KIEN GIANG — The sun lit up To Chau Mountain and the Dong Ho River, shining through my hotel window in Ha Tien township in the southwestern province of Kien Giang.
As I awoke in my room, I could see the harbour on the other side of the river, where I would soon take a journey to an island in the Hai Tac (Pirate) Archipelago.
The distance from the mainland to the island was only about 30km, but when we boarded the boat later that morning, we discovered that it would take more than one hour to reach Tre Lon Island in the archipelago, which contains a total of 14 islands where 2,000 people live.
Because of the beautiful views and landscape, some people call it “Ha Long Bay of the South”. On the way, we could see boats and rafts used by local islanders to raise fish.
Of our group of 40, several people had never visited the islands, and we were eager to hear about the rumours of pirates who had once lived in the area.
Our boat berthed at the harbour of Tre Lon Island, also called Doc Island, where most of the residents live. The rain had stopped and it was a peaceful morning on the island, not much different from a village on the mainland. There were schools and a healthcare centre.
We left the harbour and took a brisk walk on the ring road to reach the border marker erected in 1958 by the US-backed Sai Gon administration, which marks the boundary with Cambodia.
Even though several decades had passed, writing on the border pole could clearly be seen.
The archipelago is attractive not only because of its beautiful landscapes and untouched nature, but because of stories related to pirates and treasures buried on the islands.
According to local people, the area was notorious for pirates, especially during the period when Viet Nam was colonised by the French.
They were once the “hunting grounds” and “headquarters” of pirates from various countries in the region, the story goes.
The pirates allegedly owned a boat called the Canh Buom Den (Black Sail), on which they hung a broom, implying that they would sweep away all boats in their way.
The stories about the islands include rumours about a hidden treasure on Doc Island.
Phan Hong Phuc, deputy chairman of the Tien Hai Commune’s People’s Committee, told us that in 1983 several foreigners, who called themselves descendants of the pirates, arrived at the island with a map and tried to trace the buried treasure, but were later arrested by local residents.
The strangers confessed that the map had been drawn more than 300 years ago.
Rumours about the treasure on the island surfaced again in 2009 after many antique coins were found by fishermen working at sea on their boats.
In the 17th century, because of the mysterious stories about pirates and hidden treasures on the island, dwellers named the place the “Pirate archipelago”.
The colourful stories about the pirates, which gave our trip an adventurous air, contrasted with the peaceful landscape and daily lives of people on the island.
Some friends in the group thought about staying in local people’s houses for a few days to enjoy nature and learn about the lifestyle of the residents, including fishing. Unfortunately, organised services for visitors do not exist on the island.
Located on an important marine route in the region, the islands are home to mainly fishermen and small traders who sell small goods door to door.
In recent years, however, more and more people have begun to visit the archipelago for its beauty.
After spending a morning on Doc Island to see the border marker and walking around for sightseeing and talking with local people, we returned to our boat for another destination, Tre Vinh, known as Rabbit Island because of its shape.
The T&T Manufacturing and Trading Company from HCM City has invested in facilities on the island, including a quay, embankments, restrooms and a resthouse.
After we finished trekking in the forest on the island, we had local seafood for lunch and then took a swim. Because of the lack of tourism, it was easy to see the coral reef through the clear waters.
Investors are also planning to build facilities on Duoc Island, which is close to Rabbit Island. An eco-tourism site is now under development there.
Friends told me that the sunset from the island would be fantastic, but we had no time and had to quickly go back to our boat to return to the mainland.
One day was far too little time to explore the archipelago or enjoy the beautiful sites, so I decided that if the resort on Duoc Island is not finished by the time I return, I would stay at the River Hotel and make daily trips to the islands.