Friday, June 19, 2009

36 Hours in Vung Tau, Vietnam

After disappearing for a few weeks, I'm back. Well, sort of. I've been buried under various work- and writing-related commitments (i.e., teaching a new class, critiquing people's writing, freelance stuff, etc.), and I'm also trying to rewrite a 300-page novel before the first writing conference I've ever attended begins. I've really wanted to post something to my blog, but I just haven't been able to devote much time to it. I hope people understand!

I do have one piece of good news to share -- the Honolulu Star-Bulletin has told me it wants to publish a food reminiscence that I wrote about Vietnam, though they're not sure when it will fit into their publishing schedue. It's an 800-word essay with photos. Oh, and it includes a Vietnamese recipe one of my friends in Saigon gave me. Whenever it comes out, I'll post a link to it here. And maybe I'll even post the original version of the essay, which is about 1600 words, with a lot more photos thrown in.

What I'm posting now is a travel piece I wrote in the hope that the New York Times would be interested in it for their "36 Hours" series of travel articles. Not surprisingly, I never heard from them about my submission. But rather than let it gather "dust" on my hard drive, I thought I'd put it up here.

I hope to be back in full blogging mode one of these days. Unfortunately, it may not be for a while yet. Thanks for your patience, and I look forward to seeing what my blogging buddies have been cooking and eating recently!

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36 Hours in Vung Tau


Vung Tau Bay at dusk

By hydrofoil, the southern coastal town of Vung Tau is hardly far enough from Ho Chi Minh City for travelers to grab a catnap. Arriving in Vung Tau after the 75-minute journey, the first thing you notice is the wide, curving bay filled with fishing boats so colorful you may wonder if a fleet of tankers carrying oil paints simultaneously ran aground there. Forested mountains hug the long coastline; French colonial mansions dot the foothills. A luxurious marble pathway greets visitors along Front Beach. In the mornings, sidewalks gleam with fresh catches of fish sold to passersby. On the rocks that the early tide has exposed, women scrape away at stubborn, clinging shellfish.

Freshly caught fish piled on a Front Beach sidewalk

Monday

1 p.m.

1) BEGIN AT BAI SAU

Bai Sau is the most popular beach in Vung Tau. If you look closely, you can see Vung Tau's Jesus statue atop the mountain.

Dump your luggage in your hotel room and head straight for some fun in the sun. Among the various beaches within reach of Vung Tau, Back Beach (Bai Sau) is by far the best option. Its wide beaches and sandy dunes stretch down the coast over six miles, and on the weekdays you needn’t go far to have the beach to yourself. Even on weekends, when multitudes of Saigonese descend on Vung Tau, stretches of Back Beach can remain serene and sparsely populated. The ocean here, clean but not azure, is usually calm enough for swimming, and Thuy Van Road, which fronts Back Beach, is dotted with restaurants that specialize in seafood.

5 p.m.

2) FAST TIMES ON FRONT BEACH

Front Beach seen from a distance in the early morning

Front Beach (Bai Truoc) is the most tourist-friendly section of the city, and also the most architecturally eclectic, to put it mildly. The area is built up with local shops, a variety of budget and mid-range hotels, and Vietnamese and international restaurants, bars, and cafes. Every night locals throng the seawall along Tran Phu Street to watch the sunset. Taxis scour Front Beach for tourists, particularly around the ferry terminal, making the area a good base for exploring Vung Tau’s environs. Front Beach itself is quite walkable, however, and from there to Tran Hung Dao Street, which is closer to the heart of the city and bustling with local activity, it only takes about fifteen minutes.

7:30 p.m.

3) DELICIOUS AMBIENCE

Eating under the wave at Ganh Hao

If you’re an exotic food gourmet, you can’t go wrong here. I’ll even go out on a limb to declare that Vung Tau offers some of the very best dining in Vietnam, and Ganh Hao (03 Tran Phu Street; 84-64-550909; www.ganhhao.com) is Vung Tau’s crown jewel of gustation. Ganh Hao easily ranks among the best seafood restaurants in Southeast Asia, both for its menu and its ambience. Luckily for visitors, Ganh Hao’s management hasn’t realized they have a world-class restaurant on their hands, and their menu remains startlingly affordable, even cheap. Their baby oyster spring rolls (cha gio ganh hao), as well as their house seafood salad (goi hai san ganh hao), will leave you swooning, wondering how the jade waters lapping at the restaurant’s seawall could produce anything that delicious.

