Detours in the Delta

A truly refreshing contrast to the urban sprawl of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Sa Dec is a sleepy river port in the Mekong Delta, in Dong Thap province, about 140km southwest of Vietnam’s largest metropolis.

The two girls dressed all in white, snapped on a street in Sa Dec, are students in school uniforms cycling home late one afternoon.

It is best known to tourists as the setting for L’Amant, a semi-autobiographical novel by French writer Marguerite Duras on which a film, The Lover, was subsequently based. Our curiosity had certainly been piqued by that movie, which starred Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-fai. Many foreign visitors book Mekong River cruises starting from Ho Chi Minh City and these pleasure boats usually make short stops at Sa Dec, but we decided to do it properly by catching an ordinary bus there and spending a couple of days exploring the town.

The journey proved a little more challenging than we’d expected, however. We’d travelled down to Can Tho, another town in the Delta famous for its floating markets, and it was only then that we realised there was no direct service onwards by public transport. To get to our destination we were advised to hop onto a bus heading to Ho Chi Minh City, get off roughly halfway there and then take another bus to Sa Dec. So we set off. Our driver gestured for us to disembark just after we’d passed a roundabout in a big town called Vinh Long. There was no sign of a bus stop or shelter, so we asked a woman running a small store nearby if this was the right place. She nodded and even helped us flag down the Sa Dec bus when it finally arrived after we’d been waiting for about 30 minutes.

Neither the driver nor the conductor seemed to understand English, but we must have pronounced “Sa Dec” correctly because the latter promptly nodded and took the money I was offering for the fare. The view gradually opened up, as the built-up area gave way to an expanse of rice fields, rivers and little one-storey houses. A couple of hours after leaving Can Tho we pulled into the bus station at Sa Dec. It was only a short walk into the town centre and, unable to find anywhere that rented out motorcycles, we decided to explore the place on foot.

Boats are still an important mode of transportation in Sa Dec, which is bisected by several waterways including two rivers and at least one canal.

Sa Dec is built on a river of the same name, which is a branch of the Mekong. Most of the activity seemed to centre on the riverfront and around the fresh-produce market, a big bustling bazaar called Cho Thuc Pham where the locals shop for cooking ingredients like freshwater fish, meat, shrimps, dried seafood and vegetables. Many of the streetside stallholders had laid their wares on the footpath, selling everything from fruit (mangoes, durian, sapodilla, dragon fruit) and cut flowers to clothes and fashion accessories.

Running parallel with the riverbank on both sides is a narrow street onto which food stalls have encroached, putting out tables and chairs for customers to sit, relax and enjoy the view. Branching off this is a network of  small lanes providing access to shophouses, both wooden and concrete, squeezed next to villas built in the French colonial style, colourful Chinese shrines and Christian churches.

Since that notoriously erotic Hollywood treatment of Duras’ novel, The Lover, was first screened in 1992, the most famous building in town is the ancestral home of Huynh Thuy Le, son of a rich ethnic-Chinese merchant who was 27 when he met and had a brief affair in 1929 with the 15-year-old Marguerite, a rather precocious schoolgirl whose mother was then teaching at a local school, which is still used as such to this day.

The 119-year-old Huynh villa is a one-storey structure built in a blend of Chinese and French architectural styles. The original owners apparently emigrated during a period when anti-Chinese sentiment was running high in Vietnam. Later used as government offices, the house has been open to the public since 2007. Local guides who can speak English and French take visitors on tours of the beautifully restored, high-ceilinged residence which boasts lots of decorative stuccowork, arched doorways, airy verandas, intricately carved woodwork and all the original tiled floors. There’s a restaurant and gift shop on site and the three bedrooms, with their four-poster beds and period furniture, can even be rented out by anyone seeking short-term accommodation.

Wandering around town later on, we came across a church for followers of a faith I had never encountered before; it was my very first glimpse of a quintessentially Vietnamese religion. Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do (called Cao Dai for short, meaning “Highest Power”), originated in southern Vietnam in 1926. Drawing upon the precepts and practices of several older religions and philosophies, the ultimate goal of Cao Dai is to free one from the repetitive cycle of birth and death. God, for Cao Dai adherents, is symbolised by the Divine Eye, a large human eye enclosed within a triangle encircled by the rays of the sun. We were unable, unfortunately, to delve further into this fascinating belief system because the gates to the church remained firmly locked on both occasions that we passed by.

Not far from the Cao Dai church is a big Mahayana Buddhist temple called Chua Kim Hue. A stone’s throw from that we came across both a Chinese shrine and a Christian church, almost certainly Roman Catholic because at the front there was a large statue of the Virgin Mary holding her son, Jesus. So many different places of worship within such a short distance of each other; Sa Dec is (or once was) an amazing melting pot of religious denominations.

A recommended attraction in many guidebooks which cover Sa Dec is the “flower village” of Chua Huong. A bit of a hike from the town centre — a 15-minute taxi ride to be exact, this is a large plant nursery that reminded me strongly of Rangsit Khlong 15 in Nakhon Nayok because the format is so similar. Local people grow various kinds of colourful ornamental plants along both sides of a two-lane tarmac road and one can buy both pot plants and cut flowers there at competitive prices. Nothing spectacular, though, so you won’t miss anything if you decide not to make the trek out there.

