Ten nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, Hai Tac (Pirate Island) flies under the radar. Hundreds of tourists chug past this archipelago of 16 islands and islets on their way to Phu Quoc island, yet scant few foreigners have stepped onto its shores – and we’re wondering why. Getting off the beaten track is as easy as taking the cheap, daily ferry from Ha Tien on the mainland. In just over an hour you’ll be swimming in water as smooth and clear as glass, exploring deserted beaches that ring the entire island and feasting on fresh seafood before retiring to a hammock strung between palms.
Important: As of late 2016 we've been advised by a traveller that ferry operators in Ha Tien are not currently allowing foreigners to get on a boat to Hai Tac. Please check the situation on the ground before planning to head to the island.
Officially named Tien Hai Commune, Hai Tac’s name, which means “pirate”, originates from a colourful history. Centuries ago the archipelago was a pirate hideaway, a notoriously dangerous area for commercial boats as gangs plundered this trade route between Asia and Europe (it was marked “Ile de Pirates” on French colonial maps). Legends about buried treasure and secret maps still abound. Today you won’t find ruthless pirates and chests of gold, only fishermen and simple villages. Their treasure is the daily haul of fish and the island’s natural riches.
The largest island Hon Dac (Dac Island), which is confusingly also referred to as Tien Hai, Hon Tre, Hon Tre Lon or Hai Tac, is where most of the small population lives. The v-shaped island can be visited as a great daytrip from Ha Tien (a ferry arrives in the morning, returns back in the late afternoon), or the more adventurous can stay overnight. Tourist infrastructure here is very rudimentary so there are no guesthouses, just super basic rooms for let in people’s homes. Power shuts off at 23:00 and returns at 06:00, though a lucky few can afford generators (tip: bring a torch). There’s also not a stitch of English spoken.
Hai Tac has received some attention in Vietnamese media so it draws a small number of domestic day-trippers and weekenders. We were the only foreigners on board, while there were about six or seven small groups and families armed with coolers of beer and picnic snacks.
The island is tiny and very easy to explore. A single seven kilometre road leads all around the edge of the coast — it’s impossible to get lost. Once you arrive to the port/main village on the south side, you can rent a motorbike from a local or get someone to drive you around, a good way to inject some money into the community. We rented one for 120,000 dong. Alternatively, you can try renting a motorbike or bicycle in Ha Tien and bring it on the ferry for 30,000 dong. Another option to get around is the minivan marked Dung Kieu (T: 01668 766 744) which we saw waiting at the pier. For 20,000 dong, the shared shuttle takes you to the stone marker that marks the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, then the beach at Thuan Phat before finally returning you to the pier in time for the afternoon ferry back. Add 10,000 dong if you want to add the journey up to the radar station/military post for the view.
Half a kilometre west of the pier (head left) is Bai Nam beach, a finger of land that juts out and forms a cove of calm, clear and far reaching shallow waters. A large chunk of the day-trippers head here since it is walking distance and the place is set up for enjoyment. Minh Luan has hammocks, a concrete pad for your picnic/barbecue and you can order a seafood feast. After exploring the whole island we spent our last few hours swimming here and sharing lunch with two Vietnamese travellers we met on the boat. We feasted on the catch of the day: a large plate of delicious fried fish, stir-fried squid, steamed rice, grilled bananas and a couple of beers, the whole spread only 200,000 dong.
Note to women: swimsuits on the beach are perfectly acceptable but you’ll find most Vietnamese women wearing t-shirts and shorts into the water for sun protection and a little modesty. Anything excessively skimpy may draw some side-glances. If you’re riding around on a motorbike cover up.
If you want to stay overnight, Minh Luan has a roughly constructed hut with tile floor and reed and bamboo lattice walls. There’s a padlock for the door but that’s more of a deterrent as the door or wall could easily be kicked in. Simple mats are provided but no mosquito net. There’s an outhouse which is essentially a reed hut over the water with a squat toilet hole in the concrete floor. The shower house looks like a brand new addition. It has a couple of concrete stalls with convenient hooks, a mirror and a large bucket to rinse off. It’s 60,000 dong a night. T: (0168) 760 8037; (077) 3855 893.
From Minh Luan the road continues along the north shore. The road abuts the sea (the Gulf of Thailand to be exact) and it’s a lovely, scenic drive. Stop anywhere, find a path through the thick brush and you’ll find empty, deserted beach and more beautiful blue.
In the centre of the north shore, at the bottom point of the v-shape, is quiet, picturesque Bai Bac beach. Here you’ll find more clear-calm-blue-water-bliss and a great low-key spot. Just across the road is 7 Chol, a small restaurant/homestay. Get a fresh coconut for 10,000 dong or park your carcass in one of the hammocks – they have more hammocks than the building looks like it can support.
The small room they have available is not charming but it is clean, more private and secure than Minh Luan. You get your own lockable entrance, a raised tiled concrete platform as a bed, with a reed mat, thin pillow and mosquito net. We can’t imagine a tile bed is very comfortable so if you happen to be travelling with camping mattress, lucky you. You do get a fan and a light bulb, available until the power on the island is shut off at night. On the plus side, you are practically beachfront. Costs 50,000 dong a night. T: (097) 5725 382; (091) 8612 734.
