Châu Đốc: Bordertown
The road to from Cần Thơ to Châu Đốc is very slow, in part because it is a simple strip of asphalt, and in part because of the artificially low speed limit. It follows the western branch of of the Mekong (Hậu Giang in Vietnamese; “Bassac” in Khmer) up to the Cambodian border. Halfway there, we passed through the town of Long Xuyên, which is experiencing a commercial boom with all kinds of attendant infrastructure improvements. I'm told that the town's business is mainly smuggling to avoid the Vietnamese tariffs on imports from Cambodia. The Cambodians have tariffs of their own, so the smuggling business runs both ways.
Châu Đốc, on the other hand, is home to the booming catfish industry. It has been so successful that by the early 2000s, Vietnam had captured about 10% of the U.S. market, which inevitably called down the wrath of U.S. catfish producers who successfully lobbied for trade restrictions in 2001. Senator John McCain—the same who had suffered brutal interrogation in Hanoi—protested vigorously against the catfish legislation, and his statement in the Senate hearings (Congressional Record, December 18, 2001) makes interesting reading:
"Proponents of this ban used the insidious technique of granting ownership of the term "catfish" to only North American catfish growers – as if southern agribusinesses have exclusive rights to the name of a fish that is farmed around the world, from Brazil to Thailand...FDA regulations prohibit these products from being labeled simply as "catfish." Under existing regulations, a qualifier such as "basa" or "striped" must accompany the term "catfish" ... These fish were indeed catfish until Congress, with little review and no debate, determined them not to be."
McCain had a point—this statutory end-run had a Orwellian overtones, and one can sympathize with Vietnamese entrepreneurs who, fourteen years into its economic liberalization, were discovering that the game was rigged.
On the other hand, the concerns of the catfish producers cannot be dismissed out of hand. Without some accounting for the differences in production, we are undercutting more or less well-regulated American industries and simply pushing the problems of pollution, consumer safety, and labor exploitation to a foreign venue.
The Cham Community
My primary interest on my first visit to Châu Đốc was not modern aquaculture and agribusiness, but to visit the Cham village. Châu Đốc is home to one of those surviving communities of Cham who once ruled the central coast. They were forced to the south and west by the gradual expansion of the Vietnamese polity that had originated in Thăng Long (Hanoi).
Many have been assimilated with the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) and Chinese newcomers, but others live in villages close to the border with their Khmer cousins, in the province of An Giang. So active was their commerce with their fellow Muslims in Malaysia that the French would often call these communities “Malay villages.”
I took a boat ride over to a tightly packed warren of stilt houses with a Vietnamese host and his entourage. The house nearest to the landing had a loom in operation for the interested tourist, and we were lured into trying on a few pieces. At first, the vendor tried an Islamic cap on me, and then I heard someone chuckling and saying "Saddam." I didn't like that so much, so then they wrapped a cloth around my head. Now I had become “Arafat.” This wasn't the sartorial effect I had in mind, but the textiles were very nice and I ended up buying a couple of pieces.
Then we took a stroll down the elevated boardwalk that leads between the houses to the main road. The mosque was a well-proportioned structure with a minaret, gleaming white in the sun, but I didn’t really know if we were welcome to take a look inside. This was just as well, as they were just about to start the call to prayer. Soon afterwards, men starting showing up wearing black-and-white checked cloths wrapped around their waists ("unbifurcated garments"), something that reminded me of Indonesia.
This was no more than a tourist walk-through, of course, and it did little to satisfy my curiosity. Truthfully, it didn’t even inspire much curiosity. What should I looking for? How was this different from any other Kinh village? I had a fairly good grounding in the history—I knew, for instance, that the Cham had fought on behalf of the Nguyễn in the 18th century, and had been rewarded with a land grant near Châu Đốc. And I knew that many other Cham had settled around Phnom Penh and, with the Malay community, formed an important element in the complicated politics of the Khmer court. But, in so many other cases, I found myself intrigued by contemporaneous signs of this distinct culture.
Happily, two years later—“responsively,” one might say—Philip Taylor published Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta, a lively description of the customs and livelihoods of the Cham as farmers and traders.
Sometime later, I paid another visit to the Cham village, this time with a guide who was himself Cham. Now I had a chance to ask questions about everything that I saw in passing, and I began to form clearer impressions of those houses that opened on the roadside, mounted on stilts with the livestock pens underneath. It was not the whole thing, but it was a start.
Temples of Núi Sam
There are three prominent temples clustered around the hill known as Núi Sam, which rises out of the rice paddies several kilometers north of Châu Đốc. The Chùa Tây An (Pagoda of the Western Peace) is a Buddhist temple with an interesting history that goes back to the time of the cholera epidemic of 1849 and the comings and goings of a traveling monk who inspired a populist movement known as Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương (“Precious Mountain | Strange Scent”). (The most authoritative source for the Bửu Sơn tradition, as well as the Hòa Hảo movement in the 20th century, is Hue Tam Ho Tai’s Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam (1983).
