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The entrance to our nearby beach.

Note: I’m currently in Chicago and it’s -12 C. These pictures are making me really happy.

Vũng Tàu is about 2 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, and there’s an awful lot there to make an excellent weekend of it. Whether you go by bus or motorbike (and, of course, I highly recommend traveling by motorbike), there’s enough to see, tons to eat, beaches to loiter on, and of course, enough Banh Khot to kill a horse (an ok death, I assume).

The city itself is situated on a southern outcropping of the nation, with a few atypical hill-mountains near the shore, and features a relatively compact city center as well as several important historical sites. And Banh Khot.

While we were unable to get a hotel room in the city center, instead ending up in a new guesthouse about 7 km away in an unfinished division, we did have a whole beach essentially to ourselves at night and BANH KHOT GUYS, THIS IS WHERE BANH KHOT IS FROM! And… Jesus?

Click through to check out what 46 hours in Vũng Tàu looks like, as well as some of the most fun you can have for a stoopid cheap weekend not far from the crazy hustle-bustle of Saigon…

A Short History

Vũng Tàu is the holiday-getaway city of choice for many middle-class Vietnamese families due to it’s proximity to Saigon/Mekong Delta, and (need it be said?) its continuing industrialization and expansion. It’s got beaches, Russians, a golf course, and a whole slew of entertainment development going on, with the added bonus of being absurdly cheap and relatively pretty.

In the past it’s been a small fishing village, the home of the Indochina French Governor, a significant port city, a site for Australian and US military installations, the primary launching place of the Vietnamese Boat People (collectively referring to the several million South Vietnamese fleeing their homeland in the aftermath of the communist governments ‘victory’ in 1974), a home for the native oil industry, and a holiday destination with resorts and (soonish) theme parks.

VungtauFastFerryStation” by Genghiskhanviet
– 
Own work. Licensed under Public
domain via 
Wikimedia Commons.

This is the only interestingly-designed building in the city, so far: the fast hydrofoil station that connects to Saigon. We really wanted to take this, but there was an epic disaster where a ferry blew up (!!) about a year ago, killing many locals and a whole heck of a lot of tourists, and it has yet to reopen because the boats have been deemed unsafe. Bastien didn’t care for the design, but I like it. It looks like a spinal column, or a bicycle chain.

All in all, a nifty little place full of history. Check out what we saw, ate, and did, below!

Where We Stayed

Rollin rollin rollin… keep those doggies rollin… Rawhide
I really only mention this because of how hilarious it turned out to be. Because our plan was formulated and executed in about 2 days (gotta love the pace of life in Vietnam), we ended up in a guesthouse on what might be charitably considered a distant part of town.
In fact, the first cab driver we got after disembarking from the bus actually refused to take us there – as if it was on the moon (it was like 7 km away, come on!).
It was a partially finished subdivision-y section of the city. Because the city is growing so rapidly, these developments spring up incredibly fast, and remain sort of half-baked until the surrounding entertainment development/infrastructure is finished.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything closer, so we were tied to our motorbikes for the weekend.
Fortunately, we were just a couple blocks from the ocean and a relatively nice beach, which was conveniently deserted at night – perfect for downing some beers, running around in the sea, and hanging out in the resorts beach chairs… without having to pay for them. Niceeee.

VietJesus Blesses the Penninsula

The most visible sight in Vũng Tàu is the 32-meter high statue of Jesus himself, perched atop Mount Nho (itself 170 meters high). It was built in 1974 by catholic Vietnamese, and (I feel odd that this next thing is a thing you can say) it is among the highest Christ statues in Asia.

It is a HOT, SWEATY CLIMB to the top of this attraction, but it’s so bizarre that you really feel you’ve got to check it out for yourself. I declined to go to the top of the Jesus, because there’s no dedicated up/down staircases and seeing the volume of people packing in there made me queasy, but the view from anywhere along the mountain was just spectacular, regardless.

Come to me, my child, for you have climbed far and it is goddamned hot out here.

And, mounted at the top, there are guns. Because what goes better with religion than guns? No doubt left over from the various military installations in the city (French, Australian, American…), they’re jarringly out of place next to the golden frescos of the disciples that line the base of the Christ, as well as, you know, all of Christ’s teaching about abhorring violence.

But it’s Vietnam, land of internal contradictions. I don’t know what I expected.

Beaches

A future crowded beach… pending development.

