Sleeping dogs on the summit of Sam Mountain in Vietnam

Assault on Nui Sam, Pagoda Mountain of the Mekong

In Sights, Vietnam by Nick5 Comments

Deep in the Mekong Delta, west of Chau Doc and the Bassac River that connects An Giang province to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, lies Sam Mountain—a haphazard Jenga tower of pagodas, small shrines, cafes, tombs, carnival games, hawkers, beggars, overgrown trails, and dogs…so many dogs.

Today, the mountain’s fleet of pagodas attracts pilgrims from across southern Vietnam, and the town surrounding the base of the mountain lives and dies by tourism.

We don’t have food or water, but have you seen the view?

In years past, the mountain steps were teeming with life. But hard times have forced locals away from their historic homes into the surrounding cities to look for work.

Plus, I’m sure it’s tempting to move somewhere else when it takes locals a solid hour to haul groceries home.

Today, climbing Nui Sam is a quiet affair. While merchants and cafes gather around the foot of the stairs as you begin your ascent, later your only company are packs of guarded but harmless dogs roaming up and down the slope.

Domain of Dogs, Mound of Millipedes

Sleeping dog on the stairs up Sam Mountain

Or, if you come during the dry season around November, dozens and dozens of millipedes the size of dogs millipedes can be your travel companions.

Most travel sites suggest that climbing Sam Mountain is uneventful and boring. They say “hire a driver to take you to the top.” That’s because some travel writers just grab whatever information they can find and write up reviews for places they’ve never visited.

So, if Site A reads a random review on Trip Advisor that says climbing Sam Mountain is boring, that goes in Site A’s review, too. And Site B finds site A, and copies their post. Site C finds A and B, so on and so forth, like a game of telephone, until Site Z is telling travelers:

Sam Mountain, once a peaceful religious outpost in the Mekong Delta, has been overrun lately by axe-wielding cannibals. For your own safety, please avoid the area at all costs.

I’m a big proponent of “see for yourself.” So I walked up Sam Mountain anyway, despite all the travel advisories and the hordes of plastic painted animals guarding the trail. The real, the extinct, and even the mythological—tigers, dinosaurs, mermaids, even monkey people, lined up like an elementary school kid’s worst nightmare.

The only thing missing was a laughing clown.

Mountain of Many Faces

Mythological Monkey King, trapped at Sam Mountain

At times, Sam Mountain seems to have an identity crisis. Move past the odd Noah’s Ark of plastic animals reminiscent of an unkempt miniature golf course from the early 90s, and hikers travel through several layers on their way to the summit—residential, shops, even a “carnival” of sorts, which must be a real blast in the high season.

Most of the climb is mercifully shaded, although the peak of the mountain is as bald as a newborn baby. The top affords sweeping views of Chau Doc and Cambodia, haze permitting. And during high water season, Sam Mountain rises like an island above the sea of flooded fields and swollen rivers below.

The natural vantage point is also why the Vietnamese built a military outpost here decades ago to protect against raids by the Khmer Rouge, which is still active today (the outpost, not the Khmer Rouge).

Danger
Although the Vietnamese government insists the mountain isn’t haunted, how can we know for sure? 

Sam Mountain Exit Strategy

Looking into Cambodia from Sam Mountain

Once you reach the summit, have a rest and finish playing with the dogs. You’ll be relieved to know there’s an easier way down—a gently sloping road, at that.

Sure, you could walk or even DRIVE up this road too, but that’s no fun.

The biggest, newest pagoda at Sam Mountain

On your descent, look for the massive, brand-new pagoda built with big-city money. Keep an eye out for Victoria’s fancy Nui Sam hotel branch which is technically on the mountain but certainly not what I’d consider a “mountain resort.”

The back entrance is bigger, bolder, and built for tourism. There’s also a lot more dogs.

But I challenge you to walk up the steps just like so many pilgrims have before you.

Don’t take the easy way out. If you feel like I wasted your time—time better spent sitting in your hotel or haggling with 95-year-old women over 10-cent bananas—feel free to leave me a comment saying what a horrible bastard I am.

Comments

    1. Author
      Nick

      If you stare into its eyes between 3 and 4 am, it supposedly steals your soul. I made that up, but couldn’t it be true?

  1. Liz

    Sort of like a recurrent nightmare of mine, but the dogs sound like fun.

    1. Author
      Nick

      It kind of is–grotesque statues painted in the brightest colors, swarms of millipedes crawling along the ground, semi-feral dogs watching you from the bushes…

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