THE MEKONG DELTA || HA TIEN
Of all Delta towns, HA TIEN, at the extreme northwest on the border with Cambodia, has been changing the fastest in recent years: where once it received only a trickle of visitors, it now buzzes with Western travellers. Two major factors have caused this: first, the opening of the border to foreigners at Xa Xia, just north of Ha Tien, meaning that it’s now possible to head directly to Cambodia’s coastal towns of Kep and Sihanoukville without passing through Phnom Penh; and the second factor is the beginning of hydrofoil services to Phu Quoc, offering a shorter and cheaper route to the island than from Rach Gia. Thus this town, which until recently had an end-of-the-line feel, is coming to terms with its newfound popularity.
A brief history of Ha Tien
Founded by Chinese immigrant Mac Cuu in 1674, with the permission of the local Cambodian lords, Ha Tien thrived thanks to its position facing the Gulf of Thailand and astride the trade route between India and China. By the close of the seventeenth century, Siam (later Thailand) had begun to eye the settlement covetously, and Mac Cuu was forced to petition Hué for support. The resulting alliance, forged with Emperor Minh Vuong in 1708, ensured Vietnamese military backup, and the town continued to prosper. Mac Cuu died in 1735, but the familial fiefdom continued for seven generations, until the French took over in 1867. Subsequently, the town became a resistance flash-point, with Viet Minh holing up in the surrounding hills, and even sniping at French troops from the To Chau Mountain, to the south.
The Mui Nai Loop
A pleasant half or full day can be spent exploring the countryside around Ha Tien, with a convenient circular route northwest of town meaning you won’t need to backtrack. This makes an ideal bike ride when the weather is good.
Strike off west along Lam Son. At the end of the road, turn left and continue straight at a small roundabout. A war cemetery serves as a landmark on the right 2.5km from town, and where the road forks, branch left, signposted Nui Den (lighthouse). Follow this road to the coast and along a winding stretch of road with some beautiful views until you reach the entrance to Mui Nai beach (5000đ per person, 1000đ per bike).
A pleasant – if not idyllic – four-hundred-metre curve of sand, shaded by coconut palms and backed by lush green hills, Mui Nai beach offers reasonable swimming in clean, shallow waters. The beach is very popular among Vietnamese, and there are several resorts here, though they’re all overpriced and poorly maintained. The best of the bunch is the Hong Phat, with reasonable air-conditioned rooms and a restaurant too.
There are a few other restaurants and beachside cafés, so you can kick back and crack open a few crabs while enjoying a fresh coconut juice or a refreshing slice of watermelon.
Leave the beach at the far end and turn left on to the coast road, weaving your way between rice fields, shrimp farms, water buffalo wallowing in ponds and signs reading ‘Frontier Area’. You’ll see the 48m-high granite outcrop housing Thach Dong, or Stone Cave, long before you reach it; 3–4km past Mui Nai the road reaches a junction, where a left turn leads to the Cambodian border.
Turn right at this junction and very shortly the road passes a cluster of food stalls that mark the entrance to Thach Dong (daily 6.30am–6pm; 5000đ per person, 1000đ per bike). A monument shaped like a defiant clenched fist stands as a memorial to 130 people killed by Khmer Rouge forces near here in 1978. Beyond this, steps lead up to a cave pagoda that’s home to a colony of bats. Its shrines to Quan Am and Buddha are unremarkable, but balconies hewn from the side of the rock afford great views over the hills, paddy fields and sea below. Look to your right and you’re peering into Cambodia.
From here, continue along the circular road that will bring you after a few kilometres back into Ha Tien.