Though the Buddha Master of the Western Peace was once confined at Chùa Tây An, the modern-day temple has little to do with the simple lay practices of the Bửu Sơn. In fact, its renovation in the 1950s turned it into a spectacular combination of Vietnamese and Chinese temple styles, decorated with Khmer kinnari and nagar figures, and topped with a cupola tower (chhatri) that evokes the Muslim architecture of India. The statues inside are of a gaudy plastic style that I don't find very attractive, but the collection is one of the most complete catalogs of Sino-Vietnamese deities that I have seen anywhere in the country. At one altar, I even found Shen Nong and some of the other legendary Chinese ancestors, wearing clothes made of leaves.
Just down the street from the Tây An pagoda is the tomb and temple of the great lord of the region, known by his honorary title, Thoại Ngọc Hầu (Thoại the Jade Marshal). There are two likenesses of the great marshal, one in stone and the other in bronze (right). Thoại was a Nguyễn loyalist in the time of the Tây Sơn wars, and was entrusted with several important diplomatic and military missions. In 1812, after a Vietnamese intervention placed the Khmer prince Nặc Ông on the throne in Oudong, Thoại was named "protector of Cambodia." Thoại was active in building roads and canals through the newly claimed territories of the far west. His extension of the canal from Long Xuyên on the western branch of the Mekong to the coastal port of Rạch Giá (1818) bears his name. The much longer Vĩnh Tế canal, which links Châu Đốc to Hà Tiên on the Gulf of Thailand, is named for his wife. It took five years to complete the latter canal, owing to an outbreak of cholera that killed many of the Khmer and Vietnamese laborers who were excavating it.
The most popular temple is Bà Chúa Xứ (“Lady of the Realm”), a site that draws pilgrims from Saigon and throughout the South. The modern cult of Bà Chúa Xứ is discussed at great length in Philip Taylor’s classic study, Goddess on the Rise. (Incidentally, the author notes that the goddess and the “Black Lady” who is worshipped at Núi Bà Đên, a similar hillock in Tây Ninh, are thought to be manifestations of the cult of Thiên Y A Na, whom we last saw in Huế.)
Thoại Ngọc Hầu’s wife was an early sponsor of the cult, contributing to a shrine that had been established the goddess, and praying for her assistance with the seemingly cursed canal project. The centerpiece of this shrine was a Khmer statue that had been found at the top of Núi Sam and had been carried down to the base of the mountain. Most worshippers apparently do not know that the statue—now robed and decorated in the manner of Po Nagar in Nha Trang—is actually a sculpture of a male Hindu divinity, probably Siva. (The archeologist Louis Malleret apparently had the chance to examine the statue, and included several sketches in his article “Cochinchine: Terre Inconnue,” published in the Bulletin de la Société des études indo-chinoises, 1943.
The present temple is bears no overt traces of the older legacy of the site. Designed by two well-known architects (Huỳnh Kim Mãng and Nguyễn Bá Lăng) in the latter years of the American war, it is a capacious worshipping hall with layered tile roofs in the grand Chinese style. The imposing modern building next to the temple reminds us that the cult of Bà Chúa Xứ is now very much a business, much valued by the government as a source of revenue.
Views from Núi Sam
Many pilgrims choose to undertake an ascent of Núi Sam, which is only 932 feet (284 meters) in elevation. This is not a bad idea, and you can do it on foot if you have the time and bring some water. Most tour guides, if they are male (usually heavy smokers), would prefer that you take a car or a motorbike, but that encapsulates and diminishes the experience. Along the way you can take in great views of the emerald-green rice paddies spreading in all directions. To the north and west, you can make out the line of the Vĩnh Tế canal, beyond which lies Cambodia. As one can imagine, this border region has a long and interesting history.
As Nola Cooke writes in the Water Frontier, some of these border areas were paying taxes to both the Vietnamese and Khmer governments as late as the time of the French conquest (1867). Since the 1750s, Châu Đốc had been the forward outpost of Vietnamese settlement, and thus it was a flashpoint in the contestation of the Mekong region. The era of French colonial rule on both sides of the border put an end to the periodic border troubles.
During the ensuing Vietnam war, however, Cambodia became a supply route for the Việt Công insurgency and a staging ground for North Vietnamese troops. In 1970, American and South Vietnamese troops crossed the border in a punitive expedition and began an extensive bombing campaign that contributed to the destabilization of the post-Sihanouk regime.
The renewal of conflict along the border did not end when Communist regimes took power in Saigon and Phom Penh in 1975. The Khmer Rouge regarded much of the Mekong delta to be part of the Cambodian homeland, and it soon began launching attacks on villages around Châu Đốc and Hà Tiên. Châu Đốc was shelled in May 1977 and hundreds of Vietnamese villagers were killed in raids that year and the next. The Vietnamese were reluctant to respond militarily, as the Khmer Rouge had the backing of the Chinese, but finally launched an invasion in December 1978 that drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh.
Given this history, it wasn't surprising to find a military observation post at the very peak of the mountain. The soldiers seemed quite nonchalant, however, and paid little attention to us. (I've gotten quite a different reaction when taking pictures near the military installation on Cát Bà island, east of Hải Phong, where the threat of attack from China is still taken quite seriously.)
- Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery, Philip Taylor, University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
- Water Frontier; Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880. This collection of scholarly essays, edited by Li Tana and Nola Cooke, explores the contribution of Chinese immigrants, including refugees from the collapse of the Ming dynasty, in the development of southern Vietnam. [Published by the National University of Singapore and Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2004.]