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
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
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
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