The main road from Saigon into the coastal city of Vung Tau is named for Võ Nguyên Giáp, Vietnam’s greatest military figure of the 20th century, maybe ever, and it’s first ever four-star general. The road is broad, an 8-lane dual carriageway with lanes for motorcycles of which Vietnam has many, and is lined with manicured trees and rows of colourful flowers. To drive to Vung Tau involved crossing waterways, both over and under, and on impressive new roads of the 51A Expressway. Vietnam’s infrastructure has gone up in the world.
Vung Tau is a city of over 200,000 people and has reputedly more inexpensive guesthouses and hotels than anywhere else in Vietnam – over 300. That’s more than major cities, and more than tourist destinations like Hoi An. Along with Mui Ne, further north, Vung Tau forms part of the coastal retreats for upwardly mobile Saigonese. Vietnam is after all, virtually one long beach.
Vung Tau had been a favourite getaway for the French colonials and the wealthy of Saigon stretching back to the 1900s, a trend that continues today. The city’s hotels run from luxury four-star operations to mini hotels and guest houses. There are many more going up and the cityscape is dotted with tower blocks waiting to be finished. Sure it lacks the beaches of Nha Trang and Mui Ne further north, but Vung Tau’s biggest selling point is the convenience of its location close to Saigon. Let’s face it; living in a city like Saigon, Vietnam’s largest, with over seven million motorbikes on the roads every day, you need some peace and quiet.
Week days are the best times to visit this coastal retreat, the noisy neighbours from Saigon just come for the weekends. There are rooms aplenty and bargains can usually be had. Bus companies usually run free shuttles so there’s no need to walk or pay for a cab. Vung Tau is a good place to do nothing. Foreign tourists who’ve done the north-south route can escape the hassle common of other popular spots and chill out. The town is so quiet during the week I was reminded of the western High Noon, where much like the weekend, everyone seemed to be waiting for the train to roll in.
Getting to Vung Tau is easy. You can bus down from Saigon in under three hours on the toll highway or drive even quicker. Instead of buying a bus ticket from a travel agent in Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon’s main tourist mecca, just walk down to the Phuong Trang bus ticket agency and buy one yourself. You’ll find all travel agents do is reserve you a seat and then walk you down to the Phuong Trang office, pick up your ticket and show you the waiting room, all for about an 80 percent mark-up! The other travel options are hydrofoils, which take about 30 minutes down the Saigon River and out to the edge of the South China Sea, or taxi or hire car, though I hear the river option has many detractors.
Vung Tau takes its name from the local word for “anchorage” as European traders visited regularly during the 14th and 15th centuries. Originally the area was a swamp. During colonial rule the French called it Cap Jacques, though the Vietnamese called it Tam Thang (or "Three Boats") after the villages in the area. It’s built on a promontory with cliffs known as Mũi Nghinh Phong, literally meaning "Cape of breeze welcome" or "Cape of greeting the wind" accurate as it has a sort of natural air-conditioning.
It was once a haven for Malay pirates, until Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty, had them ousted as they threatened trading in what is now Saigon. It was under the Emperor that the land became known as Viet Nam, and resistance began against increasing French influence, which lasted from the late 1850s until 1954, when they were defeated by the above mentioned General Giáp at Dien Bien Phu far to the north. Vung Tau saw the first use of cannons, as the emperor’s forces fired at French battleships from the fortress at Front Beach in 1859. The French eventually triumphed and divided the country into three, and Vung Tau became part of the six provinces of Cochinchina a colony, as opposed to the “protectorates” of Annam and of Tonkin.
Vũng Tàu is flanked by beaches, including Back Beach (Bãi Sau) on the seaward side and Front Beach (Bãi Truoc) facing Saigon. A coastal drive connects both and extends along both sides of the peninsula. At times it looks like the French Riviera with elegant apartment blocks and upmarket hotels and mansions. Only the Vietnamese flags remind you you’re in the world’s second most populous communist country. With its palm trees, white washed building and long beaches, it looks about as close to a workers’ paradise as you’re going to get. Thankfully, French plans to turn the city into Saigon’s port in the 1880s were passed over so it retained its natural flavour.
Off shore against spectacular sunsets, you can see the other main business of Vung Tau, oil, courtesy of Vietsovpetro, the Russian oil and gas joint venture with PetroVietnam, the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group. Giant platforms can be seen close to shore. Nearby are various support ships and tankers. Vietnam has the second largest reserves of oil in East Asia after China. Coming and going are containers vessels and bulk carriers destined for the port of Saigon, 30kms away up the gulf river of Co May, and today the 24th busiest container port in the world. From Saigon’s infrastructure, energy production and transport, Vietnam is going onwards and upwards; especially now as part of so-called Southern Economic Corridor and trade route through to Bangkok..
