The beaches in this area of Vietnam face the Gulf of Thailand. The water is pretty warm and becalmed; wonderful for bathing and diving but impossible to surf . The best of them, Mui Nai (Stag’s Head Peninsula; admission person/car 2500/10,000d), supposedly resembling the head of a stag with its mouth pointing upward, is 8km west of Ha Tien. On top is a lighthouse and there are many beaches on both sides of the peninsula, lined with simple restaurants and guesthouses.
There is no public transport to get to the beach. A xe om here should set you back around 40,000d.
Hon Giang & Nghe Islands
There are a lot of islands along this coast and some local people make a living gathering swiftlet nests (the most important ingredient of that famous Chinese delicacy, bird’s-nest soup) from their rocky cliffs. Around 15km from Ha Tien and reachable by small boat, Hon Giang Island has a nice , secluded beach.
Nghe Island, near Hon Chong, is a nice pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The island contains a cave pagoda (Chua Hang) next to a big statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat, which faces out to sea. Boats moored near Hon Chong’s cave pagoda will set you back for around US$150.
You’ll cross many Khmer pagodas, Cao Dai temples, grandiose churches and karst outcrops en route to Hon Chong, home to photogenic stone grottoes and the best stretch of sand on the delta’s mainland. Unfortunately, a stable cloud of discharge from a cement factory can blight the otherwise picturesque views. Beyond the beach, the main draw is an atmospheric Buddhist cave shrine.
After crossing the scrappy village, the road rounds a headland and follows Duong Beach (Bai Duong) for 3km. A fee entering the entrance is charged only at the far end of the beach (per person/car 5000/10,000d), where there are several food stalls, karaoke bars, and pigs and chickens wandering around. From the beach you can see many rocky remnants of Father and Son Isle (Hon Phu Tu), several hundred metres offshore. It was said to be shaped like a father embracing his son, yet the father was washed away in 2006. Boats can be rented at the shore to row out for a closer look at the orphan remains.
You need to walk across the market to reach the cave pagoda (Chua Hang), which is located against the base of a stony headland. The entry to the cave containing Hai Son Tu (Sea Mountain Temple) is inside the pagoda. Tourists light incense and offer prayers here before entering the cool grotto itself, whose entrance is located behind the altar. Inside are statues of Sakyamuni, Quan The Am Bo Tat and small cabinets enclosing green glass Buddhas. Mind your head on the low-hanging rock roof of the cave leading to the beach. The pagoda is swamped with pilgrims 15 days before and one month after Tet, while another deluge of worshippers arrives in March and April.
Sleeping & Eating
Green Hill Guesthouse GUEST HOUSE $
( 077-385 4369; r 500,000d) In an impressive villa on the northern headland of Duong Beach, this well-maintained and nice , family-run place has many large rooms , including the room of choice on the top floor.
Hontrem Resort RESORT HOTEL $$
( 077-385 4331; [email protected]; r US$60) The best place in Hon Chong by a stretch, Hontrem is draped over a hillock to the end of the main strip. The hexagonal bungalows are delightfully set overlooking the sea and consist of a large bed with light linen and generous baths. They even feature safes for valuables. The gardens are well kept and there’s a famous restaurant overlooking the beach. Breakfast included.
Tan Phat RESTAURANT $
(mains 30,000-150,000d; 7am-10pm) On Hon Chong’s main road, a kilometre or so before Duong Beach, this seafood restaurant is just like a tumbledown shack from the outside, but offers excellent food and amazing sea views.
Getting There & Away
Hon Chong is 32km from Ha Tien to Rach Gia. The access road branches off the Rach Gia–Ha Tien highway at the small town of Ba Hon. Buses can pick you up at Ba Hon, from where you can hire a motorbike to keep on the journey on to Hon Chong (around 70,000d to 80,000d). A motorbike from Ha Tien will cost around 200,000d return.
Tuc Dup Hill
Because of its network of connecting caves, Tuc Dup Hill (216m) served as a strategic base of operations during the American War. Tuc dup is Khmer for ‘water runs at night’ and it is also called locally as ‘Two Million Dollar Hill’, in reference to the amount of money the Americans sank into securing it.
This is a spot of historical interest but there isn’t much to see. You’ll cross near it if you’re taking the back road through Ba Chuc to Chau Doc.
Ba Chuc’s Bone Pagoda stands for as a ghastly reminder of the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1978 Khmer Rouge soldiers regularly crossed the border into Vietnam and slaughtered innocent civilians. Over the border, things were worse , where around two million Cambodians were killed during the period of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea regime.
Between the period of 12 April and 30 April 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed 3157 people at Ba Chuc. Only two people are told to have survived. A lot of victims were tortured to death. The Vietnamese government might have had other motives for invading Cambodia at the end of 1978, but certainly outrage at the Ba Chuc massacre was a main justification.
Undergoing reconstruction at the time of research, the Bone Pagoda has a common grave housing the skulls and bones of more than 1100 victims. At the time of writing, the skulls were showed in a small building nearby, separated by age group (including the minute skulls of toddlers and babies). There is still some blood on the walls above the floor of the Phi Lai Tu temple across the way.
Ba Chuc is set close to the Cambodian border; to get to it, let’s follow the road that runs along the canal from Ha Tien to Chau Doc. Turn off this main road onto Hwy 3T and follow it for 4km.