I pulled my suitcase down the slope to the boat called ‘Super Dong’, which was rocking gently while berthed at Rach Gia Port in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang.
The weather that morning was mild and a little windy. At times, the salty smell of the seawater seemed to mix in with the smell of fish to produce a particular aroma different from elsewhere in Vietnam. This land was where Vietnamese Hero Nguyen Trung Truc chose to breathe his last and rest in peace.
A few minutes later, the boat began to glide over the water surface and gradually headed out into the Gulf of Thailand, towards the green Nam Du archipelago.
I climbed downstairs to the deck to enjoy the north-easterly winds carrying the warmth of spring. I then struck up a conversation with the boat driver, as I wanted to know more about where we were.
I learned that the name Nam Du (touring the south) was given to the archipelago by Emperor Gia Long more than 200 years ago. After he took the throne and established the Nguyen Dynasty, he toured the Mekong Delta, which protected him from chasing Tay Son forces during the resulting war.
Nam Du is the name given to all the 21 small and large islands in the archipelago, of which Cu Tron Island (also known as Big Island) is the most significant as it has been inhabited for several centuries. Some of the other islands have also been inhabited, but life there is tough.
In the old days, the residents of Rach Gia considered Nam Du one of the largest fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand, and many fishing boats went there to catch anchovies to make fish sauce. People say that the fishermen also built big warehouses on Cu Tron Island.
However, the islanders said that Son Island in the archipelago was actually the cradle of fish sauce making, before the trade spread to Nam Du and then Phu Quoc Island, which is Vietnam’s largest and now a major tourist centre. It was more convenient to take fish sauce from Phu Quoc Island to Ha Tien town on the mainland, which over time turned Phu Quoc into the leading fish sauce brand in Vietnam, while other islands only provided the raw materials.
After a boat ride of more than two hours, I set foot on Cu Tron Island. A friend of mine, a native, was waiting and took me to the guesthouse. Riding along a shaded road, I suddenly realised that Nam Du needs a good plan for the preservation of its natural features, because I could see a lot of rubbish and the environment was deteriorating at an alarming rate.
‘After you book in, let’s go to the beach and you can treat me to a speciality called steamed freshwater garfish served with rice paper pancakes,’ My friend said happily. ‘It’s sooo delicious.’
In the afternoon we rode a motorbike to Men Beach to admire the sea. It was quiet and peaceful, with long rows of coconut trees stretching along the beach and sand glistening like diamonds.
Rays of sunshine coming through their leaves also created some glitter. Seagulls circled around, playing cheerfully with the waves. Groups of tourists strolled here and there or splashed around in the water by the shore. Their laughs made me happy as I looked around and enjoyed myself in the peace and quiet. A thought ran through my mind as I remembered several sacred and mysterious local legends I had been told about.
I heard that Nam Du islanders had a strong belief in and great respect for Nguyen Trung Truc (1837-1868), a national hero who fought against the French Army and was captured and killed when he was only 30 years old.
Asking around, I learned that the inhabitants on most of the islands in the archipelago had temples worshipping Truc, whether simple or solemn. Many local people even believe he turned into a God, protecting fishermen from strong winds and heavy seas, and he’s viewed as their Guardian Angel. Events and ceremonies held to worship him are solemn and grand.
We then took a boat ride to Ngang Island, which is said to be Nam Du’s most populous island, with around a thousand households, as it used to have the biggest seaport in the area before 1975, attracting large numbers of ships and fishing boats.
Something quite interesting was the local coconut wood, which is almost a century old. Visitors to Ngang Island can see rocks of different shapes and sizes on the seashore, which are very pleasing to the eye.
Children ran around and the beach looked so lovely. We were then invited to enjoy some seafood at eateries on the beach. We chose to sit down at one with a good aroma and a lot of smoke coming from its kitchen. We lay down on hammocks, swung in the breeze, and tasted the smoked seafood with a sense of happiness.