Vung Tau has reputation as an expat hangout, mainly for Russians and Australians. The former are mainly oil workers, about 1250 live in Vung Tau, and the latter usually war veterans in their various guises. During the war with America, the city was used as a logistics base by Australian forces, and was a popular “R ‘n’ R” destination for Americans. New Zealanders were stationed there also. At one point the place had over 100 bars for servicemen and their various “activities”. In 1969, Argosy magazine called it “the pleasure capital of the world”. It seems they come in their thousands, and some never left. Rumour had it that Tau was so popular as a relaxation spot away from the war, that even the even the Viet Cong would go to the city for some rest and relaxation of their own.
Given its location both US forces and their South Vietnam allies viewed the town as an evacuation point, apparently from as early as the mid-1960s onwards. From 1975 through to the mid-1980s it was from Vung Tau that the so-called “Boat People” left reunified Vietnam on overcrowded fishing boats out into the South China Sea, often never to be heard from again. Vung Tau was also the place most US troops disembarked during the US build-up. So the town was the first sight of Vietnam for many and the last sight of the country for others.
During the First Indochina War, Vung Tau (then Cap Saint Jacques) was where the French Action Service trained Montagnard mercenaries. It was also where the French spy agency, SDECE, flew in opium shipments once the spring harvest in the mountains of Laos was collected, as there were no customs or police controls to interfere with or expose the illicit shipments. From Vung Tau, the opium was trucked into Saigon and turned over to the Binh Xuyen gangsters, who were there serving as the city's local militia and managing its opium traffic. The Binh Xuyen ran most of Saigon, and eventually fought an all-out war with the army in the streets and lasting five days for the control of city. The opium was part of Operation X, whereby French intelligence generated income to fund counter-insurgency against the Viet Minh. A spin-off was connections with the Corsican mafia that brought opium to France and into Europe via Marseilles, the beginning of the so-called “French Connection”.
The best way to see Vung Tau is by renting a motorbike. This costs about $7 a day and is way cheaper and more convenient than by taxi. Taxis in Vung Tau are pricey, generally about 30 percent dearer than in Saigon. Bicycles are cheaper but harder work, and those I saw walking would be pretty limited in what they could see. In that heat even with a sea breeze, you’d be absolutely worn out and sun baked by day’s end.
Vung Tau’s architecture ranges from the colonial to the modernistic, though there are few traditional styles left. Shop houses seem few and far between, Thankfully, it seems to have escaped any monuments in Stalinistic taste. The streets are quiet, at least when compared with Saigon streets, but then most places would be.
The city is dotted with religious offerings both Christian and the predominant Buddhist. Of the latter there is Linh Son Co Tu, Vung Tau’s oldest, where you can admire a 1,600 year-old Buddha statue; and the notable Thich Ca Phat Dai, with its Zen monastery. On the point of the Cape is Vung Tau’s own Christ the Redeemer, at 32m in height one of the tallest statues to Christ in Asia with and two outstretched arms spanning over 18m facing out over the South China Sea. There are Virgin Marys aplenty, pristine white in the tropical sun. Some sites seems almost a blend of the two religions.
Vung Tau likes its beer halls, large beer barns mainly closed during the week. One was open, the Black Pearl on Ha Long, the coastal road from Back Beach to the town centre. It has a Hollywood theme going on after Pirates of the Caribbean. Outside the front door there’s a statue of Captain Jack Sparrow, complete with an unerring resemblance to Johnny Depp. There are bakeries and coffee shops. The local well-to-do sit in air-conditioned calm with their laptops, the smokers confined to the heat outside. Front Beach has a few expat bars all very low key. Now and then you see a European out running, sweating in the midday sun, objects of curiosity for the locals wondering why you’d expend all that energy unnecessarily.
In one such bar I met a young Irish couple. After a month traversing the sights of Vietnam from north to south they had come to Vung Tau to do “precisely nothing”. They were heading back to “Dublin’s one day of summer”. There’s seemingly no Wi-Fi connection in Vung Tau so people are reduced to talking to each other, albeit in a conversation sparked bthe lack of the internet. You cannot make international calls either apparently. One expat sat nearby knocking back beer after beer in silence probably wondering why his favourite drinking hole had been invaded. Following a glorious sunset they headed to a pizza restaurant.
Another day in Vung Tau had come and gone. The next day was Friday when the roads and hotels will be full. If you like things peaceful, it’s probably time to leave.