Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hà Tiên—the Last Seaport in Vietnam

                                              by Jim Goodman
Mạc Cửu, founder of Hà Tiên
    Along its long coastline Vietnam has always had a string of seaports, some of which date back centuries, serving both domestic and international maritime trade.  The last one established was Hà Tiên, on the southwestern border with Cambodia, originally a Chinese refugee settlement that rose to become the most important port on the Gulf of Thailand in the 18th century.  It owes its origin to the suppression of a revolt in southern China against the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty, which prompted an exodus of thousands of Chinese to Southeast Asia.  Some of them went to Hội An, while the Nguyễn Lords ruling over the southern part of Vietnam at the time sent large groups of them to the Mekong Delta areas around Biên Hoà, Saigon and Mỹ Thọ.
    A smaller group of refugees from Guangdong, led by Mạc Cửu, fled to Cambodia. They at first resided in the capital, but after several years the king let them settle in Pream, in the southeast, ancient Funan territory.  In 1700 Mạc Cửu secured permission to found a settlement on the coast at Hà Tiên.  The Cambodian Court agreed because it was looking for a new outlet to the sea, since the Vietnamese had already incorporated parts of the Mekong River territory.  Mạc Cửu quickly turned his fief into a thriving international seaport.
    The Nai Peninsula hill shelters Hà Tiên on its western side.  On the other side lie two small beaches near a Khmer village with a hilltop temple.  East of the peninsula stretches the East Lake,
one of the beaches jjust west of Hà Tiên
actually an inlet of the sea.  The Nước Mạn lagoon spreads northeast of the town, while flat, fertile farmland lies to the southeast and the north.  The area has several limestone hills, some with caves, a few of which contain shrines inside.
    Hà Tiên’s economy centered on silk, pepper, light industries, mining, turtle shell products, ceramics and farming.  It established international trade links with Japan, India, Holland and Southeast Asia.  It also made a lot of money from gambling revenues.  The town lay at the mouth of the Vĩnh Tế River, the upper branches of which ran close to the Hậu Giang River, a major branch of the Mekong, and in the rainy season flowed directly into the Hậu Giang, from which it was an easy trip upriver to Phnom Penh and Udong.  Even in the dry season traders could offload their wares at the end of the Vĩnh Tế tributary, from where it was a short distance by land to the Hậu Giang.
    Hà Tiên’s rivals on the Gulf of Thailand, Kampong Son and Kampot, had no direct water link with Phnom Penh.  Goods offloaded at these two ports had to be taken by cart overland, which was not only long and laborious, but also only possible in the dry season.  Thus Hằ Tiên became an emporium for goods from Phnom Penh and central Cambodia, and even from Kampong Som and Kampot, for it had easier access to the Cambodian capital.
Hà Tiên  port today
    Its very success quickly aroused the cupidity of Ayutthaya and Hà Tiên soon suffered from Siamese attacks.  Mạc Cửu realized he could not depend on weak Cambodia for support.  In 1708 he sent an entourage to Phú Xuân to seek protection from Lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu.  With this switch in allegiance, Hà Tiên basically seceded from Cambodia and joined the Nguyễn Lords’ realm, though Mạc Cửu continued for some time to send tribute to the Cambodian Court.  The Nguyễn Court incorporated Hà Tiên into its territory, but granted it and the surrounding lands autonomy under the rule of Mác Cửu, who was then ennobled, with the rank to pass on to his successors for seven generations. 
    The Cambodian Court raised no objection to this de facto annexation at the time because it also sought protection against Ayutthaya from the Nguyễn Lords.  In 1714 Ayutthaya’s army invaded Cambodia in support of its own candidate for the throne.  Ayutthaya’s navy attacked Hà Tiên and completely destroyed the city.  To prevent a recurrence of this disaster, Mạc Cửu initiated a tributary status with Ayutthaya and set about rebuilding his fief.   In 1724 he journeyed to Phú Xuân to pay homage to the Nguyễn Lord and Hà Tiên remained free of foreign threats for another fifty years. 
