The Cham people of Chau Doc

During our wanderings around the Mekong Delta we visited Chau Doc a couple of times. This last time we were accompanied by our friends from England, Leigh and Alan, who had joined us in Saigon. We were on the final stage of our journey through the Mekong Delta by bus and boat to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. In “bus company time” it was supposed to take three hours. In Real time it took closer to six hour but we eventually arrived at the Murray Guesthouse, our home for the next couple of days. A really nice place run by the Cambodian wife of an Australian ex-pat. Apart from the (very expensive) Victoria Hotel it is probably the best place in town and one of the few budget places that we have stayed in in Vietnam that has really got it right – nice spacious rooms, comfortable beds and showers that actually work. It even has a pool table and an honesty bar. Nice touches that really make a difference when travelling for a long time. On our first visit to the town a few weeks previously, we had explored the local market which seemed enormous given the size of the town and sells the most diverse range of fruit, vegetables and fish we have seen anywhere on our travels in Vietnam. This was definitely one of the better markets we have encountered on our travels.  Some really nice food-stalls were an added bonus.

Life on the river We had arranged with San, a guide we had met previously, to take a boat trip on the Bassac river to visit the villages and floating fish farms that are home to a lot of the “Cham” population, the Muslim minority people who have migrated over the centuries from Malaysia. We made our way to the boat dock on the river and set off in our little boat through the floating villages to the first “fish farm”. Essentially, these farms are houses built on top of two boat hulls, underneath is a 2 metre deep wood and wire cage covering the entire bottom of the houseboat. This cage is home to some 300,000 fish.

The fish take  around 3 months to grow to the optimum size ready for sale to the markets. Their hatching is timed to coincide so that they reach the optimum size for market in time for the various festivals. We visited a couple of weeks before Tet, Vitenamese New Years and the biggest festival of all so this was their busiest time of the year as they timed their fish harvest to supply the markets for the celebrations in order to get the maximum prices. Vietnamese only really like, to buy fish when they are still alive so timing is key to the success of the business.

We take a look in the vat where they make the food and see piles of rotting fish ( the ones that didn’t make it to market!). The rotten fish is mixed with rice, vegetables and coconut and left to dry and is then made into pellets – you can imagine the smell! There are two hatches in the floor inside the boat from where they feed the fish with the fish. Carolyn throws in a cupful of feed and the water instantaneously turns into a cauldron of white water as the fish fight for the food. The reason there are two hatches? Fish for local consumption are fed with antibiotics to reduce disease and increase production. The fish for export to European supermarkets has to be free of antibiotics! Doesn’t seem right somehow!

Winding our way through the maze of houseboats, large and small we get to see life on the river in all its glory. Some of the poorer Cham people are living in an area a just a couple of metres square where they cook, eat and sleep day in, day out, throughout the year. No sanitation, no running water and some still use the river water for cooking and drinking. The only signs of 21st Century living being cellphones and flat screen TVs! They do, however, have all the usual facilities associated with any village: gas stations, shops etc. It’s just that everything is floating. In monsoon season, when river levels can increase by two metres or more it is not uncommon for the floods to wash some of these farms away. These fish farmers a re better off than many of the Cham people but still live hand to mouth and most are in hoc to the banks to finance theirfish farming activities from hatching to harvest.

Cham Villages on land After the fishing village our boatman crosses the river and we walk to the land based Cham village. Our arrival arrive coincides with the end of the school day. The place is heaving with school kids, each of whom, want to stop and practice their English. It makes for an enjoyable, but very slow walk around the village! As we wander around we try out the various fruits being sold by the street vendors. Most very unusual, all delicious. Perhaps the most unusual were the seeds of the lotus flower heads. A bit of a pain to peel but worth the effort – tasting a little like fresh hazelnuts.

We visit a couple of weaving co-operatives which are producing some very beautiful hand made scarfs and sarongs in a cotton and silk mixture. Watching the women create these intricate patterns on an antique wooden hand loom is incredible. The few dollars being asked for the products just don’t represent the amount of painstaking work that has gone into their creation. Leigh boosts the local economy by purchasing a beautiful handmade silk scarf. Next to the co-operative is the other side of Vietnamese industry. A small factory running a production line manufacturing clothing which will doubtless eventually end up on the shelves of western shops. Signs are everywhere saying – no entry, no photographs etc. But the actual working conditions do look pretty good, bright lighting, spacious working conditions, much as you would expect to see in any western factory. Back at the guest house we have time for a quick game of pool (to my eternal shame, I lost to Carolyn!) a fact that Alan was to remind me of all evening! We then headed off to the Victoria Hotel for a very civilised dinner in their French/Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the Bassac river.

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