(No.1, Vol.4, Jan-Feb 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine,Advertorial)
What exactly is a mountain? At what altitude does the difference between a hill and a mountain begin? Nobody would say there are mountains around London. The highest point, Leith Hill, at 294 metres, is definitely not a mountain. Yet the sacred limestone outcrop of Nui Sam, a centre of Buddhist pilgrimage six kilometres to the west of Chau Doc town, at only 241 metres above sea level, is called a mountain. Rising abruptly from the pancake-flat terrain of the Mekong Delta, hard fast on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, I believe it is justly called a mountain. From its summit, which I visited in 2001, there are spectacular views over Cambodia, and the piece of Vietnamese territory that juts into that land. At that time, I saw a billboard announcing the impending opening of The Victoria Nui Sam Hotel. Then, recently, I received an invitation for the opening of The Victoria Nui Sam Lodge on 19 October 2013. What on earth was going on?
I was taken by coach with a party of writers and photographers to Chau Doc. Some people complain about the remoteness of this area. Others see it as part of the charm. It does take around six hours to get there from Saigon by road, but there are rumours a regional airport to be located some fifty kilometres from town. You may wish to stay in town before or after venturing out to the mountain and there is a Victoria Chau Doc Hotel right on the riverside. The place is a pleasant country-a Mekong market town. You can enjoy a trip on the river to see the houseboats, which inside have an area cut out for fishing (some families rarely come ashore) and a nearby ferry can take you to see a Muslim Cham village.
Once we reached the foot of the mountain, we were transferred to minibuses. The serpentine country road to the lodge is too narrow for wide-bodied vehicles. The road ends at the lodge. It is a further twenty-five or more metres along a trail to the summit. You can see a castle-like structure from the lodge and indeed, this being a border area, there is a military presence. The soldiers are quite used to hikers and pilgrims and aside from maybe trying to cadge cigarettes, will not bother you.
But, if you are reasonably fit, you should walk up the mountain at least once. There a couple of large, oft-frequented pagodas at the base of the mountain, in the village. This is a major centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and the Vietnamese come from far and wide. It is also very favoured by the Chinese and their architecture is widely evident here. There are marked trails and it will probably take you half an hour to the top, even counting stops to see the some of the many small pagodas and pavilions dotting the slopes, which are randomly strewn with large boulders. There is a particularly interesting Buddha statue in a cavern. Then, you also may come across plaster statues of rhinos, zebras and, near the top, one of a dinosaur as well. You might imagine Disney got his inspiration from here! In addition you may be hailed by vendors out to sell you bottled water, sunglasses, hats or other perceived needs.
Our coach arrived just as a colourful lion dance, with all the usual accompanying cacophony, was in full swing. This tradition, used to invoke good augur for new enterprises, is, of course, taken lock, stock and barrel from China. I am always amazed that with all that jumping up and down in costume and in tandem on tables and chairs nobody does him/herself serious injury. I got engaged in conversation with a young Frenchman who told me he was the lodgeâ€™s designer and this was the culmination of ten months hard renovation work. Hoping that, as a writer, I could shed some light, he asked me, â€˜Do you know why the building was left to rack and ruin for ten years? Your guess is as good as mine,â€™ I replied. Later I was offered the explanation, â€˜They decided they did not need another four-star in Chau Docâ€™, given by someone official. Now you do not spend a million dollars on a luxury building and then do your marketing and feasibility studies afterwards. It is an imponderable, but I would guess someone’s need or greed was not being satisfied. Anyhow the spankingly bright good-as-new lodge has had a fairy tale ending-or should that be beginning?
We were led into the reception area, which with its pastel colours, departs from the Victoria Hotels tradition of recreating the French colonial area. A huge Khmer bust (there is another in front of the swimming pool) reminds you that you are not so far from Angkor Wat. We were seated and shown a remarkable video. The first scenes were of how decrepit and decaying the buildings had been left. There were desolate guest rooms with mildewed walls and totally unserviceable bathrooms. The bridge way to the belvedere and tower was so dilapidated that it was cordoned off for safety. We next saw scenes of the renovation and then the newly transformed lodge.
Now, before having lunch, we received confirmation that there is indeed no such thing as a free lunch. Madame Pasquale, the General Manageress, announced we were all to be formed into colour-coded work gangs and asked to plant a tree. â€˜Furthermore, we have a little ruse,â€™ she announced. â€˜You are all requested to write your name on a tag and attach it to the tree.â€™ â€˜The tree is your responsibility and you will have to come back every year to check on its progressâ€™. Some were given acacias to plant. I got a green bamboo tree, which I learned was â€˜trucâ€™ in Vietnamese. I had previously only known this word as a girlâ€™s name.
On it was to view the rooms. This is a small hotel, a boutique, as they like to say, with only twenty-six rooms. As you would expect, they are all luxurious and well-appointed and have the added bonus of each having a terrace long enough to set up a game of nine pins. The scenery from here is nothing short of â€˜wowâ€™, creating a great place to finish off reading â€˜War and Peaceâ€™, do your meditation or sip away on your sun downer. Not only that, but for but the stargazers among you, come nightfall, you will have your own personal astronomic observatory. I am told the sunrise is also spectacular here. Please ensure a pre-dawn wake up call for at least one day of your stay. We were invited to see it, but being billeted in the Chau Doc Victoria and what with all the wining and dining, I decided it unwise to burn the candle both ends-next time!
Photos: Victoria Nui Sam Lodge
The rooms of the lodge are bungalow style and arranged terrace-style, so as to ensure a perfect view for every one. There is a very steep staircase leading down to the pool. If you have ever climbed the stairs of Angkor Wat, you will know where they got their inspiration. This, of course, as Mme Pasquale admitted, makes it a difficult place for the disabled. If you are not so active, do not hesitate to come here, though, for the views and to enjoy a meal in the reception cum dining area.
The spacious swimming pool itself reaches to the edge of the cliffs, so it appears to be a natural infinity pool. What a great place too cool off, relax or meditate and perhaps enjoy a cocktail.
The staff was put to the test by attending to us at the Vietnamese evening meal. Some of the trainees also performed in the soireeâ€™s performance. A team of young local karate exponents put on an animated display. There was Arab dancing with Moroccan-style costumes. Only the fact that men and women were dancing together was unrealistic. The minority folk were not left out and we were given a taste of their dancing styles too.
It may be of interest to know that the peace and calm of Nui Sam is not just for Buddhists. It is there to renovate your spirit, just as the Bassac River is there to be enjoyed, not just by the houseboat folk and the charming town of Chau Doc is there to be experienced, not just by its melange of Vietnamese Khmer and Cham inhabitants.
Victoria Nui Sam Lodge
Vinh Dong 1, Nui Sam, Chau Doc,
An Giang Province. Tel: (076) 3575-888