What we liked best of all about Sa Dec was its residents. We admired their friendliness and sincerity. Neither the fresh juice vendors nor the streetside stallholders selling food nor the local restaurants tried to overcharge us; we noticed we were asked to pay exactly the same prices as the other customers. When we wandered down small alleys, the locals would greet us in a friendly manner. When we passed one house where a group of elderly people were having a meal out front, they invited us to join them; when we politely declined, they handed us a glass urging us to try some local beverage. When we aimed our cameras at something that had caught our interest, the locals nearby would invariably pose for us, smiling in a good-natured fashion.

Diligence seems to come naturally to the citizens of Sa Dec, or perhaps it’s true of the Vietnamese in general. People here wake early, even before sunrise, to open their shops. At 6am every day, local news and music is broadcast for about half an hour through loudspeakers set up along all the main streets. There’s another community news update in the evening between five and six o’clock.

I noticed that everyone seemed to be working at something; even the children were walking around trying to sell lottery tickets to passers-by. We spotted a pair of youths who had hit on a novel way of earning a living: operating a mobile karaoke service. They had modified a motorcycle by attaching two loudspeakers to the rear, which left only a tiny space in front into which both the driver and his companion had to squeeze. When they passed a restaurant that had tables of customers, they would stop their bike, walk in with their wireless microphone and invite the diners to sing a song or two in exchange for a modest fee.

Full of cheerful, hard-working people from dawn to dusk, this is a lively, invigorating town to spend a little time. We particularly enjoyed being there because it hasn’t yet become too touristy. One memory of Sa Dec we’ll treasure for a long time is sprawling in comfortable seats overlooking the riverfront promenade sipping strong Vietnamese coffee while savouring the view.

Located at 255A Nguyen Hue Street, the ancestral home of Huynh Thuy Le, the ethnic-Chinese man who had an affair with the teenage Marguerite Duras during the latter part of the French colonial period, might look a bit like a Chinese shrine from outside. But a sign clearly displayed at the gate informs tourists that they’ve arrived at the right place. Used for many years as offices for a government agency, it has been open to the public since 2007, with guides offering tours in French, English and Vietnamese. The entrance fee is 30,000 dong (45 baht). Framed images of Huynh Thuy Le and his relatives hang on one side of the reception hall. Displayed on another wall are period photos of the young Duras and members of her family, of the school in Sa Dec where her mother used to teach plus a set of stills from The Lover , the 1992 film loosely based on Duras’ 1984, Prix Goncourt-winning novel L’Amant . According to our guide, the film was not actually shot on location here. The house was built in 1895 in a popular Sino-French style with tiled roofs, carved wooden doors, ornate stuccowork as well as several traditional Chinese decorative features. There are three bedrooms but only one (shared) bathroom. The bedrooms, which can be rented by the night, all boast beautiful tiled floors, four-poster beds with mosquito nets and (a luxury for the time they were built) electric table fans. After touring the house each visitor is handed a cup of tea made from dried lotus flowers, with some candied ginger served on the side. Our guide told us Dong Thap province was famous for producing this beverage and packets of it are on sale in the on-site gift shop along with candied ginger, copies of Duras’ novel (both English- and French-language editions), postcards and other souvenirs.

This woman is wrapping a batch of potted New Guinea impatiens ready for customers at the “flower village” of Chua Huong on the outskirts of Sa Dec. Ornamental plants and cut flowers are sold here at wholesale prices and we were told that they can shift as many as 10 million pot plants per year. The day we visited, we spotted roses, marigolds, yellow hibiscus, red and purple peppers plus bonsai trees in a variety of shapes and sizes.

This is an old Chinese shrine in the heart of Sa Dec called Kien An Cung Pagoda. Built between 1924 and 1927 by a wealthy merchant named Huynh Thuan (the father of Huynh Thuy Le) and a group of migrants from the Chinese province of Fujian, it boasts some remarkable examples of woodcarving. Most of the materials used in its construction are said to have been brought all the way from Fujian. Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism declared it a national cultural and historic relic in 1990.

You shouldn’t miss the seafood restaurants on Nguyen Hue Street. Pick a place that’s full of locals and don’t panic if the menu only comes in Vietnamese. Try pointing at ingredients; that’s how we got this platter of delicious grilled shrimps. Another must-try is one of the street stalls that sell coffee (as opposed to a regular cafe). The owner typically arranges a few tables and chairs on the footpath facing the street (the ones in the photo belong to a riverfront restaurant). When you order coffee, the vendor spoons some ground beans into a quaintlooking drip-filter made from beaten aluminium, sets it on top of a coffee mug into which some condensed milk has been poured (the filter is designed to fit snugly into the rim of the mug), pours boiling water over the grounds, slaps on a lid and delivers it to your table along with a glass full of ice (the Vietnamese like to drink their coffee cold). Even without the condensed milk, this Vietnamese-grown coffee is a little sweet, but (beware!) it’s a pretty powerful brew. The going rate in Sa Dec was 10,000 dong (15 baht) per cup.

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