A sacred place for Buddhists, Sam Mountain (Nui Sam, 284m) and its environs are crammed with dozens of pagodas and temples. A strong Chinese influence makes it particularly popular with ethnic Chinese, but Buddhists of all ethnicities visit here. The views from the top are excellent (weather permitting), ranging deep into Cambodia. There’s a military outpost on the summit, a legacy of the days when the Khmer Rouge made cross-border raids and massacred Viet namese civilians.
Along with the shrines and tombs, the steep path to the top is lined with the unholy clamour of commerce and there are plenty of cafes and stalls in which to stop for a drink or a snack. Walking down is easier than walking up (a 45-minute climb), so if you want to cheat, have a motorbike drop you at the summit (about 20,000d from the base of the mountain). The road to the top is a pretty ride on the east side of the mountain. Veer left at the base of the mountain and turn right after about 1km where the road begins its climb. The mountain is open 24/7, with lights on the road for nocturnal climbs.
(Chua Tay An; 4am-10pm) Although founded in 1847 on the site of an earlier bamboo shrine, Tay An’s current structure dates from 1958. Aspects of its eclectic architecture, particularly its domed tower, reflect Hindu and Islamic influences.
With a main gate of traditional Vietnamese design, on its roofline romp figures of lions and two dragons fighting for possession of pearls, chrysanthemums, apricot trees and lotus blossoms.
The temple itself is guarded by statues of a black elephant with two tusks and a white elephant with six tusks. Inside are arrayed fine carvings of hundreds of religious figures, most made of wood and some blinged up with disco-light halos. Statues include Sakyamuni, the 18 a-la-han (arhat) and the 12 muoi hai ba mu (midwives). The temple’s name – Tay An – means ‘Western Peace’.
If you’re coming from Chau Doc on Hwy 91, Tay An Pagoda is located straight ahead at the foot of the mountain.
(Mieu Ba Chua Xu; 24hr) Founded in the 1820s to house a statue that’s become the subject of a popular cult, this large temple faces Sam Mountain, on the same road as Tay An Pagoda. Originally a simple affair of bamboo and leaves, the temple has been rebuilt many times, most recently between 1972 and 1976, blending mid-20th-century design with Vietnamese Buddhist decorative motifs.
The statue itself is possibly a relic of the Oc-Eo culture, dating from the 6th century, and is also possibly that of a man – but don’t suggest that to one of the faithful.
According to one of several legends, the statue of Lady Xu used to stand at the summit of Sam Mountain. In the early 19th century Siamese troops invaded the area and decided to take it back to Thailand. But as they carried the statue down the hill, it became heavier and heavier, and they were forced to abandon it by the side of the path.
One day some villagers who were cutting wood came upon the statue and decided to bring it back to their village in order to build a temple for it; but it weighed too much for them to budge it. Suddenly, a girl appeared who, possessed by a spirit, declared herself to be Lady Xu. She announced to them that nine virgins were to be brought and that they would be able to transport the statue down the mountainside. The virgins were then summoned and carried the statue down the slope, but when they reached the plain, it became too heavy and they had to set it down. The people concluded that the site where the virgins halted had been selected by Lady Xu for the temple construction and it’s here that the Temple of Lady Xu stands to this day.
Offerings of roast whole pigs are frequently presented to the statue, which is dressed in glittering robes and adorned with an astonishing headdress. Once a month a creation of vegetables representing a dragon, tortoise, phoenix and qilin is also proffered to the effigy. The Chinese characters in the portal where worshippers pray are 主处聖母, which mean ‘the main place of the sacred mother’. A further couplet reads 爲国爲民, which means ‘for the country and for the people’. The temple’s most important festival is held from the 23rd to the 26th day of the fourth lunar month, usually late May or early June. During this time, pilgrims flock here, sleeping on mats in the large rooms of the two-storey resthouse next to the temple.
(Lang Thoai Ngoc Hau; 5am-10.30pm) A high-ranking official, Thoai Ngoc Hau (1761–1829) served the Nguyen Lords and, later, the Nguyen dynasty. In early 1829, Thoai Ngoc Hau ordered that a tomb be constructed for himself at the foot of Sam Mountain. The site he chose is nearly opposite the Temple of Lady Xu.
The steps are made of red ‘beehive’ stone (da ong) brought from the southeastern part of Vietnam. In the middle of the platform is the tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau and those of his wives, Chau Thi Te and Truong Thi Miet. There’s a shrine at the rear and several dozen other tombs in the vicinity where his officials are buried.
(Chua Hang; 4am-9pm) Also known as Phuoc Dien Tu, this temple is halfway up the western (far) side of Sam Mountain, with amazing views of the rice fields. The lower part of the pagoda includes monks’ quarters and two hexagonal tombs in which the founder of the pagoda, a female tailor named Le Thi Tho, and a former head monk, Thich Hue Thien, are buried.
The upper section has two parts: the main sanctuary, in which there are statues of A Di Da (Buddha of the Past) and Thich Ca Buddha (Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha); and an astounding complex of caverns and grottoes containing a host of deities, including a 1000-arm and 1000-eye Quan Am. There’s also a mirror room of Buddhas and an effigy of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.
According to legend, Le Thi Tho came from Tay An Pagoda to this site half a century ago to lead a quiet, meditative life. When she arrived, she found two enormous snakes, one white and the other dark green. Le Thi Tho soon converted the snakes, which thereafter led pious lives. Upon her death, the snakes disappeared.
Most people get here by rented motorbike or on the back of a xe om (about 40,000d one-way). There are also local buses heading this way from Chau Doc (5000d).
To get to Phu Chau district from Chau Doc, take a boat across the Hau Giang River from the Phu Hiep ferry landing, then catch a ride on the back of a xe om (about 60,000d) for the 18km trip.