Ha Tien may be part of the Mekong Delta but lying on the Gulf of Thailand it feels a world away from the rice fields and rivers that typify the region. Plantations of pepper trees cling to the hillsides. On a clear day, Phu Quoc Island is visible to the west.
The town itself has a languid charm, with crumbling colonial villas and a colourful riverside market. Visitor numbers have recently soared thanks to the opening of the nearby border with Cambodia at Xa Xia–Prek Chak and the creation of a special economic zone – allowing visa-free travel in the town and its immediate surrounds.
Oh yes, Ha Tien is on the map. And it’s occupying a bigger portion of it thanks to major expansion plans that will see the city spread southwest along the coast. Already a precinct of markets and hotels has sprung up on land reclaimed from the river between the end of Phuong Thanh and the still-quite-new bridge (which superseded Ha Tien’s atmospheric old pontoon bridge). With development concentrated in this neighbourhood, the charming colonial shopfronts around the old market have thankfully been left to decay in peace.
Ha Tien was a province of Cambodia until 1708. In the face of attacks by the Thai, the Khmer-appointed governor, a Chinese immigrant named Mac Cuu, turned to the Vietnamese for protection and assistance. Mac Cuu thereafter governed this area as a fiefdom under the protection of the Nguyen Lords. He was succeeded as ruler by his son, Mac Thien Tu. During the 18th century the area was invaded and pillaged several times by the Thai. Rach Gia and the southern tip of the Mekong Delta came under direct Nguyen rule in 1798.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian forces repeatedly attacked Vietnamese territory and massacred thousands of civilians here. The entire populations of Ha Tien and nearby villages (in fact, tens of thousands of people) fled their homes. Also during this period, areas north of Ha Tien along the Cambodian border were sown with mines and booby traps, some of which have yet to be cleared.
(Lang Mac Cuu, Nui Binh San; Ð Mac Cuu) Not far from town are the Mac Cuu Family Tombs, known locally as Nui Lang, the Hill of the Tombs. Several dozen relatives of Mac Cuu are buried here in traditional Chinese tombs decorated with figures of dragons, phoenixes, lions and guardians. At the bottom of the complex is an ornate shrine dedicated to the Mac family.
Heading up the hill, the largest tomb is that of Mac Cuu himself, constructed in 1809 on the orders of Emperor Gia Long and decorated with carved figures of Thanh Long (Green Dragon) and Bach Ho (White Tiger), protectors of Taoist temples. The tomb of Mac Cuu’s first wife is flanked by the imperial symbols of dragons and phoenixes.
(Sac Tu Tam Bao Tu; 328 Ð Phuong Thanh; prayers 8-9am & 2-3pm) Founded by Mac Cuu in 1730, Tam Bao Pagoda is home to a community of Buddhist nuns. In front of the pagoda is a statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat (Goddess of Mercy) standing on a lotus blossom. Within the sanctuary, the largest statue on the dais represents A Di Da (Buddha of the Past), made of painted brass.
Outside in the tranquil grounds are the tombs of 16 monks. Near the pagoda is a section of the city wall dating from the early 18th century.
(Phu Cu Am Tu; Ð Phu Dung; prayers 4-5am & 7-8pm) This pagoda was founded in the mid-18th century by Mac Thien Tich’s wife, Nguyen Thi Xuan. Her tomb and that of one of her female servants are on the hillside behind the pagoda. Nearby are the tombs of four monks. Inside the main hall of the pagoda, the most notable statue on the central dais is a bronze Thich Ca Buddha from China.
Behind this hall is a small temple, Dien Ngoc Hoang, dedicated to the Taoist Jade Emperor. Head up the steep blue stairs to the shrine. The figures inside are of Ngoc Hoang (Jade Emperor) flanked by Nam Tao, the Taoist God of the Southern Polar Star and the God of Happiness (on the right); and Bac Dao, the Taoist God of the Northern Polar Star and the God of Longevity (on the left). The statues are made of papier mâché moulded over bamboo frames.
To get here, continue north past the Mac Cuu Tombs and take the first right onto Ð Phu Dung.
(Chua Thanh Van) This subterranean Buddhist temple is 4km northeast of town. To the left of the entrance is the Stele of Hatred (Bia Cam Thu), shaped like a raised fist, which commemorates the Khmer Rouge massacre of 130 people here on 14 March 1978.
Several of the chambers contain funerary tablets and altars to Ngoc Hoang, Quan The Am Bo Tat and the two Buddhist monks who founded the temples of this pagoda. The wind here creates extraordinary sounds as it funnels through the grotto’s passageways. Openings in several branches of the cave afford views of nearby Cambodia.
Ha Tien has a series of markets in large pavilions east of the bridge along the To Chau River. Many of the goods are from Thailand and Cambodia, and prices are lower than in Hochiminh city. Cigarette smuggling is particularly big business. The fish market is a pretty interesting sight, especially early in the morning when the catch is being unloaded.
An open-sided market in the colonial quarter (between Ð Tuan Phu Dat and Ð Tham Tuong Sanh) opens at 3pm as a night market, with a scattering of clothing and food stalls.
(Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien) From Ha Tien’s riverfront, this Buddhist monastery is a striking sight – sprawling up the hill on the other side of the river. The buildings themselves are unremarkable but it’s worth making the steep climb up here for the sweeping views of the town and countryside. It’s easy enough to follow your nose to the narrow road at its base.
The monastery is reached via a tiny lane at number 48; look for the yellow sign topped with a swastika (symbolising eternity).
