It’s a useful base for exploring Khmer temples in the area, although you can probably skip these if Cambodia is on your radar.
The Bat Pagoda (Chua Doi) is a large, peaceful, Khmer monastery compound with a resident colony of fruit bats. Literally hundreds of these creatures hang from the trees: the largest weigh about 1kg, with a wingspan of about 1.5m. They are not toilet trained, so watch out when standing under a tree, or bring an umbrella.
Optimum times to visit are early morning and at least an hour before sunset, when the bats are most active. Around dusk hundreds of bats swoop out of the trees to forage in orchards all over the Mekong Delta, much to the consternation of farmers, who are known to trap the bats and eat them. Inside the compound the creatures are protected: the bats seem to know this and stick around.
The monks don’t ask for money, although donations won’t hurt. The pagoda is decorated with gilt Buddhas and murals paid for by overseas Vietnamese contributors. In one room there’s a life-size statue of the monk who was the former head of the complex.
The Bat Pagoda is 2km south of Soc Trang, a 20,000d xe om ride away (or you can easily walk). Head south on Ð Le Hong Phong and after about a kilometre veer right onto Ð Van Ngoc Chinh.
(163 Ð Ton Duc Thang) Buu Son Tu (Precious Mountain Temple) was founded over 200 years ago by a Chinese family named Ngo. Unassuming from the outside, this temple is highly unusual in that nearly every object inside is made entirely of clay. Consequently, it is better known as Chua Dat Set, or Clay Pagoda.
The hundreds of statues and sculptures that adorn the interior were hand-sculpted by the monk Ngo Kim Tong. From the age of 20 until his death at 62, this ingenious artisan dedicated his life to decorating the pagoda. Though the decor borders on kitsch, the pagoda is an active place of worship, and totally different from the Khmer and Vietnamese pagodas elsewhere in Soc Trang.
Entering the pagoda, visitors are greeted by one of Ngo’s largest creations – a six-tusked clay elephant, which is said to have appeared in a dream of Buddha’s mother. Behind this is the central altar, fashioned from more than five tonnes of clay. In the altar are a thousand Buddhas seated on lotus petals. Other highlights include a 13-storey Chinese-style tower over 4m tall. The tower features 208 cubby holes, each with a mini-Buddha figure inside, and is decorated with 156 dragons.
Needless to say, the clay objects in the pagoda are fragile, so explore with care. Donations are welcome.
(Chua Kh’leang; 68 Ð Ton Duc Thang) Except for the rather garish paint job, this pagoda could have been transported straight from Cambodia. Originally built from bamboo in 1533, it had a complete concrete rebuild in 1905. Several monks reside in the pagoda, which also serves as a base for over 150 novices who come from around the Mekong Delta to study at Soc Trang’s College of Buddhist Education across the street.
There are seven religious festivals held here every year, drawing people from out lying areas of the province.
( 079-382 2983; 23 Ð Nguyen Chi Thanh; 7.30-11am & 1.30-5pm Mon-Fri) Dedicated to the history and culture of Vietnam’s Khmer minority, this small museum doubles as a sort of cultural centre. Traditional dance and music shows are periodically staged here for larger groups. Displays are limited to photos and a few traditional costumes and other artefacts.
The museum, opposite Kh’leang Pagoda, may appear closed; if so, rouse someone to let you in.
XA LON PAGODA
Originally built in wood in the 18th century, this magnificent Khmer pagoda was completely rebuilt in 1923 but proved to be too small. From 1969 to 1985, the present-day large pagoda was slowly built as funds trickled in from donations. The ceramic tiles on the exterior of the pagoda are particularly impressive.
The monks lead an austere life, eating breakfast at 6am and seeking alms until 11am, when they hold an hour of worship. They eat again just before noon, study in the afternoon and eat no dinner. The pagoda also operates a school for the study of Buddhism and Sanskrit.
It’s located 12km from Soc Trang, towards Bac Lieu, on Hwy 1A.
Once a year, the Khmer community turns out for the Oc Bom Boc Festival (known as Bon Om Touk or the Water Festival in Cambodia), with longboat races on the Soc Trang River. Races are held according to the lunar calendar on the 15th day of the 10th moon, which roughly means November. The races start at noon, but things get jumping in Soc Trang the evening before. The event attracts visitors from all over Viet nam and even Cambodia, so hotel space is at a premium.
Soc Trang has several hotels but it’s hard to be particularly enthusiastic about any of them, and you’re better off continuing on to Can Tho. Few restaurants in Soc Trang have English menus, and prices are often omitted from the Vietnamese ones.
( 079-361 6122; 128 Ð Nguyen Trung Truc; r 270,000d, ste 450,000-600,000d) Rooms here are in better shape than the no- nonsense exterior might first suggest. The suites include a sunken bath and a full-size bar, although drinks are not included. Wi-fi in lobby only.
(24/5 Ð Hung Vuong; mains 40,000-130,000d) Down a lane off the main road into town, this large, open-sided restaurant is perpetually popular, serving up delicious grilled meat and fish. If there are a few of you, try a hotpot.
Buses run between Soc Trang and most Mekong cities. The bus station is on Hwy 1A, near the corner of Ð Hung Vuong, the main road into town. The 90-minute ride to Can Tho costs 60,000d; to Bac Lieu, 65,000d; and to Ha Tien, 130,000d.