Just down the road is what may be the prettiest beach of the island. The palm lined white sand is kept relatively clean — unfortunately you’ll notice elsewhere on the island that rubbish is becoming an issue. The restaurant Thuan Phat provides hammocks and seafood meals. They don’t have rooms for let but they allow people to sleep outside in the hammocks for 40,000 dong. The woman of the house assured us it was safe. Use your judgement.
Just after Thuan Phat is a steep road leading up to the top. It’s a radar station/military post to keep a hawk eye on Vietnamese waters. No doubt it has a stunning view of all the Hai Tac islands and Cambodia just yonder. We went up but as an individual traveller we weren’t allowed to enter. We later discovered that the Dung Kieu shuttle van included it as an option on their trip around the island, for an extra 10,000 dong.
Continuing on, the road wraps around the eastern shore and you are back in the village which runs all along southern coast and into the centre. Though a sleepy place, it’s worth taking a stroll to see daily life. The locals obviously don’t have much and work hard and there’s always something to be done. Boats return in the morning after a long night of fishing. The catch is unloaded, weighed and packed for the mainland. Fish and squid are laid out to dry. Kids play and wave as women patiently untangle and mend the nets, an endless, tedious but necessary task, pausing from their work to give a friendly smile.
Staying in the village gives you (literally speaking) more solid accommodation options. Homes here are modern buildings. Ngoc Nhanh is at the east end of the village. It’s a room within a home which means it’s a bit more secure and they do have a generator so you could run the fan after the island power shuts off at 23:00. It’s a regular mattress on the floor for 60,000 dong. There’s a sign out front, look for the mint green house. T: (0127) 4206 490; (098) 574 445.
On the west end of the village is Minh Anh. The large room is reminiscent of an incarceration facility but at least you get a mattress on the floor, a fan and a window. The benefit in staying here is that you’re close to both Bai Bac beach and the pier. Cost for two people is 150,000 dong. T: (0913) 181 144
Day-trippers slowly make their way back to the pier 30 minutes before departure. Enjoy a sweet, strong cup of ice coffee to wake yourself up from the sun-drunk post-hammock-nap grogginess. Or don’t get out of your hammock at all. We’ve listed several options that will do for a night or two giving you more time to hang out and explore – a couple of white sand fringed islets lie close-by. Hire a boat to take you over to look for buried treasure.
For a boat to explore the other islands, Huong Xua (T: 01694 199 9922) quoted us 200,000 dong per person. Include a seafood lunch for an additional 100,000 dong per person.
River Hotel has apparently developed one of the Hai Tac islands with tourist facilities — we say apparently because we discovered this after we returned from Hon Doc and therefore did not visit the island, nor could we get more information from the hotel staff beyond what was in the brochure we found at Reception. Tre Vinh island is the white sand fringed banana-shaped island just half a kilometre off the southwest coast of the main island Hon Dac, a short boat ride between the two. The brochure states that there are facilities such as picnic huts, a restaurant, two villas, two beaches at the top of the island and a reef. The price for their private boat from Ha Tien makes it very expensive unless you have a large group. The price for an eight-seater boat is 5,000,000 dong, a 41-seater boat is 6,000,000 dong, the journey taking 35 minutes. The island entrance fee is 100,000 dong per person.
The more economical way would be to take the regular ferry from Ha Tien to Hon Doc, then hire a local boat to take you across. We were quoted 40,000 dong. It’s also possible to stay overnight on the island. A mosquito net hammock is 179,000 dong per person, a two-person tent is 450,000 dong and the villa is 1,490,000 dong/two people. The rate is supposed to include breakfast. Again, we have not visited the island so if you’re interested in a stay, it’s best to check with River Hotel beforehand and make a reservation. It seems the island was set up for group and family outings but given how poorly it is advertised, we doubt you’d encounter other people.
River Hotel is the prominent cruise ship shaped building located on the Ha Tien river front, directly across from the pier. Lo B3 TTTM Tran Hau, Binh San Ward; T: (077) 3955 888 F: (077) 3956 777; http://riverhotelvn.com/
From Ha Tien pier (the same pier where boats to Phu Quoc depart), DNTN Tau Khach Huong Xua company operates two departures daily though we were told the early morning departure (and subsequent return trip) depends on demand. We had no problem with our morning departure — it was quite full and left on time.
Get to the pier at least 20 minutes before departure.
The boat should have a sign “Ha Tien – Tien Hai” (Tien Hai is the official name for the group of islands). First ferry departs at 08:30, returns at 15:30. Second ferry departs at 14:30, returns at 09:30 the following day. The journey takes a little over an hour. One-way ticket costs 40,000 dong, a motorbike 30,000 dong. The fare is collected on board.
The boat will not likely run in bad weather. Dry season lasts from November to April. Peak tourist season is December to February, Tet holiday and Vietnamese summer holiday from June to August. Rainy season lasts from May to October, during which time seas can be rough.
There is no regular boat service between Tien Hai and Phu Quoc.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 31st December, 2016.