46. Vũng Tàu Getaway

Vũng Tàu, the nearest seaside community to massive Ho Chi Minh City, is a clean and quiet resort town just two hours’ travel from the urban center.

Vũng Tàu’s Front Beach extends between a downtown park and Small Mountain. (JGA photo)

As the nearest seaside resort to Ho Chi Minh City, and a popular weekend destination for urban residents, Vũng Tàu is a place to come for the beaches — and to stay for the seafood.

Indeed, there are two main city beaches, not just one, divided by a prominent headland. Southwest-facing Bãi Trước (Front Beach) is fringed by a green belt that divides it from Vũng Tàu’s crisp, clean downtown blocks. There’s even a “Book Street” in Quang Trung Park with coffee shops and bookstores, along with a live performance area. Pre-dusk most evenings, dozens of motorbikes gather at the park to watch the sun sink into the Mekong Delta as local parents enjoy the day’s last rays getting wet with their pre-schoolers.

Barely two kilometers (1.2 miles) east of here, Bãi Sau (Back Beach) beckons. If you’re looking for a tourist scene, this is where you’ll find it, although the resort hotels are decidedly modest by international standards. The sandy beach itself extends north for about 4 km (2.5 miles). Quiet during the week, it picks up crowds on the weekends.

Big Mountain frames downtown Vũng Tàu and its quiet harbor. (JGA photo)

Twin Peaks

Home to about half a million people, Vũng Tàu is framed by two hills, generously called “Big Mountain” (Nui Lon) and “Small Mountain” (Nui Nho). Nui Lon is at the north end of the city, overlooking Dau Beach and its passenger boat terminal, serving this community with direct transit to Ho Chi Minh City. A cable car climbs to the peak from Ho May Park, where fascinations include colored fountains and other amusements.

Nui Nho’s two adjacent summits, both of which offer panoramic views from a top elevation of 170 meters (557 feet), are more frequently visited by tourists, as there’s no charge to see the attractions at either. The Vũng Tàu Lighthouse, built by the French in 1862, has a winding staircase that leads to an antique Fresnel lens.

A statue of the Christ (dubbed “Giant Jesus” by Lonely Planet) was recognized as the largest Christian icon in Asia when it was unveiled atop Con Heo (Pig) Hill in 2012. Standing 32 meters (105 feet) high, its arms outstretched 18.4 meters (60 feet) wide, the statue invites daylight visitors to climb spiral staircases to Jesus’ shoulders.

Steep hikes from Ha Long street offer the most direct access to both. Locals know more gradual routes accessible by motorbike. Both lookouts afford views of the Hon Ba island temple, which can be reached by a path from Dua Beach at extreme low tides. Fishermen and their families come here to ask Thu Long Than Nu (the Sea Dragon Goddess) to protect them at sea.

Asia’s largest Jesus statue rises 32 meters (105 feet) above the city of Vũng Tàu (JGA photo)

Something fishy

Small Mountain is encircled by Du’ong Ha Long, a cliffside avenue that eventually descends to Back Beach. My favorite Vũng Tàu restaurants cling to this southwest-facing bluff, looking across the bay toward (mostly) Russian oil tankers at anchor.

Fortunately, the oil is well-segregated from the seafood, which is phenomenal. My favorite place to eat is Gành Hào 2, where a streetside wall of tanks displays every fresh catch of the day … still swimming. Indeed, they’re not “caught” until you choose your meal!

I’m still trying to learn the English words for Vietnamese seafood names. For one main course, a friend and I ordered a large mackerel (cá thu), which we had prepared two ways, both grilled and in a hotpot with a variety of vegetables and chilies. Large baked clams, sautéed squid, prawns, crab, octopus, and at least a dozen different kinds of snails — some much larger than escargot, others too small for a cocktail fork — are menu mainstays.

But Vũng Tàu is a large enough city, with a sufficiently diverse range of visitors, to have restaurants to please anyone. I found an Australian-style breakfast, as well as hamburgers and nachos, at Ned Kelly’s Pub on Quang Trung street opposite Front Beach. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy.

Grilled mackerel, straight from the live tank, makes a great main course for a seafood dinner. (JGA photo)

Over the waves

Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, getting to (and from) Vũng Tàu is half the fun. The GreenLines hydrofoil runs every couple of hours, 10 a.m to 4 p.m., from its Bach Dang terminal on the Saigon River in District 1. The fare is VND 170,000 (about US$7.50) per person.

Limo buses are a very efficient alternative for a similar price. They offer the added bonus of dropping travelers at their hotel. The Sun Beach Hotel is one very reasonable lodging option, midway between the two main beaches with rooms for as little as VND 330,000 (about US$15) a night.

Within Vũng Tàu, bicycles are an inexpensive means of transportation. Rental agencies will drop off and pick up bikes at hotels. Because the city is small and motorized traffic is minimal, it is easy to manuever. And a 4 km (2.5-mile) circuit of Small Mountain and both main beaches assures a modicum of healthy exercise!

A bicyclist shares Quang Trung street with motorbikes and a jogger in downtown Vũng Tàu. (JGA photo)
Giant prawns and pompano fish are kept alive until dinner time at the Ganh Hao 2 restaurant. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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