Beachside Vung Tau (which means Bay of Boats in Vietnamese) sits on a peninsular approximately 120km south of Ho Chi Minh City. This proximity to the noise and pollution of Saigon mean it's within easy reach for weekenders or even a daytrip, yet few western tourists make it. Despite being skipped by most foreigners, the Bay of Boats is a hit with domestic tourists, with the hotels often being full at the weekends and especially over public holidays. If you want to dodge the crowds, mid-week is when the town is at its sleepy best.
Also known by its French name Cap St Jacques, Vung Tau began as a fishing village but metamorphised during the Vietnam War when it was used for R&R by US servicemen on leave. Once the war finished, the hustly and bustle faded considerably and it was from here that the first of what became known as the boat people, left Vietnam's shores. Today, the quaint fishing village is long gone, but Vung Tau remains a worthwhile destination for those in Saigon with a few days up their sleeve.
Vung Tau's peninsula is encircled by a long winding road from the north east of the peninsula along Back Beach past a string of three-star hotels and semi-budget guesthouses. This open seafront is packed with small seafood vendors and larger restaurants, as well as daytime leisure centres offering the use of a swimming pool. The road continues around the southern tip passing by the infamous Jesus statue, and many kilometres of ocean view, before arriving in the city centre which is bordered by a quaint harbour.
Eat and meet
Being a seaside town, Vung Tau revolves around seafood. Don't assume, however, that the flipping fish in front of you is from the sea -- Vung Tau hosts a couple of rather large fish farms. On Thuy Van St (Back Beach), large seafood restaurants sporadically stand on the seafront. Portions are generous and standards hardly differ, it's best just to take a lucky dip. On the other side of town, Cat Bien is a restaurant of similar ilk. The vast menu contains any kind of mollusc, fish and crustacean you could wish for -- and maybe some you wouldn't. A specialty is BBQ fish wrapped in foil -- we had the grouper -- and dipped with some muoi tieu chanh (salt, pepper and lemon juice mixed together), it was mighty fine. Just one thing here, prices are high.
Possibly the most popular dining venue in town is Hai San Song. Vietnamese tourists flock here due its reputation, price and location -- weekends are especially heaving, but not in stressful way. This place is a little out of town, follow Quang Trung St out of town to the North for about 1.5km. The restaurant is housed directly on the shoreline, with good views out across the bay where you can see the container ships trafficking in and out of the estuary that leads to Saigon. On the top of the inevitably wide-ranging seafood menu, the prices are exceptionally good value.
Back in town, Le Dung is a kind of seafood 'takeaway', where you can order your preferred dish to be prepared on the spot and then thrown in a box for a beach side picnic.
By now, the taste of squid and shrimp are probably becoming a little overbearing, but don't worry, there is a smattering of western choices in town too. Ali Baba is the one and only Indian restaurant in town, and just across the road is a branch of the Vietnam-wide Good Morning Vietnam, the Italian option. Along the front of 'Front Beach' is the Pig and Whistle, which has a restaurant above its seedy looking bar area. Despite the name it looks nothing like a pub, but the menu would suggest otherwise -- it has everything from fish &chips to steaks to pies. Further along the road, opposite the ferry terminal is Ned Kelly's Eureka Inn. Another good destination for anything that may remind you of home, this place is run by an Australian expat and some interesting photos of Vung Tau in the 1930s and 1960s adorn the wall. Ned Kelly's seems to play Aussie Rules all day long on the TV, and there's also a pool table to entertain you. Still further along the road, now past the ferry terminal is Tommy's Bar. This is a more relaxing cafe style environment, with some comfortable outside seating. They have daily specials, Western and Vietnamese food, and in true Aussie style, 'Beer under ice at all times'.
In terms of nightlife Vung Tau has a seedy reputation, and once you've wandered around for a while, you'll see why. A large number of bars with exotic names and a couple of 'Discotheques' masquerade as girly-bars/clubs.
For the majority not interested in this kind of activity, options are limited. You could choose to meet the crowds of resident expats who gather in the aforementioned bars of Ned Kelly's and Tommy's, and more than likely some other tourists as well. At the Vung Tau Beach Club (opposite Sammys Hotel) you will find the windsurfers and kitesurfers who are in town. Other than that, you may want to try a Vietnamese night out at one of the insanely popular coffee shops -- try Blue Star on the beach road on Friday or Saturday night for an example of Ho Chi Minh City-style posing at its best.
Another option is of course to make your own entertainment. Vung Tau has miles of wind swept promenade (front beach) and deckchair seating (back beach) to chug a beer and enjoy the sound of the ocean.
Ali Baba -- 7 Nguyen Trai St. T: (064) 510 685.
Blue Star -- 140 Ha Long. Daily: 09:00 -- 22:00
Cat Bien -- 38 Quang Trung St. T: (064) 819 033. Daily 07:00-:22:00
Good Morning Vietnam -- 6 Hoang Hoa Tham St. T: (064) 856 959. 10:00-23:00
Hai San Song -- 3 Tran Phu St, T: (064) 551 555. Daily 09:00-22:00
Le Dung -- 16 Tran Hung Dao St.