Tuesday

9 a.m.

4) A LIGHTHOUSE AND A VIEW

Hai Dang Lighthouse

For a structure built nearly 150 years ago, Hai Dang Lighthouse is certainly aging well. (A much needed paint job in 2007 helped.) Rising fifty-nine feet from the top of Small Mountain, its powerful beacon, generated by a rotating Fresnel lens, sweeps out every twelve seconds almost thirty nautical miles. Ask the guards on duty for a quick peek inside and you can explore the lantern and gallery at your leisure. There’s also much to admire in the lighthouse’s cylindrical, rocket-shaped design as well as the panoramic views from its brick-tiled platform.

10 a.m.

5) I THOUGHT I WAS IN VUNG TAU

The Christ of Vung Tau statue. Notice the people peering down from the statue's left shoulder.

Familiar with Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue? Well, Vung Tau has one, too. Standing thirty-two meters high, with outstretched arms that span more than eighteen meters, the Christ of Vung Tau rises prominently from the back of Small Mountain, where it overlooks the South China Sea. Vietnam’s minority Catholic population makes pilgrimages here, but even on non-pilgrimage days it’s a popular destination. The climb to the statue is worth the toil and sweat, but don’t be disappointed when you reach it and see that more climbing – 133 winding, vertiginous steps up an interior staircase – is necessary to stand on the statue’s arms. Sunset is a lovely time to visit, but scores of other people will probably have the same idea.

12 p.m.

6) BUDDHIST INSPIRATION

Reclining Buddha at Thich Ca Phat Dai Pagoda

For an entrée into Theravada Buddhism in Vietnam – not to mention another good workout – make a stop at Thich Ca Phat Dai Pagoda (45 Tran Phu Road) on the north side of Small Mountain. Completed in 1963, Thich Ca Phat Dai has become a site of pilgrimage for its enshrinement of Buddhist relics, including a branch from the bodhi tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. A nineteen-meter high pagoda, white cement statue of Sakyamuni seated on a lotus flower, and a reclining Buddha are also big draws here.

2 p.m.

7) PRACTICE THAT SWING

If your idea of relaxation is swatting golf balls around well-manicured lawns and then chasing after them in motorized buggies, you’re in luck. Paradise Golf Club (1 Thuy Van Street; 84-64-823-366) is one of Vietnam’s higher rated golf courses and has 27 holes to play on. The 18-hole course is a 6830-yard, 72-par challenge, with distractingly beautiful seaside views. If whoever you’re traveling with doesn’t care for golf, Paradise offers plenty of diversions in the form of water sports, tennis, and a restaurant. Weekday green and caddie fees cost $70; add an additional $30 for weekend play.

7 p.m.

8) A FAVORITE FOR FRESH FISH

Seafood salad (goi cat bien) at Cat Bien Restaurant

Forget about your approach shot on the seventeenth hole that landed squarely in the ocean and let yourself refuel at Cat Bien Restaurant (38 Quang Trung Street; 84-64-512-421). Take advantage of Vung Tau’s always fresh seafood and order goi cat bien (a seafood salad with crushed peanuts, fresh herbs and veggies, and spicy fish sauce) or cua ghe nuong rang me (grilled flowercrab in tamarind sauce). This is an old favorite of local Vung Tauans, and tourists in the know smartly show up with hearty appetites. Dinner for two: $7-$10 before drinks.

9 p.m.

9) I’LL DRINK TO THAT

Coffee and complementary jasmine tea at O Cap 1 Cafe

If coffee is your thing, Vietnam will feel like coffee heaven. In Vung Tau, a gratifying number of open-air cafes, some three stories high and peeking through a jungle-like setting, offer an extensive menu of coffee, tea, beer, and wine, as well as views of Front Beach and the boat-filled harbor. O Cap 1 (90 Ha Long Street; 84-64-511-083) is a good choice, particularly when the sky and bay grow dusky and the café’s decorative lights wink on.

