From my research trip in late 2006…

Chau Doc marketNo town in the Mekong is like Chau Doc. Its market floods its whole center, filling tight streets around and its three-block-long market. Here you can get morning bowls of bun ca (fish noodle soup) for less than 50 cents, and find field mouse grilled — supposedly Chau Doc has the meatiest mice. Many tourists make it here — en route by boat to Cambodia, or as part of a three-day package trip of the Mekong. They come to see the floating villages and markets, and wee Cham village across the river, where women wear turbans and people pray at mosques. Cambodia is only a few kilometers away.

Mr Long — born in 1954, ‘the year Vietnam split into two’ — loves his town Chau Doc. He drove trucks during the war ‘all over,’ which makes me wonder which side — if any he was on. His English skills though suggest some southern affiliations though. ‘I couldn’t use English then,’ he says, though he studied it way back in high school that he went out of his way to show me. ‘Authorities would wonder what you says, who you know. Big trouble.’

Mr Long now sits with a teapot in front of a huge sign that reads ‘English Bookstore’ a few blocks from the Chau Doc market. He also leads leisurely boat trips to Chau Doc’s floating market, floating fish farm village, a Cham village and a look At the floating market, about a kilometer from the center, where we boarded a motorized boat from a three-inch, bamboo-pole dock, I was the only foreigner. Boats full of fruit drift here, and locals paddle up to buy a stock for a day’s work at the market. Boats post their stock — various fruit — on long poles that stand vertically in the back of their ships. Advertisments. We stopped off at Chanh’s boat, full of 26 tons of bananas he picked up a few days before in Tra Vinh. He boats to Tra Vinh, Cantho or Sa Dec ‘every few days’ to re-stock. He’s lived all his life on such a boat, this one is ‘about 10 years old’ — a two-floor wooden boat, mostly unpainted, with the lower floor so full of fruit they came out the windows. Chanh was 55 and looked about 43. The Mekong is about boat tours and floating markets such as this — but this is the only time I’ve boarded a boat at one.

at a canal that runs south within 500m of Cambodia for $5. I took one, just me, Mr Long and the boat driver. Often we left the river ruts of package tourists and got a far more revealing glimpse of river life than those coming in vans get to see.

But first Mr Long took me to the drop-off laundry clear across town. On the way talking about his favorite topic, Chau Doc food. ‘What you may not know,’ he says over his shoulder to me on the back of his Honda Wave motorbike. ‘The meatball here is very good. We make it here and export it to Cantho and Ho Chi Minh City.’ We stopped at a couple meatball places so I could watch squatted women rolling dime-sized, gray-colored meatballs and throwing them in a big red bucket. ‘Have you eaten yet?,’ he asked already stopping at a stand selling fish noodle soup for my second breakfast of the day.

After stopping at a floating village of ‘fish farms,’ with hundreds of fish awaiting canh chua (fish soup) bowls, we stopped by Mr Long’s sister’s place — a cozy floating house in a nook of houses. Such houses are usually tin-roof sided and topped homes floating on buoys or barrells on a raised wood ‘raft’ of sorts — anchored well enough that they hardly rock. As we pulled up, Mr Long’s sister was chatting with neighbors on their porch, as women on two just-pulled-up canoes made a pork-noodle breakfast for them. Soon a camera came out. Mr Long said, ‘Vietnamese like being photographed with foreigners.’ And there were many shots. They asked if I wanted to stay the night, but I already had a hotel room. May have made a mistake there.

Later that day I met up with Mr Dung, a 56-year-old, Cambodia-born Vietnamese guy who drives a Honda and chortles a ‘ho ho ho’ laugh at most things you say or he thinks you said. (I wish I had a chortle.) He says Vinh Phuoc guesthouse and the cyclo circuit don’t like him because he’s ‘too honest.’ And after spending a few hours with him, I wholly believe him. Many Vietnamese here were born in Cambodia — he ’speaks Vietnamese with a Cambodian accent still.’ Most left in 1971 after the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot took over Cambodia. Mr Dung stayed a year. ‘They thought I was Khmer, no problem.’

I’d heard about a bird sanctuary 25km south of town called Tra Sothat hadn’t made any of the guidebooks. A birder in Cantho raved about it. Me and Mr Dung headed off to be there as dusk comes. An hour or so south — Mr Dung drives slowly and carefully, and has an extra helmet for passengers — we arrived at the 754-hectre Tra So bird sanctuary only an hour before sunset. Mr Dung helped me negotiate an extortionately high boat price down — ‘he’s only one person, and a writer’ — and we set off into moss-covered canals through swampy forest as birds came home. Thousands of cattle egrets, herons, camarands — ‘maybe one million birds,’ the boat driver exaggerated — live here, some 65 species at least.

The low canoe rocked side to side as we scooted down tight canals. I eyed the nearest shore in case we sank — but only saw the submerged trunks of trees in waters that looked like crocodile territory (there are none, apparently). Best was when we cut the motor and paddle through mangrove-style forest — about 2m deep of water — as hundreds of birds took off and landed nearby. The sounds of the singing nearly drowned out Mr Dung and the boat driver joking in Vietnamese. Just before dusk we reached a monkey bridge over a chocolate-colored canal and made it up a tall watchtower — made up of a lot of air and a few tiny metal bars to climb up on (scary). Above, we could see Mekong mountains in all directions and the sun dipped to tangerine and purple and cranberry-blood, about when the bats came out.