The name translates as East Lake, but Dong Ho is not a lake but an inlet of the sea. Dong Ho is said to be most beautiful on nights when there is a full or almost-full moon. According to legend, on such nights fairies dance here. Linguists may be interested to learn that Dong Ho in Mandarin is Dong Hu.
The ‘lake’ is just east of Ha Tien, and is bounded to the east by a chain of granite hills known as the Ngu Ho (Five Tigers) and to the west by the To Chan hills.
While there are loads of minihotels in town, the standard isn’t particularly high – but then neither are the prices. Being local-style establishments, you’re unlikely to get a top sheet or duvet cover on your bed.
( 077-385 2240; So 52, Ð Dong Thuy Tram; r 200,000-700,000d) Friendly and family-run, this smart six-level hotel is in good nick and some rooms have excellent river views from their balconies.
( 077-395 9222; So 2, Ð Mach Thien Tich; d/tw/f 200,000/400,000/500,000d) Set in the new part of town near the bridge, this large hotel has windowless and small cheaper rooms – it’s worth paying extra for those with river views and smarter bathrooms.
( 077-385 1580; 15 Ð To Chau; r 250,000-400,000d) Quite elegantly presented at an empty Ha Tien intersection, this old-timer has a variety of decent accommodation from simple doubles to spacious rooms with balcony and river views.
(077-395 1555; [email protected]; 27A Ð Tran Hau; r 250,000d) Right in the middle of the main drag, this minihotel offers good-value rooms and a lift. Opt for one of the corner rooms, with views of the river and coast.
( 077-395 2093; 36 Ð Tran Hau; s 390,000-690,000d, d 440,000-790,000d, tr 590,000d) A rambling place exuding a faded sense of midrange grandeur, this clean and central hotel has polite staff and spacious rooms, some with terrace.
River Hotel $$$
(077-395 5888; www.riverhotelvn.com; Binh San Ward, Ɖ Tran Ha; d 1,890,000-2,100,000d) With contemporary, spacious and stylish rooms, a towering and sinuous outline and ample river views, this new hotel enjoys an optimum position on the waterfront. A sophisticated addition to town, it’s become a beacon for Ha Tien’s promenading socialites.
Ha Tien’s speciality is an unusual variety of coconut – containing no milk, but with delicate and delicious flesh – that can only be found in Cambodia and this part of Viet nam. Restaurants all around the Ha Tien area serve up the coconut flesh in a glass with ice and sugar.
There are excellent food stalls in the night market.
(20 Ð Tran Hau; mains 35,000-200,000d; 6am-9pm) You know you’ve hit the coast when shrimp is the cheapest dish on the menu, which also runs to seafood and grills. Try the delicately flavoured steamed fish with ginger and onion.
(Tran Hau Park; mains from 60,000d; 6am-10pm) If you can stomach the super-kitsch music (Sergio Leone/Casablanca fusion on a loop) this restaurant has a certain river-borne charm for an evening drink or dinner.
( 077-370 1553; www.oasisbarhatien.com; 42 Ɖ Tuan Phu Dat; mains from 20,000d; 9am-9pm) Run by Ha Tien’s only resident Western expat and his Vietnamese wife, this friendly little bar is not just a great spot for a cold beer or plunger coffee, it’s also great for impartial travel information and for leafing through copies of the Evening Standard, the Observer and the Daily Mail. The menu runs to all-day, real-deal, full-English breakfasts, caramelised onion soup, mango shakes and more.
(077-385 1828; Ð Dong Ho; 6am-10pm) Dotted with fairy lights and glowing with Chinese lanterns at night, this floating cafe is a breezy choice for a sundowner beer overlooking Dong Ho.
Getting to the border The Xa Xia–Prek Chak border crossing connects Ha Tien with Kep and Kampot on Cambodia’s south coast, making a trip to Cambodia from Phu Quoc via Ha Tien, or vice versa, that much easier. Direct minibuses leave Ha Tien for Cambodia at around 1pm, heading to Kep (US$12, one hour, 47km), Kampot (US$15, 1½ hours, 75km), Sihanoukville (US$20, four hours, 150km) and Phnom Penh (US$18, four hours, 180km). Bookings can be made through Ha Tien Tourism (which also operates through the Oasis bar), which can arrange the Cambodian visa too. It’s far better to change money in Ha Tien than at the border.
At the border Casinos have sprung up on the Cambodian side, making the zone popular for gamblers on both sides of the border.
Moving on As it costs only slightly more than taking local transport and is far comfier, most travellers opt for a through minibus ticket.
Ferries stop across the river from the town. See the Phu Quoc Getting There & Away section for details of the daily ferry services.
Ha Tien bus station (Ben Xe Ha Tien; Hwy 80) is on the main road to Mui Nai Beach and the Cambodian border, about 1km north from the centre; a motorbike into town will cost 20,000d. Buses from here head to Chau Doc (70,000d), Long Xuyen (70,000d), Rach Gia (50,000d), Ca Mau (140,000d), Soc Trang (130,000d), Can Tho (110,000-130,000d), Tra Vinh (125,000d), Ben Tre (145,000d) and Ho Chi Minh City (140,0000-180,000d, about 10 hours).
Car & Motorbike
Ha Tien is 90km from Rach Gia, 95km from Chau Doc, 206km from Can Tho and 338km from HCMC. The Ha Tien–Chau Doc road is narrow and bumpy but interesting, following a canal along the border. As you approach Ha Tien, the land turns into a mangrove forest that is infertile and almost uninhabited. The drive takes about three hours, and it’s possible to visit Ba Chuc and Tuc Dup en route. If you don’t plan to drive yourself, xe om drivers typically charge about US$20 to US$30 for this route, or you can arrange a car through travel agencies or hotels in town.