Friday

9 a.m.

10) BANH KHOT BREAKFAST

I can almost promise that if you try banh khot it will become an instant breakfast favorite

For those who find themselves on a budget after overspending in Ho Chi Minh City, you have nothing to fret about, especially where your stomach is concerned. One of the most delectable breakfasts you can have in Vung Tau is banh khot, a grilled rice pancake topped with fresh shrimp and chopped scallions, which you dip in fish sauce mixed with slivered green papaya, carrot, and assorted fresh herbs. The place to go is definitely Goc Vu Sua (14 Nguyen Truong To Street). They open at 6 a.m. and don’t close until their last customer leaves.

10 a.m.

11) VILLA FOR A KING

Villa Blanche overlooks Vung Tau and its colorful, curving bay

Call it what you like – Villa Blanche, White Palace, or Bach Dinh – this French colonial mansion and its sprawling grounds are worth the 5000 dong (29 cent) price of admission. Times have certainly changed since 1859, when the site was a military emplacement from which Vietnamese soldiers fired cannon shots at French warships passing through the bay. The French later built Villa Blanche here for the Governor General of Cochin-China. Look for the Hellenic statues on the outer walls of the villa and, beneath the wide terrace, old cannons aimed toward the sea and collecting rich green patinas beneath beautifully gnarled, tropical almond trees.

THE BASICS

Vung Tau easily makes for a doable day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s also a pleasant weekend retreat, with numerous beaches and sightseeing opportunities. Hydrofoils shuttle between Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau every half hour (160,000 dong each way).

Binh An Resort (1 Tran Phu Street; 84-64-510-016; www.binhanvillage.com) feels like a sumptuous European spa, but its true magnificence lies in its classic Vietnamese touches. The spacious grounds burst with bougainvillea and fruit trees, and all eight rooms overlook the ocean. On the resort’s north end, a charming lighthouse rises from a cliff; beneath this, a grotto has been transformed into a beautifully appointed seaside piano lounge. Doubles start at $89 a night.

The elegant piano lounge -- built into a grotto -- at Binh An Resort

Vung Tau’s resort scene has been kicked up a notch with the 2006 opening of the 63-room Ho Tram Beach Resort and Spa (Ho Tram village, Phuoc Thuan ward; 84-64-378-1525; www.hotramresort.com). Golf, clay-court tennis, pool swimming, and tropical spa treatments are just a few of the on-site activities. About 25 miles from Vung Tau, a double here runs $103 a night, including buffet breakfast.

For the historically curious, the Grand Hotel (2 Nguyen Du Street; 84-64-385-6888; www.grand.oscvn.com) is Vung Tau’s oldest hotel. Built by the French, popular with U.S. soldiers during the war, and recently renovated, the Grand Hotel manages to retain its old French charm. Standard doubles in this 80-room hotel go for $60 a night.

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21 comments:

  1. I'm so jealous and so glad to have found this post! Vietnam is one of those 'I must see before I die' places. Looks amazing!

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  2. Congratulations on getting to be published in e Honolulu Star-Bulletin and I hope your 36 hours piece gets accepted to be published - it was a fun and informative read!

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  3. It's so great to be reading your work again! I completely understand your busy schedule - I just finished a 3-week summer course that took me away from blogging and blog-reading. Now I'm playing catch up!

    Congratulations on the Honululu Star-Bulletin piece; I look forward to seeing it when it's published. Too bad the New York Times doesn't know what it let slip away - this is a great "36 Hours" piece. I read the column and too often, they cover the same old, same old. Once again, it's so interesting to see such a different concept of breakfast from what we consider here. But I would gladly have banh khot every morning.

    I think we need to seriously consider Vietnam for a vacation before it shows up on too many radars and becomes as pricey as other SE Asian destinations. Thanks for a fantastic glimpse and virtual tour of Vung Tau! And best of luck with the novel rewrite and have a great time at the writing conference!