    In 1727 the Qing Court lifted the last bans on overseas trade and travel and Chinese junks began plying routes again in Southeast Asia.  Hà Tiên was one of several ports in the Gulf of Thailand that rose in importance at this time. Most of the junks sailing out of Guangdong stopped at one or more of the Delta ports on their trading routes to and from Southeast Asia, exchanging goods at each stop.  These items included tin from Malaya, sappanwood from Siam, betel nuts from Biên Hoà, pepper from Kampot and Hà Tiên and salt from Sóc Trăng. 
Khmer temple near Hà Tiên
pagoda at Tam Bảo Temple
    For the next decade Mạc Cửu oversaw Hà Tiên’s return to prosperity.  More Chinese immigrants arrived, joining the original Khmer settlers and a small community of Vietnamese.  Mạc Cửu commissioned the construction of Chùa Tam Bảo, today on Phương Thánh Street, a modest, one-story temple embellished since then by a 13-tier pagoda in the courtyard.   He died in 1735 with the titles of Marquis and Grand General. By then Hà Tiên had become the paramount port between Ayutthaya and China.  He was buried on the slope of Núi Làng, the Hill of Tombs, north of the town and a popular site for visitors.  His family and successors remained loyal to the Nguyễn family throughout the vicissitudes of the 18th century.
Mạc Cửo's tomb on Núi Làng
    In 1739 Cambodia’s King Thommo Reachea II launched a campaign against Hà Tiên to reclaim sovereignty from its pro-Nguyễn ruler.  Mạc Cửu’s son Mạc Thien Tứ had been running Hà Tien since his father’s death in 1735 and his forces repelled the Khmer attack and drove the foe back into Cambodia.  Hà Tien suffered no further pressure from Cambodia and entered into its golden age. 
    Mạc Thiên Tứ continued his father’s open port policy, encouraging merchants from all ethnic backgrounds to set up business in Hà Tiên and promoting a policy of religious tolerance, which would later prompt the arrival of Vietnamese Christians fleeing periodic persecution campaigns in the south.  For a time he ruled over Kampot and Kompong Som and, claiming authority over the whole country of Cambodia, tried to open direct trade negotiations with Japan.  As the primary port for maritime commerce with Cambodia at the time, Hà Tiên flourished once again, the busiest port on the Gulf of Thailand.  A scholar-poet himself, he invited Chinese writers from Guangdong to visit Hà Tien and create poems about the city.  In memory of this tradition, contemporary Hà Tiên holds an annual Poets’ Festival the first full moon after Lunar New Year.
new church on an old site in Hà Ti
    He also maintained Hà Tiên’s virtual autonomy, remaining an ally of the Nguyễn regime while officially still a vassal of Cambodia.  In 1747 he served as intermediary in a new succession struggle in Cambodia between pro- and anti-Vietnamese factions. He also kept himself informed of affairs further on and in 1765 learned Ayutthaya was making preparations to attack Hà Tiên.  So he put together an expedition to launch a pre-emptive strike on Chantaburi, the presumed staging point in eastern Siam.  But before Ayutthaya could retaliate it found itself in a war with Burma that destroyed it once and for all. 
    After a few years the Siamese state rose again under self-appointed King Taksin, who soon made demands on Cambodia and in 1771 launched an invasion via Hà Tiên, first bombarding it for ten days.  Mạc Thiên Tứ put up a spirited resistance, in which the Siamese captured several of his children, but in the end withdrew and escaped to Châu Đốc. Taksin’s army advanced towards Phnom Penh, but the Nguyễn Court mobilized 10,000 troops on 30 war junks that sailed up the Mekong River and on the outskirts of Phnom Penh met and soundly defeated the Siamese.
