Local Insight: Vung Tau
The nearest Beach escape
For as long as anyone can remember, travelling to Vung Tau has offered respite to the Saigonese from the frenetic hustle of the working week.
Come weekends, hordes of Saigonese will make their way down to travel to Vung Tau on bikes, ferries, buses and now in their private vehicles. Vung Tau’s main economy is oil and there are lots of offshore platforms off the coast. Many are run by Russian-Vietnamese joint ventures.
Vung Tau has two faces: Front Beach and Back Beach. The Saigonese prefers the sun and sand of the Back Beach. All along this coastal strips one will see hotels, Bed & Breakfasts and the occasional 5-Star resort like the Imperial Hotel and the recently opened Pullman Resort. One to two nights in Vung Tau should be enough. It is the closest city to HCMC, 75 minutes by hydrofoil, two by car and around three by motorbike.
“Vung Tau has two faces: Front Beach and Back Beach.”
Back Beach has been the enclave of the locals and Saigonese pre and post-Liberation. Pre-Liberation Vung Tau was an R&R retreat for GIs and foreign troops stationed at various parts of the Republic of South Vietnam. Most of the bars and eateries were located on Front Beach.
Since the early 90s, the Front Beach area has been the preferred place of residence for many expatriates who came and worked in the oil and gas, power plant, steel and other industries located in the industrial zones of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.
In fact Vung Tau also appears to be the preferred place for many retirees from Australia. Hence the proliferation of bars with names like Matildas, Ned Kelly, Ettamogah and the like. There is also a proliferation of backpackers who put down roots for a couple of years and secure employment from the various English Language crammers in town.
I won’t delve into details of the many attractions of Vung Tau apart from the sun and the beach. Bathing is not recommended as the beach is incredibly dirty, the sand is very trashy and traces of oil are common. There are some excellent cycling opportunities though. The beachfront road connecting Ha Long and Thuy Van street is perfect for cycling in the morning or in the evening.
“There are some excellent cycling opportunities here.”
There is a famous statue of Christ located at the tip of Vung Tau Peninsular, whilst the Greyhound Racing Stadium is the only one in Southeast Asia. Other attractions include: The Santa Maria Statue; The Old Lighthouse; The White Palace; The Whale Museum; and Cloud Lake Mountain accessible via a sea front Cable Car. The Worldwide Arms Museum has recently reopened at 98 Tran Hung Dao after a hiatus of three years. The entry ticket costs VND100,000 for expats and half that for the locals.
Foodwise as with many regions in Vietnam, seafood is aplenty. One of the best being Ganh Hao located at 3 Tran Phu. With a staff count of at least 300, this is possibly the largest restaurant in Vietnam.
Banh khot (prawn fritters) are a specialty of Vung Tau. One can rarely find this dish in other regions of Vietnam. It is a favourite of the Saigonese. The grand daddy of them all is Goc Vu Sua located at 14 Nguyen Truong To. One can’t really leave Vung Tau without savouring the delights at these two restaurants. Truong Cong Dinh street is great for stingray hotpot, a speciality in Vung Tau.
Vung Tau is also considered to be the home of banh bong lan trung muoi, the famous salted egg yolk sponge cake. Try asking a local person at the market to order some for you. They will make them overnight and have them ready for you the following morning.
For some of the best Western food in Vietnam, head over to Nine Restaurant by Front Beach, on Truong Vinh Ky. They make their own lovely ham, bread, ice cream, chocolate and more. In addition, they have quite an extensive selection of wine.
Fun fact: on the highway from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau, you will find hundreds of banh bao stalls named Banh Bao 69. The name originated from a lady named Tuyet who sold these delicious cakes from a location 69 kilometres from HCMC on the road to Vung Tau. She inspired everyone living on the highway to do the same.
Don’t forget that Long Hai is less than a 30 minute car ride away, and has a nice fishing village.