At 7am, an hour after our departure from Saigon, we land in one of the smallest airports I’ve ever seen. Pink lotus flowers dot the grass around the landing strip. My colleague and I are tempted to forego our meetings and spend the day taking internet snaps instead. We drop our bags off at Anh Nguyet hotel — cheaper yet more luxurious than many of its big city counterparts at US$30 per night with buffet breakfast included — and drive an hour away from Ca Mau city to Nam Can district. On the way we pass a number of beautifully constructed tombs. In the south, those who are buried in these tombs stay inside them for eternity. In the north, the body only remains in the tomb for three years before the bones are collected and put into a smaller container in another tomb or a pagoda.
Upon arriving in Nam Can, we spend the morning making house calls to kind families whose homes have been ravaged by HIV/AIDS, and the afternoon we participate in a training programme with the incredible volunteers who work hard on the families’ behalf. For lunch, we feast on canh chua ca, a delicious fish and vegetable soup dish, before walking to a café for sinh to bo (avocado milkshake). We watch as children swim fishnets across a small lake to help local policemen catch tonight’s dinner.
Break over, we take a two-hour ride that involves a boat ride across Dam Cun river and, unbeknown to me, arrive at one of Ca Mau’s biggest tourist attractions — Cha Diep, a massive complex of churches, each one equipped with huge organs, beautiful stain glass windows, and row after row of the same pews I used to kneel at during church services back home. The most beautiful church of all contains the body of Father Truong Buu Diep, who was respected during his life but has become idolised all over Ca Mau in the 50 years since his death. Every cab driver in Ca Mau prominently displays Father Diep’s face on the windshield. His grave is displayed in the biggest church in the complex of Cha Diep, full of stone angels and burning incense.
The following day in Ca Mau is much like the first — peace, quiet, coconut trees and some of the most delicious seafood I’ve tasted in Vietnam. We travel to Tran Van Thoi District, an hour’s drive in the opposite direction from Nam Can, where we meet with teens blasting Justin Bieber from their headphones. They’re thrilled at the chance to practice their English. For those interested in traveling to Ca Mau, Phan Ngoc Hien street is known for its cuisine and Lam Ngu Truong is a popular place for bird watchers. Above all, find a local guide who can show you around — there will be no line of tourists.