Ha Tien – the first taste of Vietnam

Ha Tien is a nice border town where one can easily spend a pleasant day. Despite the lack of outstanding attractions there are plenty of things to see and do around (such as atmospheric cave temples and bustling seafood market) for those who are not in a rush. The town is located  picturesquely at the banks of Mekong. 

 

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LEAVING CAMBODIA

Getting from Cambodian town of Kep to Vietnam was a long and convoluted process. We turned up at the tourist agency in the morning and were asked to enter a tuk-tuk which  took us in the direction opposite to the border which made me rather nervous. We stopped after only a couple of minutes at one of the tourist agencies on the Kep beach where we switched to a small minivan. We were very surprised to be the only people on board.

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Instead of heading towards Vietnam, the minivan took us to Kep beach

After a short ride we stopped in some small village and boarded a much larger minibus, already full of the locals and foreign tourists. The minibus stopped after a short ride just to give the passengers a chance to exchange money at… somebody’s private house. As we didn’t know the rate and we had some dollars, we decided not to exchange any money.

CROSSING THE BORDER

It didn’t take much time to arrive at the Cambodian border where somebody collected all passengers’ passports and disappeared inside the immigration building for ages. Meanwhile, everybody was waiting outside the minibus. We then got back in the bus to cover a couple hundred meters to the Vietnamese border. We had to pick up our luggage from the minivan at that point since it was coming back to Cambodia.

We were ushered to walk through the immigration control building where we had to fill up a health questionnaire and had our body temperature measured by a pistol-looking thermometer aimed at our faces. This obligatory service cost us $1 each, paid at the same counter. I doubt if it was legit but as the amount was so low, we didn’t want to create any fuss.

Finally, we had to walk with our luggage another 30 meters or so to a smaller, Vietnamese minibus. The locals all jumped on board and we and three other Western tourists had to wait at least 30 minutes for the minibus to return. The lady in charge of the transfer was very nice and helpful, though.

HOTEL HUNT IN HA TIEN

We actually didn’t have any accommodation booked since prices on booking.com were way too high for us. The minibus first dropped us at the cluster of hotels near the riverfront, which turned out to be all booked by Vietnamese weekenders and then at another hotel where the price quoted was a whopping $20. We thanked the lady for her help and got off at the main market.

As we were just figuring what to do, two men approached us, independently. The first one was a motorcycle taxi driver, the second one was a tour guide. The taxi driver offered to take us to a cheap hotel. I was skeptical, knowing he’d get a commission so I said our maximum budget was $8. He promised to take us to the hotel within that budget for free.

I sent Sayak to have a look at the room before we make any decision and stayed to converse with the other guy. I was sure he wanted to sell me something as well but actually, he just had a chat and even asked at a market stall for the cost of a SIM card before taking a leave. The moto taxi driver came back to pick me up promptly.

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Sunset over Mekong from our room’s window

I was positively surprised with the hotel: a tall building in the vicinity of the river. We got a room on the top floor, with a stunning view at the river and the mangroves. The room was sparkling clean and had all the amenities, including hot water. Not bad for an $8 room!

Having secured the accommodation, it was time to search for food. As it was my first day in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find any food at the street stalls so we entered a bit more posh-looking restaurant. It was quite pricey but I found in the menu vegetables with tofu so we decided to try it out. Sayak ordered the cheapest dish available: grilled squid and we topped it up with ‘small rice’.

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Veggies and tofu

We were not prepared for what was coming. My dish could easily feed two, Sayak’s squid came with grilled okra and was delicious and we had tough time to finish the ‘small’ rice. Both the quality and quantity by far surpassed Cambodia. The first impression of Vietnam was overwhelmingly positive.

EXPLORING HA TIEN

Ha Tien had a thriving, large market near the riverfront. In the nighttime, all kinds of seafood were sold and prepared at the stalls set along the river while the promenade made for a nice walk.

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See food market at the riverfront

On our second day in Ha Tien, we were hoping to rent a bicycle to explore the nearby attractions. It proved impossible, though as the Vietnamese tourists use only motorbikes and there simply weren’t any Western tourists around. We had literally seen just 2-3 other foreign tourists during those two days in Ha Tien. Having a look at Google maps reassured us though that we could cover the attractions we wanted to see on foot.

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Cluster of tombs among the greenery

We started with Mac Cuu family tombs. As it was Saturday, the place was swarming with domestic tourists. We had never seen the Chinese style tombs before so it was quite interesting. Apart from a small hill covered with large tombs there was a pagoda with a pond full of lotus flowers.

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Lotus pond facing a pagoda

After visiting the tombs we had to take the main road in the direction of the border with Cambodia. It wasn’t the nicest of walks but wasn’t particularly long either. We were heading to Thac Dong cave pagoda. Again, there were lots of Vietnamese tourists around. Inside a small cave lied some Buddha statues and one of the cave exits led to a rock with quite a nice view over the paddy fields. Satisfied but not overly impressed with the sight, we then took the path along the canal and the river back to the town.

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Inside the cave temple

VIETNAMESE COFFEE

We also had the first taste of the famous Vietnamese coffee- excellent by Asian standards. It was served in a glass placed inside a plastic bowl full of hot water. The coffee was still dripping from the local version of cafetera when it landed on our table. The coffee was accompanied, as usual in Vietnam, with free, unlimited green tea. I don’t drink coffee but Sayak can’t live without it. What’s beautiful about Vietnam is that in most of the places even though only Sayak was ordering coffee, we were both getting unlimited amount of green tea.

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Vietnamese coffee: brewed in a cafetera and served in small glasses

MORE WALKING

After having a lunch (I managed to find vegetable noodles), we walked all the way to the bus station. It was 3 kilometers in the scorching sun, through a bridge which didn’t even have a pedestrian lane. People looked at us as if we were insane and even a local tuk-tuk driver offered to take us for free but we stupidly refused. After reaching the bus station, we got on board a local bus to Can Tho. It was quite comfortable and reasonably priced.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Ha Tien?

Ha Tien is the first town after crossing the most southernmost border crossing with Cambodia. You’ll end up here if you’re coming from Sihanoukville, Kampot or Kep. Minivan from Kep costs $7.

Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of July 2018]

180 000 VND ensuite double room with hot water and river view
140 000 lunch for two in a standard restaurant
130 000 sleeper A/C bus to Can Tho
21 000 5 litre water bottle
20 000 1 kg of rambutan
15 000 coffee with condense milk
10 000 bahn mi (baguette with filling)
10 000 sticky rice with banana (street snack)
5 000 entrance to the Thac Dong cave pagoda

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