The reason for my bias was down to experience. I used to live and work there. I spent some of the best moments of my life in this seaside city doubling up as Vietnam’s oil town. I also spent some of the worst, and when I finally left in 2007 I swore I would never return. Except for two weddings and family ties that occasionally saw me make the two-hour trip from Saigon out of necessity, for a long time I kept my distance.
Recent events have changed my mind and rid me of my baggage. It started with a photographer showing me his blog. Together with his son he had taken the cable car to the theme park at the top of the mountain. When I had lived in Vung Tau the cable car was one of those projects that seemed to be on permanent hold, a bit like some of the resort projects out at Ho Tram. And yet here it was, completed. The images showed a saturated, azure blue sky, a dark green pine forest and a vista of the city that was different to that of my memories.
I determined that at some point I would take a look.
So the next time I returned I borrowed a bike, left my not so comfortable comfort zone and went for a drive. I hit the numerous temple and jungle-lined mountain roads that skirt the city’s two most notable landmarks — Nui Nho and Nui Lon, Small Mountain and Big Mountain. I went to the church in Sao Mai village and the fishing port in Ben Dinh. I also visited the arms museum. I was enthralled. I had known that these places existed, but in my six years in the city I had never made the effort.
My latest journey coincided with bad weather. In December and January Ho Chi Minh City can develop a night-time chill. The Vung Tau peninsula went one step further — it was genuinely cold. Yet the air was fresh — already a welcome change from the big city. Borrowing a motorbike I headed out to Go Gang and Long Son Islands. Although part of the city of Vung Tau, until recently road access required a 30km drive back down the highway before travelling the road over the mangroves to Long Son. Go Gang was even more remote and only accessible by boat. Now, two new bridges connect these islands to the mainland.
Besides floating seafood farms, mangrove — some destroyed and some not — a lake, the viewless mountain retreat of Du Son and the tiny fishing port at Ben Da, the main attraction in Long Son is an old house, known quite simply as Nha Lon (Big House). The home to followers of the Ong Tran religion — all the people working and living here wear black traditional ao ba ba — the colourful, wooden-framed building is over 100 years old and is a reminder of how houses built by the wealthy once used to look. In modern Vietnam, such sites are a rarity.
From the artwork-laden altar room and brightly-coloured courtyard through to the attic space above with views across the complex, this beautifully-preserved shrine to the past is a must for anyone visiting Vung Tau. Even the market next door, with its Long Son-made seafood products and restored, dark wooden shop-fronts is worth a wander. If you like your homemade fermented sauces — chao, mam tom, mam ruoc — this is a place to stock up.
Back in Vung Tau I headed out to Tommy’s 3 in Front Beach, Bai Truoc. Run by husband-and-wife team Glenn and Trang, they have created a successful business out of doing what most of the other mixed expat-Vietnamese run spots refused to do — not be a hostess bar. Instead they are a well-run, well-oiled restaurant and sports bar with live music on Friday and Saturday nights. They have also bridged the barrier between foreigners and Vietnamese — their customers are an international mix of both.
“Vung Tau is really starting to modernize,” says Glenn. “The buildings aren’t trashy little shacks any more. There’s new stuff sprouting up everywhere. Aesthetically the people here are rebuilding the town… It’s starting to look very clean, very tidy.”
He’s not wrong. The city formerly known as Cap Saint Jacques is still a sleepy enclave looking out towards the Pacific, but the past decade has seen multiple transformations. Front Beach has been overhauled and turned into a seaside promenade with sea-themed Barbara Hepworth-style sculptures and a shaded park. Back Beach has also been developed as has the area around Chi Linh, the beach at the end of Paradise Golf Course.
High-rises now dot the skyline and more are on their way. And the roads are wide, well-paved and clean. New highways with flower-clad central reservations have been built, Metro Hypermarket has arrived, and the city’s residents have the option of the ‘dream modern lifestyle’, living in apartments like their counterparts in Saigon or Hanoi.
The differences are not just structural — the city now offers up a myriad of activities for tourists. The cable car transports hundreds of people a day from its seaside base on Tran Phu to a Sky Park on the top of Big Mountain. I visited Front Beach twice. Once a rat-infested stretch of sand doubling up as a sewer, it is now surprisingly clean. Even the sea looks swimmable.
Glenn, though, was particularly enthused by the restoration of an old French fort out on Big Mountain. “They’ve done all the work, but it’s impossible to get a car up there,” he explains. “The road hasn’t been widened yet and it’s often used for drying seafood.”
All meaning that the fort remained one of the city’s little secrets. The next day, we went for a look.
Heading round Big Mountain, through another area that has been developed — much of the road here was once gravel and mud — we took Hem 444 off Tran Phu and headed upwards. The fort itself is a restoration of the original French base, with a line of green-coated cannon looking ominously out to sea and a range of now empty, stone-built fortifications that once housed a garrison. Built as early as 1870, it is a wonder that the artillery was not dismantled for scrap metal. Despite the bad access it is also a wonder that no-one comes up here. In the 45 minutes or so we spent looking around, we were the only visitors.
