HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Surprising Vung Tau

Even though it is only 125km (about 80 miles) from Saigon, I had never made it over to Vung Tau before this past weekend. I suppose I wanted to get the more exotic Vietnam locales out of the way first, but the city also doesn't have the best reputation - I had heard that the beaches are dirty, that it's full of rough Russian oil workers (Vung Tau is the center of Vietnam's oil industry), and the nightlife is full of sleazy girl bars. However, after reading a recent story about another side of the city, I decided to give it a chance. So, last Friday afternoon I hit the road southeast to the coast.

I was determined to avoid the horrid Hanoi highway while exiting Saigon, so I took the back way across the Cat Lai ferry and through the countryside before looping back onto Highway 51. This route took me through something called the Nhon Trach New Urban City, which is home to massive roads to nowhere and a few industrial plants. It was a scorching day, and the sun was intense.

 After about two and half hours of easy cruising I was at my hotel, which was right on the coast.

The following day (another scorcher) I got back on my bike to do some exploring. I went down an alley that turned into a rough path heading up the creatively named Big Mountain, which offered great views over the ocean.

After some tricky driving I found what I was looking for - the remains of an old French fort, replete with six incredibly well-preserved cannons. During the French colonial years Vung Tau was called Cap St. Jacques, and the mountains in the city were fortified. In a country where much of the past has been dismantled or destroyed, seeing something like this was amazing. I can't believe the cannons haven't been taken apart and sold for scrap metal yet. Even stranger is the fact that the fort is hard to access, and you would have no idea it's there without being told about it beforehand. I wonder if the local government will open this area up someday, as it's far more interesting than the manufactured tourist crap you usually come across in Vietnam. (To get to the fort take hem 444 off Tran Phu and follow the rocky path as it winds up the mountain. You'll eventually see the cannons to the left.)

I explored on my own for a bit and then headed back down the mountain to the other side. A paved street led up this part, but the pavement ended abruptly at the gate of a government building before branching off as a destroyed path. The views were excellent.

I then headed across town on the coast road to the equally creatively named Small Mountain. After taking hem 220 off Phan Chu Trinh I ended up on another desolate, shattered path that wound through pig sties and  opened up on a sweeping view of one of the city's beaches.

I continued up the path and soon arrived at the big Jesus statue atop the mountain, which was finished in 1993 and is 105 feet tall. It is believed to be the second-tallest Jesus in the world, after the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Oddly, two cannons sit at the base of Jesus.

I headed back down the trail and checked out an abandoned building I had passed on the way up. I then noticed an entrance set into the mountain - I walked in and realized that I was standing in the remains of another French fort, though this one clearly had not been restored. It was dark and dirty, and I was worried about stepping on a heroin needle or a used condom. I ended up using the flash on my camera as a light, since it was impossible to see in the subterranean fort.

After working up a mighty sweat in the midday heat, I continued on and spotted a couple of caves carved out of the mountain. I have no idea what these were for. Further along was another ruined French building and a particularly large cannon.

Later that afternoon I went to another part of Small Mountain, this time on a beautifully paved road up to the Vung Tau lighthouse, where I hung out until sunset.

That night I went to the greyhound racetrack, where dog races are held every Saturday from 7pm-10pm. I'm still not sure where I stand on the ethics of the sport, but I wanted to check out a local institution. The track is the only place in the country where Vietnamese can gamble, and since everyone here is an inveterate gambler men, women and children alike were going wild with bets. You had to be at least 18 to bet, but every time a race ended entire families would erupt in cheers if their dog placed well. Beers were $1, and the atmosphere was joyous. After sticking around for a few races I headed back to the hotel.

This was a great weekend, with one exception: on Saturday night a gaggle of Vietnamese families checked into my hotel, and Sunday morning they were rampaging through the hallways - conversing at the top of their lungs, children running around like rabid badgers, everyone slamming doors so loudly it sounded like we were being bombed - at 6:30am. There really is no consideration for what other people may be doing in this country.

Obnoxious hotel guests aside, Vung Tau impressed me - you never hear about the historical side of it, but I found the place fascinating. It helped that the weather was perfect all weekend. I may just have to go back sometime.


  1. G'day Mike,

    I was in VT in April 2013 and was staying with locals who showed me some of the town's hidden treasures, such as the French cannons up Big Mountain. I was there only 2 weeks but next trip I hope to stay for 2 months. I stayed at Sunshine Motel some of the time and experienced the same with Viet families running up and down hallways at 6 am, kids shouting and slamming doors.

    1. Nice, sounds we had very similar trips.