If you follow the Bassac River inland from Can Tho, the last town you encounter before reaching Cambodia is Chau Doc. We spent a few days in this ethnically diverse city, dedicating the first to its most popular attraction: the holy mountain of Nui Sam.
During our travels, we’ve noticed that border towns tend to be a little strange. Whether it’s the gambling town of Gevgelia in Macedonia, Bolivia’s Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, or now Chau Doc… something’s not quite right. It’s as though the normally tranquil waters of a homogeneous society are churned up by the proximity of another culture.
It’s hard to describe exactly what was “off” in Chau Doc. The city just felt somehow less friendly. We had the sense that there were so many outsiders, both Cambodians and Vietnamese, that they almost outweighed the locals. If visiting a new place is like crashing a party, Chau Doc wasn’t a happy family gathering, but more like an office function. I don’t know if that makes any sense. In Can Tho, for example, it was fun to experience normal life. In Chau Doc, I don’t think life is ever normal.
The fact that it’s a border town, of course, explains why there are so many people passing through. But the other big reason for the amount of visitors to Chau Doc is Mount Sam, which draws pilgrims like bears to honey. We severely underestimated its popularity, but I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the holy-tourist-circus which has exploded around the mountain’s base.
There are a couple temples at the foot of Mount Sam, hundreds of street stands, and thousands of pilgrims milling about. As soon as we got off our bikes, we were assailed by an inexhaustible parade of trinket sellers, tamarind ladies, picture takers, dudes offering rides up the mountain, as well as the regular plethora of kids squealing “hello”. It was exhausting, and we hadn’t even started our ascent up the mountain!
We decided to skip the temples of Tây An and X? Núi Sam, and get straight to the climbing. There are two paths. The first is a set of stairs which most of the pilgrims take, lined almost entirely by shops and cafes. We opted for the second; more of a road, which winds around the southern end of Mount Sam. This was probably the easier ascent, if only because it there were fewer people.
It took about 45 minutes at a normal pace to reach the summit. And to tell the truth, we were rather underwhelmed, once at the top of Mount Sam. The views were obscured by trees, and ruined by the presence of so many people; there had been far superior vantage points along the path up. And there was nothing to see at the top of the hill, apart from a small shrine.
We descended along the other, more touristy path, and enjoyed ourselves more than expected. There were too many shops, but every once in a while, we’d emerge onto a set of stairs free from tented roofs, and be surprised a breathtaking view over Chau Doc. We took a long break in a cafe with hammocks, waving at the crazy pilgrims climbing barefoot up the mountain, playing with the cafe’s puppy, and making the owner’s red-haired baby cry by taking pictures of it.
A visit to Mount Sam is practically required when in Chau Doc, and the climb isn’t as difficult as you might think. Just be prepared for craziness… although, I suppose that if you’ve spent much time in Vietnam, you probably already are.