Ha Tien may be a part of the Mekong Delta but situated on the Gulf of Thailand. It feels like a world away from the paddy fields and rivers that typify the area. Plantations of pepper trees cling to the hillsides. On a nice day, Phu Quoc Island can be seen to the west.
The town itself has a languid charm, with crumbling colonial villas and a lively riverside market. The number of travellers have lately increased 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 the city will spread southwest along the coast. Already an area of markets and hotels has appeared on land reclaimed from the river between the end of Phuong Thanh and the still-quite-new bridge (which superseded Ha Tien’s atmospheric old pontoon bridge). Along with the concentrated development in this area , the beautiful colonial shopfronts around the old market have thankfully been left to decay in peace.
Ha Tien used to be a province of Cambodia until 1708. In the face of attacks by the Thai, the Khmer-appointed governor, Mac Cuu, a Chinese immigrant , 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. Then the area was invaded and pillaged several times by the Thai during the 18th century . 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 remaining populations of Ha Tien and surrounding villages (in fact, tens of thousands of people) fled their homes. Also areas north of Ha Tien along the Cambodian border were sown with mines and booby traps, some of which have yet to be cleared during this period .
Mac Cuu Family Tombs
(Lang Mac Cuu, Nui Binh San; Ð Mac Cuu) Not so 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. An ornate shrine dedicated to the Mac family is at the bottom of the structure.
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 patterns 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.
Tam Bao Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE
(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. There is a statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat in front of the pagoda 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.
There are the tombs of 16 monks outside in the tranquil grounds . Near the pagoda is a section of the city wall dating from the early 18th century.
Phu Dung Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE
(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.
There is a small temple behind this hall , called Dien Ngoc Hoang, devoted 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 reach here, keep on north past the Mac Cuu Tombs and take the first right onto Ð Phu Dung.
Thach Dong Cave Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE
(Chua Thanh Van) This subterranean Buddhist temple is 4km northeast of town. The Stele of Hatred (Bia Cam Thu) is at the left of the entrance , shaped like a raised fist, which commemorates the Khmer Rouge massacre of 130 people here on 14 March 1978.
Several of the chambers are comprised of 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 has 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 many markets in large pavilions east of the bridge along the To Chau River. Many products are made from Thailand and Cambodia, and prices are quite lower than in Hochiminh city. Cigarette smuggling is particularly big business. The fish market is a pretty interesting site , 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 clothes and food stalls.
Ngoc Tien Monastery BUDDHIST TEMPLE
(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 small road at its base.
The monastery is reached through a tiny lane at number 48; look for the yellow sign topped with a swastika (symbolising eternity).
Dong Ho INLET
English name of it is East Lake, but Dong Ho is not a lake but an inlet of the sea. Dong Ho is known as the most beautiful on nights when there is a full or almost-full moon. According to legend, on such nights fairies dance here. Linguists will be interested in learning that Dong Ho in Mandarin is Dong Hu.
The ‘lake’ is just east of Ha Tien, and is bounded to the east by many granite hills known as the Ngu Ho (Five Tigers) and to the west by the To Chan hills.
As there are many minihotels in town, its standard isn’t really high – but then neither are the prices. With local-style decoration , you’re unlikely to get a top sheet or duvet cover on your bed.
Hai Phuong HOTEL $
(077-385 2240; So 52, Ð Dong Thuy Tram; r 200,000-700,000d) Happy and family-run, this nice six-level hotel is in good nick and some rooms also have remarkable river views from their balconies.
Anh Van Hotel $
(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.
Hai Yen Hotel $
(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 wide selection of decent accommodation from small doubles to large rooms with balcony and river views.
Du Hung Hotel $
(077-395 1555; email@example.com; 27A Ð Tran Hau; r 250,000d) Right in the middle of the main drag, this minihotel serves good-value rooms and a lift. Choosing one of the corner rooms, with views of the river and coast.
Ha Tien Hotel $$
( 077-395 2093; 36 Ð Tran Hau; s 390,000-690,000d, d 440,000-790,000d, tr 590,000d) A rambling place exuding a faded sense of midrange grandeur, this clean and central hotel has polite staff and spacious rooms, some with terrace.
River Hotel $$$
(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 an outstandinga beacon for Ha Tien’s promenading socialites.
Eating & Drinking
Speciality in Ha Tien is a special variety of coconut – not including milk, but with delicate and tasty flesh – that can only be found in Cambodia and this part of Viet nam. Restaurants in Ha Tien area serve up the coconut flesh in a glass with ice and sugar.
There are so many attractive food stalls in the night market.
Xuan Thanh VIETNAMESE $
(20 Ð Tran Hau; mains 35,000-200,000d; 6am-9pm) You know you’ve hit the coast where shrimp is the cheapest dish on the menu, which also serves seafood and grills. Try the delicately flavoured steamed fish with ginger and onion.
Floating Restaurant WESTERN, VIETNAMESE $
(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 small bar is not just a wonderful place for you to enjoy 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, English breakfasts with many special dishes such as caramelised onion soup, mango shakes and more.
Thuy Tien CAFE
(077-385 1828; Ð Dong Ho; 6am-10pm) Dotted with beautiful lights and glowing with Chinese lanterns at night, this amazing cafe is a great choice for a sundowner beer overlooking Dong Ho.
Ha Tien Tourism ( 077-395 9598; 1 Ð Phuong Thanh) Handles transport bookings, consisting of boats to Phu Quoc and buses to Cambodia. Also arranges Cambodian visas (US$25).
Post Office ( 077-385 2190; 3 Ð To Chau; 7am-5pm) Also offers internet access.
Getting to cambodia: Ha Tien to kep
Getting to the border The Xa Xia–Prek Chak border crossing connects Ha Tien with Kep and Kampot on Cambodia’s south coast, having a journey to Cambodia from Phu Quoc via Ha Tien, or vice versa, that far easier. Direct buses leave Ha Tien for Cambodia at around 1pm, getting 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). You can book in advance through Ha Tien Tourism (which also operates through the Oasis bar), which can arrange the Cambodian visa if needed too. It’s much easier to change money in Ha Tien than at the border.
At the border Casinos have sprung up on the Cambodian side, making the destination 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.
Getting There & Away
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. When you reach Ha Tien, the area turns into a mangrove jungle that is infertile and almost uninhabited. It takes tourists about three hours, and you can 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 each route , or you can hire a car through travel agencies or hotels in town.