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Squeezed onto the Cambodian border in a distant corner of Vietnam, Ha Tien is decidedly remote. The approach to town certainly helps to amplify its exotic atmosphere -- the agricultural bustle of the Mekong Delta seems to melt away to a lush landscape of rice paddies and buffalo wallows, the flatness punctuated by sudden limestone karsts.
The Khmer-style wat located just out of town only helps to emphasise the feeling that you're not really in Vietnam anymore -- a feeling that carries through to Ha Tien's dusty streets and languid riverfront. In some ways, it feels like other cities located further up the Mekong like Savannakhet in Laos, or Kratie in Cambodia.
Ha Tien was in fact part of Cambodia until 1708. It was founded with the permission of the Khmers by a Chinese immigrant named Mac Cuu in 1674, only to be absorbed into Vietnam 30 years later. As of 2008, the border with Cambodia is open, offering visas for US$25, and from the moment your bus pulls in to town it will be stormed by motodops wanting to take you across. Most will find it completely incomprehensible if you don't want to go to Cambodia, bartering with you as you try to explain to them you're staying in town. Even if you insist repeatedly, you might still find one or two drivers waiting outside of your hotel, ready to take you at a moment's notice should you change your mind. If you do want to go to Cambodia, the border provides convenient access to the beach towns of Kep and Sihaounkville.
Perhaps it's in response to the open border, and the tourist traffic that they're expecting, but the town seems to be experiencing a subtle shift. A few hotels have been closed for major refurbishments, and several new hotels have sprung up. Though it doesn't have a lot in the way of sights, and it currently lacks much tourist infrastructure, Ha Tien could definitely be an attractive stop for travellers on their way between Cambodia and Vietnam -- in the meantime, the motodops will keep waiting.
Ha Tien sits on a corner of land, bordered on two sides by water. To the south is the To Chau River, to the east is the expansive Dong Ho (East Lake), which is actually an inlet of the sea. Approaching from Rach Gia, you'll cross the To Chau Bridge, and arrive on Vo Van Road, which serves as the town's western border. Most of the town's life occurs between Vo Van and Dong Ho, much of it along the riverfront.
Life in Ha Tien was formerly centred on a picturesque pontoon bridge that draped across the entrance to Dong Ho. The market sat on one bank, the bus terminal on the other. In 2008, the bridge was dismantled, the pontoons set afloat, and plans were put in place for a concrete bridge -- though that has yet to materialise. For the time being, the bus station has been inconveniently moved almost a kilometre north-west of town, while the market has migrated west, near the To Chau Bridge.
Ha Tien lacks most major services, though there is one bank and several ATMs. The Vietcom Bank is situated at #4 Phuong Thanh, and offers exchange services and an ATM. Another ATM is located nearby, on the corner with Chi Lang. Internet is scarce, though it is available at the post office on To Chau, and in the lobby of the Dong Tam Hotel. Should you have a minor ailment, there is a pharmacy at #48 Tran Hau -- for anything more serious, head to Rach Gia.
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