The far southwest, the District of Ha Tien, is home to almost 45,000 people, most condensed into the town, but many farmers and fishermen have made their homes away from the town along the coastline and throughout the paddy fields.
Chua Hang Pagoda in Hon Chong is 40km from Ha Tien along QL80 with a long stretch of beach, home to a pagoda inside a cave. The ocean air is salty and refreshing compared to the pollution of Saigon, and the road towards it winds and dips with the sprawling landscape.
Located on a dead-end street lined with vendors selling beer and beach snacks, as well as souvenirs and tourist fare, tucked away inside an unassuming building you will find the stairs down to the cave shrines; a sanctuary from the midday heat and illuminated only in neon green. The cave leads to a tunnel opening out onto the beach, with smaller shrines dotted along the walkway and tucked away within the limestone.
Though the region is predominantly Buddhist, Catholic worshippers make up 30 percent of the local people. It is interesting to observe how even in this region, where it is rumoured that Buddaghosa passed through in 450 AD, the Catholic practices borrow elements of Buddhist worship, especially at the shrines.
Moso cave, located north-east of Chua Hang was a hideout of the Viet Cong during the war. To find Moso cave, we drive north along QL80, through Ba Hon fishing village, and keep our eyes peeled for the sign; it is subtle and easy to miss. The cave tour takes approximately 45 minutes, costs VND100,000 per person and demands the use of a head light for the majority of the tour. Though it is maintained for visitors, prepare to get your feet wet and slip about on the smooth rocks.
Once we leave Moso cave, we continue north on the winding coast road, overshoot Ha Tien by 4km and find ourselves at Mui Nai Beach. This strip of sand is filled with Vietnamese tourists despite the rough waves and grey clouds. Familiar tourist tarps are laid out on the concrete with snacks, beer and karaoke machines, overlooking the sea, Phu Quoc and the high mountains of Cambodia in the distance.
Ha Tien town is a place many people see only in transit; but the small town divided in two by the Giang Thanh River has its own attractions.
“Ha Tien has some of the best seafood, landscapes, and connections, so it is so easy to visit and explore, though many people only visit for one or two days at a time,” local tour guide Trinh Ngoc The explains. Now 57 years old, for almost two decades he was the only English-speaking tour guide in the area.
One of the proudest figures of Ha Tien history is Mac Cuu who managed to claim a huge swathe of the southern portion of the Mekong Delta for the Vietnamese in the 1700s from Cambodia. We visit the Mac family mausoleum on the west border of Ha Tien town for a peaceful retreat and an opportunity to learn about some of the region’s rich history. To this day Mac Cuu and his family are revered, and their shrine in Ha Tien is a place of pilgrimage.
Diary Entry #1: The Essence of a Motorbike Trip
Throughout the day we have been reflecting on the essence of a motorbike trip. After our experience, we decided that the true crux of any two-wheeled journey is being soaked in sweat, rain and seawater, with a numb bum, sunburnt skin, and an insatiable need for ice-cold beer. We found one shop in Ha Tien with five 333 beers for sale and a bag of ice, which we enjoyed at the hotel discussing the amount we had achieved in the past 24 hours; an eight-hour overnight bus trip, 100km clocked on the bike, half a tank of petrol, and more pagodas and temples than we could count. We both passed out without a second thought, dreaming of night buses, motorbike rides and our next adventure.
Day 2: Ha Tien to Duong Hoa
The sky doesn’t allow for much sun during rainy season; the thick clouds on the eastern horizon cling to the hilltops and caves protect them fiercely, though the regular showers don't last long.
Arriving at Chua Xa Xia, we are greeted by two cows enjoying the soft sunlight. The temple was originally in Cambodia but the movement of borders now places it in Vietnam. The infrastructure is crumbling, but the shrines are well-maintained, with incense, fruit and cigarette offerings placed carefully at the feet of Buddha. Bullet holes, the physical wounds of war, pierce the walls.
In January 1978, Pol Pot, determined to take the Mekong Delta for Cambodia, sent troops into Ha Tien. Clashes followed and despite attempts at diplomacy, in April two Cambodian divisions were sent across the border to Ba Chuc, a village 40km northeast of Ha Tien. 3,000 people were massacred in one night. It is unclear whether Xa Xia was involved in those January 1978 clashes; the bullet holes and the personal stories of locals suggest it was, but double-checking online there is no evidence either way. The fact that we don’t know for sure is a testament to the richness of this area, to how much history there is in and around Ha Tien that has yet to be explored and unearthed.
Today, the two countries are at peace, and both sides of the border are starting to thrive. As we drive around this little enclave of land that was once the source of so much antipathy, we breathe in the freshness of the air, cocoon ourselves in the lush and fertile greenery that surrounds us on all sides. Despite growing levels of tourism, and an economy that thrives on seafood, cement and construction, life continues on at its own pace; relaxed, never too chaotic, never concerned with the pressures of the big city.
Yet change has also had a negative effect. Three decades ago, when the border region was still heavily forested, tigers and elephants roamed free. Now, man has taken over and the wildlife that once subsisted with its two-legged cousins has all but disappeared.
Diary Entry #2: Temples, Temples, Temples
We had optimistically set our alarm for 5.45am in the hope of shooting the sunrise over Giang Thanh River, which splits Ha Tien in two, only to awake to thick grey clouds, drizzle, and not so much a sunrise but a sky gradually brightening. We opt for a couple more hours in bed instead of trying to shoot in the rain. By 8am we are up and hop aboard the bike to make our way towards the Cambodian border, in search of an old Buddhist temple. Our hearts beat with the speed of hummingbirds as we approach the temple. We are still in Vietnam, but very close to the border, with our passports safely back at the hotel. No escape here.
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