Like I mentioned, our suburban guesthouse enclave had us basically beach-adjacent, and, in retrospect, that was fantastic. They were fairly clean, and much, MUCH calmer than the main beaches in the south, along the strips of resorts and fancy hotels in the city center. The currents were ridiculously strong – be careful if you’re swimming.

The other beaches (Back Beach and Front Beach) are party central for the holiday-makers that swarmed the downtown, and a great change of pace… but hardly relaxing, to me. I don’t always enjoy being surrounded by hoards of people, but for short times it’s ok.

Downtown beaches.

On the other hand, you’re never far from fresh food or drinks while spending time beach-side downtown. So that’s a definite plus. We grabbed some roasted okra, fried corn and peppers, fish balls, and battered, fried soft shell crab (the crunch was unusual, but my goodness, that’s a tasty dish!) for lunch before heading back to the bus terminal on Sunday.

This was early in the rainy season, and the sky was a little overcast. Fortunately, it’s basically always summer in Vietnam, so no big deal. A little rain was welcome, especially after trekking to the top of VietJesus in the morning heat.

This is the day that I realized I am in LOVE with grilled okra, and that eating the
outside shell of a sea creature is not, in fact, totally disgusting.
Yes. I regularly eat the shrimp tails when they’ve been baked in dishes now. Ew?

Hon Ba: The Island Shrine

Off the very southern point of the Vũng Tàu penninsula is a unique sort-of island, which houses an ancient shrine called Hon Ba.

During low tide one can walk across the rocky road leading from Back Beach to visit, pay respects, and take pictures. Pilgrimages for Mahayaha buddhists (the dominant strain of buddhism in Vietnam) occur four times a year, where locals will walk through the water to visit. It was repaired in 1971 and housed a secret meeting room for North Vietnamese soldiers during the American War.

Not a lot to do there, but the view of the Vũng Tàu skyline, such as it is, is really unparalleled from this vantage point (see my night shot under the history section).

We walked across at dusk. NOTE: Bring sandals! Rocks are slippery and uneven. Also, don’t walk across at dusk. Man, that was stupid. Look at those knobby rock things. THEY HURT.

I really can’t account for how much light exposure there
is in this picture. It was really dark. But thank goodness!

Bạch Dinh (Villa Blanche)

Check out the exquisite beading lining the roof, if you can make it out… it’s colorful and just stunning!

Built by the French (1898-1916) as the summer house of French Governor Paul Doumer, who later became a president of France. The building was called Villa Blanche, Blanche being his favorite daughter, and it’s known locally as Bach Dinh, the White Palace.

Epic views demand epic panorama shots. I feel warmer already.

Villa Blanche is located on the slop of Big Mountain. The outside walls were decorated with beading and Hellenic statues. This was also the location where the French colonialists placed Thanh Thai Kin under house arrest. He belonged to the last feudalistic dynasty in Vietnam and fought against the French before being exiled to Reunion Island off the coast of Africa.

EVERYONE SHUT UP AND LOOK AT HOW PRETTY EVERYTHING IS.

From the upper floor there’s a panoramic view of Front Beach.

Today Villa Blanche exhibits hundreds of relics collected from the Cau Islet-Con Dao area (to the south, where I visited earlier in the summer with mom!) and various local shipwrecks that have been recovered in modern times. However, the light is poor inside the house and they’re not very photo-worthy, so let me just show you this picture of an old-timey bomb shelter instead.

Gov Doumer’s mancave. It’s the bomb.

And, Of Course, Banh Khot

So you remember my favorite Southern Vietnamese food, the most fun-to-eat food I’ve found? That post I wrote about rice pancakes and little fried rice cracker things? Well, come to mama, babies.

Why yes, I don’t mind if I do have another plate of eight of these suckers. And no, I’m not even going to pretend that I’m going to share. Get your own plate.

Interestingly, you don’t even have an option to order anything else. Just sit down and wait for someone to place them in front of you.

In Conclusion

Bastien and Remi sum it up succinctly…
Ha ha, Remi, look at how short your hair was. Hope you’re well, Bastien!


“DUDE, THERE’S ENOUGH HERE FOR AT LEAST TWO FULL DAYS AND WE SPENT LESS THAN 40 USD ON THE WHOLE DAMN THING, WE ARE BASICALLY GENIUSES,” is what I believe what we couldn’t stop saying on the bus ride back.

Thanks, Vũng Tàu, and thanks, Bastien and Remi, for a fantastic weekend!

P.S. Back to my regularly scheduled FRIGID WEATHER in Chicago now. Oof.