“There are more,” says Glenn. “These are the only cannon that have been restored.” So we went off back into town — this time up Vi Ba, a street close to the intersection of Le Loi and Le Hong Phong. 2.5km up the hill we came across the remains of another fort, this time buried by jungle. The cannon and other machinery had long been dismantled, but the fixings were still there. Now part of a family home one of the garrison rooms had been transformed into an outhouse for keeping pigs.
But this was only the starting point. The real gem is the fort and semi-ruined French-built outhouse on Small Mountain. The road out there — Hem 220 off Phan Chu Trinh — is in disrepair, but the ride up the mountain with the sweeping city views to accompany was more than reward for the bumpy trip. After numerous bends and turns we took a right-hand fork and here were the first battlements. Semi-restored — work has obviously been done on the cannon at some point — all around were the remains of brick walls, overgrown with tree roots like Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor Wat. Yet here the handiwork was French rather than Khmer.
Heading further up the track we came to the bottom of the Jesus Statue — known locally as Chua Kito. Yet here we were at the steps that were built when the monolith was originally constructed in 1974. Now unused, at their base lies a semi-reconstructed torpedo cannon — the largest beast of the lot with a chase perhaps one-and-a-half times the length of its compadre. A bit further up the track rounded back on itself coming to the base of the statue used today. Visitors climb hundreds of steps to get this high. We had done the trip by bike.
That night back in Tommy’s 3 the question got thrown up again and again. “I just don’t understand why the authorities don’t promote this place more,” said Glenn.
We came up with a few theories. But what was clear was this. While Vung Tau remains badly promoted and many tourist sites a mystery, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect time to explore this beachside getaway, far from the madding crowd.
The Arms Museum
“Seven or eight years ago Vung Tau was appealing for investment in tourism,” says Bob Taylor, a local resident who for the last 23 years has made Vietnam his home. A collector of swords, guns and army uniforms, and with a collection that he describes as a “hobby that had gone out of control”, he felt he now had something that he needed to share.
“So, I got in touch with the local authorities to see if I could bring my weapon collection to Vietnam,” he continues. “I live in Vung Tau, which is why I brought everything there. And it’s actually in my home which I modified into a museum.”
Opening in January 2012 on Bach Dang at the base of Nui Nho, by the end of the year the attraction was receiving 200 visitors a day at the weekend and 50 visitors a day during the week. “People from around the world — foreigners — said it was one of the best museums they’d ever seen,” says Bob. “And the Vietnamese were overawed by it. It’s unique.”
But Bob’s passion is not just reserved for arms. Attached to the back of the museum is a primate care centre housing gibbons and monkeys “rescued from cruel situations.”
Working together with Monkey World in the UK, a chimpanzee rescue centre based in Dorset, and the Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST) in Cat Tien National Park, Bob also takes on the role of carer, looking after rescued primates from EAST that cannot be rehabilitated into the natural environment.
“Many of the rescued animals have deformities, disease or psychological problems,” explains Bob. “So, it’s just not ethical if we send them back into the wild.”
The museum is located at 14 Hai Dang but is presently closed for public viewing while Bob applies for a new license. Both the facility and the primate care centre should be open again around Tet.
3 Tran Phu, Bai Dau
The best-known, top-end seafood restaurant in town. Great views over the sea, but pricey
334 Tran Phu, Sao Mai
Said to be the best of the local, cheaper seafood restaurants. Close to the main fishing port
92 Ha Long, Ward 2
Well-loved Italian restaurant with full menu, seafront views and a wood-fired pizza oven
Vung Tau’s only speciality dish can be found all around town, but the best is available at Ba Hai (42 Tran Dong, Ward 2 ) although the most famous is found at Goc Vu Sua (14 Nguyen Truong To, Ward 2)
9 Truong Vinh Ky, Front Beach
French-run bistro specializing in tasty Mediterranean cuisine mixed with international fare. Great carpaccios and pizzas
3 Le Ngoc Han, Front Beach
Mixed Asian and western menu selling anything from comfort food to salads and classics in a large, open-air space. Upstairs air-con sports bar
3 Ba Cu, Front Beach
Outdoor, umbrella-covered restaurant and cafe just off the main drag in Front Beach. Same owners as Tommy’s 3
Four companies now run hydrofoils to and from Vung Tau with the boats leaving every half an hour. Go to the ferry port on Ton Duc Thang opposite the end of Nguyen Hue for information.
Tickets for the one-and-a-half-hour boat ride are VND200,000 (week days) and VND250,000 (weekends). Hoa Mai runs an efficient and fast bus service from 44 Nguyen Thai Binh, Q1.
The journey takes two-and-a-half hours and costs VND85,000. Call 3821 8927 for information.