Ha Tien is in the extreme south-west of the Vietnamese mainland close to the Gulf of Thailand and the Cambodian border. It’s a busy, but remote, town of about 42,000 people around 100km from Chau Doc and 340km from Ho Chi Minh City by road. There’s also a canal to Chau Doc.
Once part of Cambodia, the area was subject to Thai incursions. The Kh’mer governor, an immigrant from the Chinese ‘Mac’ clan, turned to Vietnam for support in 1708. At the end of the 18th century, the town and its surrounding area was taken over by the Nguyen Lords.
During the American War, it was the first base for ‘swift boat operations’ along the south Vietnamese rivers close to the Cambodian border. Eventually, operations extended the length of the Giang Thanh River and all the way to the Bassac River. Ha Tien also became the western anchor for such operations, but was never a really major base.
In the late 1970’s, the area again came under attack from the Kh’mer Rouge, who massacred thousands of people and forced many more to flee to safety’ prompting the Vietnamese Army to enter Cambodia to rid it of the evil regime.
It’s an interesting area of grassland, wetland and limestone ‘karst’ ecosystems, rich in biodiversity, particularly birds and cave animals. It’s also a good example of the difficulties of conservation in a poor area. A World Bank funded cement works, and increased shrimp pond development and subsistence rice farming, are a considerable threat to the unique environment. However, the predominantly Kh’mer population is among the poorest in Vietnam. Encouraging crop diversification, woven craft production and sustainable harvesting of grasses from the grasslands might be a long-term solution.
Its climate is similar to that of the rest of the Mekong, but the rainy season occurs somewhat sooner and ends later. It’s also wetter, averaging more than 2,000mm each year.
Ha Tien and its hinterland is a popular destination for Vietnamese people, but few visitors from abroad venture into such an out-of-the-way corner of Vietnam. Nevertheless, for travellers seeking an authentic experience and prepared for basic accommodation and infrastructure, it has a lot to offer.
It’s an attractive destination – a French film company used it as a location for a romantic feature film in the 1990’s. The jagged limestone outcrops on land and in the water are striking, and contain many grottoes and caves. There are some good beaches within reachable distance from the town.
Ho Dong ‘lake’ is actually an inlet of the sea. Nevertheless, it’s a picture-postcard location. Apart from its beauty, it’s known to have ecologically diverse marine creatures, including rare species of fish and shrimp. Local legends say that when there is a full moon, fairies come to Ho Dong to dance and bathe, hence the town’s name – ‘Tien’ in Vietnamese means ‘fairy’.
The imprint of the Mac on Ha Tien runs deep. On nearby Nui Lang Mountain are the tombs of Mac Cuu, Ha Tien’s saviour and other members of the clan including his three-year-old daughter, apparently buried alive. Den Mac Cuu is a temple dedicated to the clan.
Of the pagodas in the town, the Tam Bao Temple and the Phu Dung (Cotton Rose Hibiscus) Pagoda stand out. The latter involves a long and complicated love story, which, unlike most of Vietnam’s legends, seems to be based on fact.The Thach Dong Pagoda is underground, inside a limestone hill. Wind blowing through the many clefts and crevices creates strange noises –fanciful visitors like them to the sound of a gong.
Apart from wandering around and sampling the local cuisine (Ha Tien’s speciality is Mam Chao, a shrimp paste combining the sour taste from central Vietnam with the sweetness of south Vietnam’s version), the area is good for snorkelling around the islets about a hundred metres offshore