The 17th century town, which lies sandwiched between the Gulf of Thailand and Dong Ho Lake, is blessed with spectacular scenery. Thien Ly reports
The light of the moon is like a magic wand that casts a pall of silver on everything around, turning the earth into a new mysterious, alluring world.
The obscure sounds of the night play their hand as well, casting a spell on me as I sat on the banks of the Dong Ho Lake in Ha Tien Town, Kien Giang Province. The water is laminated with a layer of quicksilver. Entranced, I do not want the spell to break.
But break it did, as is nature’s want, especially when we let it be. The day brought its own beauty and tranquillity, scattering sunlight on the lake’s surface to make certain parts glitter in sparkling gold. On the edge, the reflections of Ha Tien in different shapes and forms did a slow dance in tune with the rhythms of the breeze.
Dong Ho Lake (also called East Lake) is located to the east of Ha Tien Town and surrounded by rivers and mountains. The lake is three kilometres long and two kilometres wide. It is flanked on the right by the Ngu Ho Mountain and on the left by the To Chau Mountain. The Giang Thanh River is located to the east of the lake and the Ha Tien River to the west. For fishermen, Dong Ho is a natural refuge offering protection from storms.
The 1,384ha lake with 903ha of water surface is surrounded by 249 ha of mangrove forests and 171 ha of aquaculture farms. It plays a central role in the economic, cultural and social life of residents, and is also valued for its biological diversity.
The Dong Ho Lake has for years been known as one of the most beautiful panoramas in Ha Tien.
Ha Tien, around 350km from HCM City, is a town that sprung up in the late 17th century amidst mountains, seas and islands. Lying just 8km from the Cambodian border, Ha Tien is on the Gulf of Thailand and has a vastly different feel from other delta settlements.
The town sits on the Dong Ho Lake near To Chau Mountain’s green pepper gardens and the famous Phu Dung and Tam Bao pagodas. The area is surrounded by towering limestone formations that support a network of caves, some of which have been turned into temples.
Legend has it that the region’s enchanting landscapes attracted even Tien (fairies) to visit and hang out here. Ha Tien derives its name from this legend.
Today, the town is well known for many attractions including historical monuments, and has been recognised as a key cross border economic zone and tourism site in Kien Giang.
It is said that Ha Tien has a little bit of all the famous landscapes in the country. It has caves resembling those in the northern mountainous province of Lang Son, rocks erupting from the sea like in Ha Long Bay, and limestone cliffs like those found in the province of Ninh Binh.
I realised this when I visited the Thach Dong formed by huge green rocks rising above the ground on National Highway 17, approximately 4km from Ha Tien Town.
It is also called “Thach Dong thon van” (cave that swallows clouds) by locals. Early in the morning, there are clouds floating through the top of the cave which abuts from a giant green rock. They stop there and spread themselves around the cave’s entrance. Inside the cave are hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites sculpted over millions of years.
I also saw a pagoda with several chambers containing funerary tablets and altars to Ngoc Hoang and Quan The Am Bo Tat and the two Buddhist monks who founded the temples. Openings in several branches of the cave afford views of Cambodia. The wind here creates extraordinary sounds as it blows through the cave’s passageways.
About 1km away from Thach Dong is the Da Dung Mountain, another destination favoured by tourists who consider it a fantastic work of art gifted by nature to Ha Tien.
The mountain’s clusters of rocks stand amidst an immense marsh with nan kim (eleocharis atropurpurea) fields and forests.
The Da Dung mountain has abrupt slopes with many tunnels and several cave inside, each of them with unique features. One of the caves has five string-shaped stalactites that give out beautiful sounds when they are struck.
Stalactites and stalagmites in the Da Dung caves are so limpid that they are like pearls. I, along with other tourists, also found gold-coloured stones that locals call kim sa.
The sea off Ha Tien, with its turquoise waters, clean beaches, and odd-shaped rocks is another inviting attraction.
Watching the sunset at Mui Nai Beach is a must-have experience. Blazing red rays at the end of the horizon shine on the surface of the ocean, painting an enormous canvas with synchronised colours.
The beach is lined with hundreds of ancient Malabar almond trees. It is an ideal place for swimming since it is not very deep, has clean, brown sand, clear water and gentle waves. On weekends, Mui Nai teems with visitors having a super time relaxing and having fun.
Chong Islet and Binh Tri and Hai Tac archipelagos are other great places to visit and enjoy the ocean’s delights, swimming or snorkelling or just lazing around.
Peaceful and quiet
The historical and cultural sites in Ha Tien, like ancient pagodas and mausoleums, are also set in sylvan surroundings that exude peace and quiet.
The ancient Tam Bao Pagoda, built in 1730, is a leading Buddhist destination for the devout.
In front of the pagoda is a statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat (Vietnamese Kwan Yin) standing on a lotus flower in the middle of a pond. Inside the sanctuary, the largest statue on the dais is of A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past.
Eight hundred metres from Ha Tien centre is the mausoleum of Mac Cuu, who is credited with establishing Ha Tien in 1670.
The Mac Cuu mausoleum was built in 1809 on the Binh San Mountain. It is surrounded by giant old trees, and faces a lake dug in a semicircular shape for planting lotus flowers.
Tombs of the Mac Cuu family stand next to the mausoleum. Carved figures of dragons, phoenixes, lions and guardians decorate all the tombs.
The night market in Ha Tien is an interesting place to hang out for a while. It sells old artefacts and other interesting souvenirs from simple handicraft items to more elaborate ones made of stone and glass. Luxurious jewellery made of gold and precious stones can also be bought here.
Last, but not the least, Ha Tien’s cuisine is popular and delicious. The Canh chua ca kem (sour fish soup), chao trang va ca kho to (rice gruel with braised anchovy), hu tieu nam vang hai san (noodles with seafood), bun ken dua (ken dua vermicelli), and fruits like palmyra and durian are favoured by many visitors. — VNS
How to get there
By Coach: Coaches leave Ben xe mien Tay 125 Kinh Duong Vuong, Binh Tan District, Tel 08-3877-6594, for Rach Gia (VND120,000), Rach Gia – Ha Tien (VND60,000)
By Air: Vietnam Airlines flight from Tan Son Nhat Airport to Rach Gia, then you can take the bus for two hours at VND60,000).
A view to live for: A cherry-red sun sets over the sea off Ha Tien Town, as seen from almond-tree lined Mui Nai Beach. — VNA/VNS Photo
Morning glory: A view of Dong Ho Lake in the morning. The lake, which is 3km long and 2km wide, lies to the east of Ha Tien Town, is flanked by mangrove forests.
Watercolour: A view of the landscape surrounding Ha Tien as seen from a cave on Da Dung Mountain.
Untouched beauty: A corner of Ha Tien Town and Dong Ho Lake, just 8km from the Cambodian border. — VNS Photos Ly Tri