Some years ago I got a chance to visit Châu Đốc during the annual festival (actually it was the bathing ceremony of the statue of Holy Mother ) at Bà Chúa Xứ, it was late at night, so crowded, to be honest I couldn’t see anything , we also quickly left before midnight. Years later with friends I came back to this town, bordering Cambodia, in Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, to explore more! What’s special here to keep me coming back? There are two – one is the Pagoda of Holy Mother named “Bà Chúa Xứ” and the local speciality – mắm or the fermented fish.
Let’s talk about the Pagoda of The Holy Mother, the full name is The Goddess of the Prosperity or Holy Mother of the Realm, in Vietnamese – simply Bà Chúa Xứ. Once a year, in the beginning of the rainy season, four-day festival is held at this religious location, absolutely unbelievable crowd of pilgrims coming here during these days, to pray for the Luck, for the Prosperity…Bà Chúa Xứ reached her peak of popularity in the 1990s and until now still entertains pilgrims every year with her responsiveness to loyal followers.
According to some tales, the statue of The Holy Mother is actually a feminized statue of the Indian God Shiva and the discovery of the statue begin with either the statue appearing on the peak of an island as the water level in the Mekong Delta recedes, either because she was placed there many centuries before, or because she grew naturally from the stone, on the summit of Núi Sam (Sam mountain).
Tales also said that forty strongest men from the village tried to carry her down the mountain, but found her far too heavy to carry, later only nine virgin girls would be able to carry her. They proceeded until arriving at the base of the hill where Holy Mother of the Realm decided to remain, and she became heavy once more. This is where her temple stands today.
People strongly believe the Goddess will bring the Richness to them, and if more valuable offerings to the Goddess, better things will come back to them in return, but they shouldn’t forgot their promise while praying, otherwise something very bad could happen!
By the way, some other tales could scare us like this one – someone prayed the Holy Mother for big luck and by somehow didn’t keep their promise after getting what they want, they were hardly punished! Or someone tried to move the statue, to steal something from the statue or even to bath her only 5′ earlier, they would get a fatal punishment!
It’s hard for me to say that I could have such a strong belief in this kind of praying-God-for-help, as I grew up in a family where my parents didn’t have any clear religious preference, I’m not a Buddhist, neither a Christian, but I’m definitely not an Atheist, I do respect and deeply keep it inside my heart…
Leaving the Pagoda we know Châu Đốc still has another famous speciality – “mắm”. i.e the fermented fish. Mắm could be a served as a dish but more like an ingredient to prepare some traditional dishes and one of them is the popular bún mắm, i.e “rice noodles with fermented fish soup”.
I’m not sure but it seems only in Vietnam we can find different kinds of fermented fishes, and each one has different taste, flavor, used in different recipes. Vietnamese love “mắm”, especially people in Mekong Delta but some maybe not or depends on which kind of mắm. I like mắm thái – a mixture of papaya with fermented snakehead fish or mắm dưa – fermented cucumber.
Mắm thái – the combination of fermented snakehead fish with papaya, at home we can add some more chili, garlic, lemon juice, or even sugar, actually “mắm thái” is quite sweet compared to other “mắm”, the best way to enjoy it is to wrap together with slices of cooked pork, veggies, rice noodles…in a paper rice.
Fermented cucumber could go very well with rice porridge, or porridge with black bean…and that was a popular breakfast in the countryside in the past, surprisingly it’s getting more and more popular now in Sài Gòn, we can get a bowl of hot thick porridge served with this fermented cucumber everywhere in town! Dưa mắm – the texture is a bit crunchy, the flavor is quite strong with half sweet, half salty, a bit spicy…
I have no idea how people do mắm, it could take several months for the fermenting process, it requires some secrets that we may never know…and it still depends of the region – from the South up to the North, mắm could be made of this different fishes, ingredients.
Châu Đốc, only 240-250 km away from Saigon, but due to the road conditions, one ferry to pass…it took us almost 5 hours by car. So after my friends’s visit and pray at Bà Chúa Xứ, we were wandering around the market to purchase some mắm, then we were heading to Núi Sam, where we can find the famous Victoria Châu Đốc Hotel, on a halfway up to the mountain with nice view down to Mekong Delta.