywhere you look you see floating, corrugated iron houses that double up as fish farms (nha be) as well as boats from barges and industrial-sized ships through to blue and red fishing vessels that double up as family homes. The best on-land vantage point to take it all in is on the apex of Con Tien Bridge or further afield from the top of pilgrimage point Sam Mountain. For a bit more comfort head to the leafy riverside area of the colonial-style Victoria hotel. A cocktail at sunset here is unbeatable.
And of course, with so much river at stake, so the fish here comes in abundance. Not surprisingly this is reflected in the local cuisine with ca kho to (claypot fish) and lau mam (fish sauce hotpot) taking pride of place. But for the jewel in the Mekong crown, try the canh chua (sweet and sour broth). Made with mint, tomato and pineapple as like elsewhere in the region, here it also comes with whole tamarind fruit, fresh herbs, fresh chilli, dien dien flower and a choice of four or five types of fish. Served up with white rice, the resultant flavours and textures mix to perfection. For the mother of all canh chua go to Bay Bong (46 Truong Nu Vuong, Phuong B). A big bowl of the good stuff plus rice goes for under VND60,000.
Chau Doc is also the starting point to get to Phnom Penh by boat. Enquire both for boat services and accommodation at the four-star Victoria Chau Doc (0763 865010, 1 Le Loi) or at the budget Vinh Phuoc Hotel (0763 563013, 12-14 Quang Trung) for details.