Pig &Whistle -- 14 Quang Trung St. T: (064) 511 424. Daily: 07:00-23:00
Ned Kelly's -- 128 Ha Long St. T: (064) 510 173. Daily: 07:00-Late
Tommys -- 94 Ha Long St. T: (064) 853 554. Daily: 09:00-Late
Vung Tau Beach Club - Gate 2, Ocean Park, 8 Thuy Ban St. T: (064) 526 101.Daily: 09:00-Late
Things to do in Vung Tau
Vung Tau is hardly surrounded by famous tourist sites, so it's best to make the most of the outdoors and perhaps take in a couple of the more interesting sights if necessary. Hon Ba Temple is unmistakable as it stands on a rocky outcrop -- it's only accessible at low tide. On the tip of the Vung Tau peninsular are two hills worth climbing as they present spectacular views over the region. The Jesus statue is unmistakable, and it's possible to climb to the top of this hill via a set of steps. The other large hill is home to Hai Dang, or the French built Lighthouse. A paved road winds to the top where you can pay around 20,000 for a tour inside the building. The Lighthouse still functions at night -- the views from up here are fantastic.
A few temples exist around town, probably the most interesting one being Thic Ca Phat Dai, although don't come to Vung Tau to visit temples.
Further afield, the Boulder Rocks draw some visitors. They're up in the hills to the north of Long Hai. It was in these hills and under these boulders that a number of Viet Cong were holed out. Despite massive bombing by American forces, the VC remained untouched -- you can still see the shrapnel scars and craters on the hillside and in the rocks themselves. It is possible to clamber down into some of the tunnels.
Back in Vung Tau city there is a small museum at the old French colonial Bach Dinh Villa, just down the road from the Rex Hotel.
Vung Tau is also home to the Vung Tau Paradise Golf Club, situated at the very northern end of Back Beach past Paradise Resort. A round of 18 holes cost US$40 on a weekday or $60 at weekends, there is also a driving range.
Back at the beach, Back Beach that is, the seafront contains complexes designed for families and tourists. Considering the water in the ocean is infamous for it's bad quality, many prefer to use these centres. Typically they have a restaurant and a swimming pool, with plenty of space for lounging and relaxing. One such centre is Dolphin Swimming, where entry costs 50,000 dong; Dolphin is opposite the Sammy Hotel. Another option would be to take the drive to Anoasis in Long Hai (around 30 minutes) to make use of the four star facilities including a private beach, much more suitable for swimming than Vung Tau's Back Beach. A day ticket costs $6 on weekdays and $10 on weekends.
Also on this stretch of the beach is the Vung Tau Beach Club. It's here you can arrange kite surfing or windsurfing lessons and equipment hire. Prices for kite surfing start at $50 for one hour and up to $250 for five hours, all including instructor, equipment and insurance. For windsurfing, one hour costs $40 or $25 with your own equipment, $120/$75 for three hours and $350/$220 for five hours.
On Saturday and Sunday nights the racetrack opens -- not horses, but dogs. Entry is 20,000 per person and races start from around 19:00. This is a real family and tourist event with a fun atmosphere. Food and drinks are available, and with betting starting at 10,000 dong, there's no need to worry about losing the house either.
Anoasis -- Ky Van, Long Hai -- T: (064) 868 227, F: (064) 868 229.
Dolphin Swimming Pool & Restaurant -- 8 Thuy Van St, T: (064 522 527).
Vung Tau Beach Club -- Gate 2, 8 Thuy Van St, T: (064) 526 101. www.vungtausurf.com
Vung Tau Paradise Golf Club -- 1 Thuy Van St, T: (064) 853 428, F: (064) 585 890
Vung Tau Race Track -- Thanh Thai St, Sat & Sun: 19:00 -- 22:00
Getting there and away
Buses leave from the Mien Dong Bus Station in Saigon from 07:00 and run throughout the day. Tickets cost 32,000 dong. Really, unless you're travelling alone and on a desperate budget, the boat or private car makes a lot more sense.
Boats depart from Bach Dang Wharf in Saigon. The ferry terminal is on the Saigon River, by the intersection of Ton Duc Thang St and the bottom of Nguyen Hue St. Journey time is one hour 30 minutes via the Vina Express hydrofoil service (or GreenLines, who run the same service). The boat departs six times daily starting from 06:00, the last return trip being at 16:00. A ticket costs 120,000 dong (US$7.50). Pick up tickets in Saigon from 2 Nguyen Hue St, the ferry terminal on Ton Duc Thang.
If travelling in a group it may be easier to hire a car and driver to travel to Vung Tau. These can be arranged via one of the numerous travel agencies on Pham Ngu Lao. The drive should take between one and a half and two hours.