Finding treasure on Pirate Island

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Stories about a violent past serve as a major source of entertainment on a small island off the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang

PHOTO: TUOI TRE
Hai Tac (Pirate) Island, officially known as Tre (bamboo) or Đốc Island, in Kien Giang Province is a worth visiting place in the Mekong Delta

Many people say the only fun you can have in Ha Tien Town is on Hai Tac (Pirate) Island, which is officially known as Tre (bamboo) or Đốc Island.

Curious, we went to Kien Giang Province and got on a motorboat heading for the island, which is some 11 nautical miles, or 21.7 kilometers off Ha Tien.

We arrived at the Nam (south) beach after two hours and managed to catch the sun going down into the sea, and gazed at a sight one can never tire of, one that never fails to strike awe.

At a nearby fishing port, local people were busy unloading their catch, buying and selling. Various marine creatures were being sold: flower crabs, squids, prawns, and many kinds of fish, at quite affordable prices of around VND70,000-80,000 (US$3.31-3.78) per kilogram.

If we, as visitors, were tempted to make a purchase here, the sellers themselves would arrange to have it cooked without any fuss. Tourism services might be scant on the island, but the locals more than make up with their hospitality and friendliness.

Actually, visitors can even catch their own seafood under instructions from local volunteer tour guides. During our visit, we had a lot of fun catching crabs at rock reefs at night. Equipped with powerful flashlights, we looked for the crustaceans that usually head to the shore, seeking food and/or mates, and to lay eggs. Once you find a crab, it is important to keep the light's focus on its eyes, which will "paralyze" it. Then follow the light and impale it with a fork. 

A lucky or good catcher can harvest several kilograms of crabs a night to cook with porridge or steam them in beer. Flower crabs steamed in beer is a highly recommended specialty for anyone who visits Pirate Island.

 GETTING THERE

Đốc and 15 other islands make up the Hai Tac (pirate) Archipelago. A landmark graved with the archipelago's location and name can be found in the west side of Đốc. It was built in 1958.

Ha Tien is some 350 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. Tourists can take a direct bus to the town. Or go to Rach Gia Town by bus or by air, and then take a bus to Ha Tien, which is some 100 kilometers away.

Bus tickets to Ha Tien and Rach Gia can be bought at HCMC's Mien Tay (Western) Bus Station 395 Kinh Duong Vuong Street, Binh Tan District.

From Ha Tien, tourists can take a boat with the fare of VND36,000 ($1.7) per person, and reach Đốc more than one hour later. The boat leaves Ha Tien at 9:30 a.m. and returns at 3 p.m. every day.

Or, from Rach Gia, take hydrofoil. A one-way trip costs VND65,000 ($3.11) per person and takes 45-60 minutes.

The next morning we got up early and watched sunrise at sea, as bewitching as the sunset, before heading to Dua (pineapple), one of the famous beaches on the island. Getting narrower and narrower until it disappears under the water, the beach is also known as Duoi Ha Ba, which means "sea god's tail," translated literally.

Then there is the "floating turtle" a little bay with coconut palms and rocks known as Dong Dua (coconut cavern). Not far from the "turtle," is the Chen (bowl) Beach. The two-kilometer long beach is mostly covered with rocks that look like overturned bowls when the tide is low.

Since the island is just some 15 kilometers long with a road on one side and sea on the other, tourists can rent a motorbike and go around the island without being afraid of getting lost.

We met a veteran fisherman named Tu who told us about the legend of pirates on the island. It is a story that his grandfather told him, Tu said. 

A long time ago, the island was the base of a pirate gang called Canh Buom Den (black sail). They targeted ships operating in the waters between Ha Tien and Rach Gia towns, as well as a large part of waters in the Gulf of Thailand. It is said that the pirates hung a broom on the ship's mast, implying that they would "sweep up" all the property from their victims.

Tu said several people believe the pirates have buried a treasure somewhere on the island. One day in March 1983, locals arrested two people as they were digging for the treasure. They claimed they had a 300-year-old map handed down through generations in their families. 

Their claimed was never verified, and to add more mystery, in 2009 some local fishermen found a quite large amount of ancient coins when they were diving to catch snails and seahorses.

Meanwhile, going by historical records, between 1,700 and the early 20th century, Ha Tien was a trading port that welcomed many ships from the west and the east, including those transporting pottery and silk from Spain and Portugal to Asia.

Thus, islands around the port, especially in the Gulf of Thailand, became ideal bases for pirate gangs. Canh Buom Den was one of the most infamous, haunting trading ships until the early 20th century.

It is difficult to ascertain how much of the pirate stories we get to hear are true, but whatever happened in the past, it is true now that the telling and retelling of these stories keep visitors and residents entertained.

Life is very different from those days. The island is now home to more than 1,000 families who live mainly on fishing. There are schools, clinics and post offices, and the pleasant, peaceful island bears no resemblance to its popular name.

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