    By now the Tây Sơn revolt had begun, the beginning of the Nguyễn regime’s downfall.  Hà Tiên’s next role in history was as the meeting point for the refugee prince Nguyễn Ánh, the sole survivor of a massacre of the Nguyễn royal family, and the resident French Catholic missionary Pierre Pigneau de Behaine. When Tây Sơn pursuers reached Hà Tiên, Pigneau helped the prince flee to islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  He later became Nguyễn’s Ánh’s strongest, most faithful supporter, arranging for foreign supplies and volunteers to help the Nguyễn cause.  This enabled Nguyễn Ánh to secure a firm base in Saigon and eventually to triumph over the Tây Sơn.  To reward the Mạc family for their services he confirmed Hà Tiên’s autonomy upon becoming Emperor Gia Long.
Tô Châu Hill and Ngọc Tiên Temple
    After the Nguyễn vanquished the Tây Sơn, Saigon’s importance as a port increased rapidly, eclipsing that of Hà Tiên, which never did compete again with the ports of the Gulf of Thailand.  Hà Tiên kept its autonomy, though, until the French colonized the entire Delta territories.   The town’s next role was as a persistent anti-French bastion and Tô Châu Hill eventually became a Viẹt Minh stronghold.  Later Hà Tien was in the news again in the mid-70s, when it was a haven for Cambodian refugees running away from the Khmer Rouge. The latter also staged a vicious cross-border
memorial to a massacre
attack on a Vietnamese village just past the northern suburbs of the city.  Only in recent decades has Hà Tiên made a kind of comeback, based on its proximity to the popular tourist destinations of Phú Quốc Island and Kompot, Cambodia, the establishment of a cement industry and its recent designation as a Special Economic Zone.
    Nowadays Hà Tiên boasts many new buildings, both commercial and religious, that reflect the new prosperity.  The old pontoon bridge across the Tô Châu River has disappeared, replaced by a concrete bridge at the other end of the riverfront, which features a clean, new walkway.  It’s still a rather relaxed town, with light traffic and lots of fresh seafood available in the evening restaurants near the river.  From the large, new Buddhist Ngọc Tiên Temple and nunnery on the slope of Tô Châu Hill across the river one has a great view of the town, its setting, the East Lake beside it, the marshes, farmlands and limestone hills beyond, the tall buildings along the riverfront as well as the towers of new temples and the steeples of modern-style churches.
seafood choices on a Hà Tiên ev

    The same relaxed, unhurried atmosphere that characterizes the town is even more evident on excursions beyond it.  The easiest and most popular place is Mũi Nai, a site around the bend from a Khmer village several kilometers west of Hà Tiên.  A pair of beaches lies here, lined with leafy shade trees, backed by verdant hills, with a view tower atop one of them.  On a clear day you can see Phú Quóc Island.  The water off the beaches is clear, clean, warm and placid, good for swimming and splashing.  But even the waves are leisurely here, so nobody brings a surfboard. 
    A walk through the Khmer village nearby is quite in contrast to what one sees in the town,
beachat Mũi Na
especially in its temple.  This is in purely Khmer style, with half-bird, half-female figures on the roof struts and a tapered, pointed roof unlike anything in the temples within the town.  It’s a reminder of Hà Tiên’s identity, its amalgamation of different elements—Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Mahayana, Theravada, Catholic—united by a common interest in social harmony and economic progress. 
    A very confident mood pervades Hà Tiên.  Change and improvements seem to come at an ever more rapid rate.  Conscious of their history, they have expanded and renovated the Mạc family tombs vicinity and erected a new statue of him near the entrance to the town.  If things keep going smoothly, they believe, Hà Tiên will enter another golden age and go beyond the most optimistic visions Mạc Cửu and Mạc Thiên Tứ ever visualized.
Chùa Tam Bảo, the first temple Mạc Cửu built in Hà Tiên
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  1. Hello, the photos are superb, very beautiful. the last photo is not taken at the Pagoda "Tam Bao", but the name of this pagoda is: "Chua 5 Ong"

  2. Hello, the last photo is not Tam Bao pagoda (Chùa Tam Bảo), but Quang Thanh pagoda (Quang Thanh Mieu, also known as Nam Ong pagoda, Quang Thánh Miếu, Chùa Năm Ông).

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