My location? Nui Sam Mountain, a place of Mecca-like pilgrimage thanks to Ba Chau Xu Temple, and just 7km from Chau Doc. In the first three months of 2013, 1.9 million mainly domestic visitors flocked to this iconic temple. For 2014, the figures have yet to be calculated, but it is likely to be just as many if not more.
Yet my place of residence, even at the end of the pilgrimage season, is surprisingly quiet. The three-star Victoria Nui Sam Lodge, the latest of a French-styled chain of Indochine hotels stretching across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, has much in common with the lodges and villas of Dalat or the hill stations to the north. Stone-brick bungalows nestle into the side of the mountain, while fauna, flowers, views and vegetable gardens make up the away-from-the-rest-of-the-world package.
The lookout point at Victoria Nui Sam. The best place to catch the sunset
An infinity pool... With a view over the paddy fields
But this isn't any old resort. First is the designation ‘three-star’, a misnomer for Vietnam. By local standards the star count should number four, but the Victoria chain holds itself to higher standards. From my own experience, this is a wonderfully comfortable, if not elegant version of three.
The reception area in Victoria Nui Sam
Then there’s the staff. This is a training hotel, a property where the staff are recruited from around the area and then given six months worth of hospitality training to ready them for the real, exceeding-guests’-expectations world. Most will go on to work in Victoria’s more upmarket properties in the region. But this place is a land that creates opportunities, a Vietnamese yet somehow intriguingly American dream.
Beyond Nui Sam
One of the temples in a nearby Khmer pagoda complex
Inside the Khmer pagoda
On my second morning I took an exhilarating early-morning 25km cycling trip along the canals, over the paddies and through small villages. This is Vietnam as it has existed for years. I then travelled by car to the nearby Tra Su Bird Sanctuary.
Another one of those gems not given the coverage it deserves by the guidebooks, this wetland nature reserve was spellbinding. Swarming with 70 species of birds, many close enough to view, the melaleuca forest, grassland and swamp adds to the reserve’s sense of mystique. Nearly erased during the war — it was used as a Viet Cong hideout — nature has retaliated and made a comeback. So have the birds. Here they nest and go about their business in abundance.
A black-crowned night heron in Tra Su Bird Sanctuary
On my way back to the resort we stopped off for a cold sugar palm juice (nuoc thot not), a drink more refreshing and certainly more tasty than its sugar cane equivalent. Then we visited a 300-year-old Khmer pagoda nestled in a Khmer village. This is all the tip of the inland, middle-of-nowhere iceberg. There is much to do in the area around Nui Sam and Chau Doc. Now people are starting to know about it.
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