Sunday, March 14, 2010

Touring Chau Doc by Moto

Shortly after Nick and I arrived in Chau Doc, I was approached by a friendly moto driver looking for some business. His name was Dang. He didn't speak much English, but handed me a piece of paper introducing himself and his buddy Wong as tour guides. The paper described the sights of Chau Doc, and was so well written (an Australian tourist wrote it for them) that it convinced me that we should do a tour with these guys. For $11 each, they took us on a one day tour of Cam Mountain, Tuc Dup Hill, and Sam Mountain.

So, at 8 AM Sunday morning, Nick and I hopped on the back of their motos and were off to explore the area. On our way out we zoomed past rice paddies, fish farms, duck farms, and countless houses on stilts. A death-defying, ear-splitting, and butt-numbing hour-drive later, and we arrived at our first destination: Cam Mountain.

I wasn't quite sure what Cam Mountain was, but it sounded nice based on the description they provided, "beautiful mountain, lake, pagoda, and happy Buddha." As soon as we arrived at Cam Mountain, I had two relevations. The first was that it was Sunday, and the second was that this is a popular destination for locals to visit on the weekends.
Nick in line to buy an admission ticket to Cam Mountin

Ticket in hand, we were on our way to the top of the mountain. Apparently there is a gang of moto drivers who have a monopoly on carting people up  the mountain and so our tour guides were not able to take us the whole way. At this point, we had two choices. We could either pay another driver to take us up OR we could hike up ourselves - about a 40 minute walk,we were told.

Nick is never one to shy away from a hike and I thought it would be nice to get some exercise, so we set off on foot. In my mind I envisioned a peaceful walk on a shaded trail winding up the mountain, but in reality, there was no trail. Instead we were walking along a busy road, up the mountain.
There was so much traffic, it was like walking along the interstate in the US, but with a 10 - 15% incline the entire time. And, as we are quickly learning, Vietnamese traffic is of an especially loud breed. The motorbikes have no mufflers to speak of and beeping your horn every 30 seconds seems to be completely necessary. The noise was deafening and at times it felt like we were "hiking" through an airfield.

A grueling hour later, we reached the crest of the hill and caught our first glimpse of our destination.
It was absolutely teeming with people. Immediately, I was reminded of Sun-Moon Lake in Taiwan (if Sun Moon Lake was small, man-made, and not as beautiful). In your mind, you might envision these Buddhist pilgramage sites to be tranquil mountain retreats - places to go to escape the city and make your peace with god, maybe even do some meditation. But there are just so many people and so few places to go; even the most 'peaceful' destinations are bound to turn into complete zoos!
But it didn't just kind of remind us of Taiwan... it was like BEING back in Taiwan for an hour.
There were even MEGA PHONES!!!!

If we were just some random visitors to Southeast Asia and stumbled upon this mountain, I think we would have been pretty disappointed by the whole thing. It was so crowded and the scenery itself was pretty underwhelming. But, after having lived in Taiwan for a year we were really able to appreciate it for what it was - a locals get-away - and found the whole thing highly entertaining.
a sea of motorbikes and people surrounding the Buddha statue (he's hidden behind the trees)

It's pretty funny if you think about it. If you ask most backpackers here what they're looking for, they'll tell you they want an "authentic" experience. It's every backpacker's dream to end up in a place where they're the only foreigner so they can really soak up the local culture. But if you plant most of them down in this place - which is completely devoid of foreigners and a totally authentic Asian experience - I'm pretty sure they'd be less than thrilled by it. Do they really want to hang out on the top of a mountain with thousands of local Vietnamese tourists??? 

A peaceful retreat from the hectic city below - this was not. Even all the way up here, drivers found it completely necessary to blare their horns the entire time.

Anyway, we spent a good hour up there, walking around and checking things out before we headed back for our 15% grade decent to our motodrivers. On the way down though, we did get to enjoy some decent scenery of the surrounding hills and farm lands.
After 3 hours walking up and down Cam Mountain, we were finally on our way to our next destination and thankful to be taking a seat back on the motorbike again. Our next stop was Tuc Dup Hill.

Tuc Dup Hill was a strong hold for the Viet Cong during the "American War" as it's known here. It's nickname is the "Two Million Dollar Hill" because apparently, that is how much money the American's spent trying to secure the area. They were never successful and when you visit this hill it's not difficult to see why.
Tuc Dup Hill
From a distance it just looks like a pile of rocks, and really that's exactly what it is. Because the 'mountain' is basically just a jumble of huge boulders, it is full of nooks and crannies where the VC could take cover during US bombings. 
Although there are small boys wandering around the mountain offering help to tourists, Nick and I decided to go it alone. All along the mountain are little white arrows which lead the way through the caves and allow for a little self-exploration.
At first, we were doing a lot of crawling and slithering through cracks and crevices, but by the end, we were doing some pretty serious bouldering.  
It was certainly a lot more difficult than I had anticipated and much more than I was really up for considering our exhausting journey earlier in the morning. We spent a whole hour exploring the mountain and made it almost all the way to the top.

As we crawled through crannies and climbed around the boulders, it wasn't hard to see why it was impossible for the Americans to uproot the VC here... it would have been virtually impossible to get at them. The American forces would have had to level the entire mountain in order to take over the area - which is exactly what they attempted to do.
a mock Viet Cong meeting set up in the caves of Tuc-Dup Hill

Before we left Tuc Dup, we stopped at the base of the mountain for a lunch break.  One of the cool things about the Mekong Delta is that the resturants and little snack shops here are all full of hammocks.
So while you wait for your food, or after you've stuffed yourself full, you can chill out and take a nap. Nick and I definitely enjoyed this little treat after our exhausting morning.
After lunch, we headed back towards Chau Doc and our last stop for the day, Sam Mountain. There isn't much at the top of Sam Mountain but a view of the delta below where the huge city of Chau Doc sits in a sea of rice paddies.  
Nonetheless, we enjoyed hanging out here for a half hour, relaxing and taking in the view before heading back down to town. Our moto-tour complete, we have seen pretty much all there was to see in Chau Doc. Tomorrow, we're off to Can Tho!

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