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  4. Ruth: Ah, please don’t feel jealous! If I’ve inspired you in some small way to consider visiting Vietnam, I’ll be happy. It’s definitely worth the effort to get there. And when you DO visit, make sure to arrive with a good appetite. :) Thanks for your comment!

    5 Star Foodie: Thank you! But I don’t want to celebrate until I see something in print. As for the NYTimes, I think I’ll have to aim to submit something different for the future…after I’ve become a LOT more established as a writer! As always, thanks for your kindness and encouragement!

    Tangled Noodle: In a way, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who’s fallen behind in reading and posting. But at the same time I was hoping that other people had more time than me and that their blogs were accumulating posts for me to catch up on later. In any case, I’m glad to hear you’ve finished your summer course (I hope it went well!) and are back to blogging. And thanks for the congratulations; I look forward to sharing it! As for the “36 Hours” piece, I didn’t exactly have high hopes that the Times would take it, but I was hoping at least for some small bit of communication from them. The LA Times has made an effort to communicate with me, even in rejecting my work, but maybe that’s unusual. As for the banh khot – I find it strange that I’ve never seen anything like it in the U.S., not even in San Jose or Orange County. I think it would be hugely successful. Anyway, if you guys ever make it to VN, let me know; if I’m lucky, one of these days I’ll find myself living there again and would make a pretty good guide. :) Plus, it’s always nice to have fellow foodies to chow down with! I’ll be checking your site again soon, I promise. Until then, keep enjoying the sun and warm weather you've waited so long and patiently for.

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  5. Welcome back, we missed your lovely post, my friend!!!

    What a lovely read & what an incredible adventure!

    36 hours of eating, reading, tasting, travelling,etc! Lucky you!
    Congrats to you for soon to be published!! Keep us posted!!!

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  6. Woohoo! Congrats on the newspaper piece - how exciting. The photos and write up you included here have me back to feeling antsy, need to jump on a plane and explore.

    Hopefully you'll be able to come up for air soon. Sounds like you just need to take a deep breath.

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  7. Congrats on the great news! I enjoy reading your writing. Your piece made my interest in Vietnam grow even more. We are headed to SE Asia this fall and Vietnam was number one on my list, but then there is the visa issue. Being in Brazil and my husband having a lot of upcoming int'l business travel, we won't be able to get them before this trip so we'll have to save the destination for next time.

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  8. Of course we understand - there's blogging and then there's life that has to go on too!

    As for your piece, seeing the picture of the Vietnamese-style coffee filter brought me right back to my one visit to Vietnam, almost 12 years ago now. I still have one of those filters somewhere in my kitchen!

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  9. Great, great piece! I really enjoyed reading this -- several times!! Good luck on your queries. :)

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  10. vietnam woot woot! :) mmmm vietnamese ice coffeeee...

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  11. I have said it before, but I want to be your valet. Of all the blogs I read, yours is always the most transporting. It's more than great writing (though you are a great writer). It is your ability to make the place or experience the center of the thing. That coupled with "your voice", which almost always makes me feel that I am the narrator and that I am experiencing these things. Kinda like Hemmingway. Seriously. GREG

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  12. Sophie: It’s good to know my posts were missed! :) Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my “36 Hours.” It was great fun being there, and I hope to do it again sometime soon! And thank you, too, for your congratulations! I’ll definitely let you know when it comes out.

    OysterCulture: Thanks for the congrats! And I’m not sure whether to apologize for making you antsy or encourage it – new destinations are always such a joy to explore, and I hope you find a way to get on a plane soon and just go! Hey…isn’t the Tour de France coming up? I think I hear France calling… :) Ah, and yes, it would help if I could manage my time more effectively, but at the moment my priorities have shifted, which is both good and bad. *Taking a deep breath.*

    Lori: Thanks for your congrats, and also for your kind words! I’m eager to hear more about your SE Asia plans. While it’s too bad you won’t be able to visit Vietnam, there’s always another time, like you said. In any case, I’m sure you’ll have a good time wherever you travel in SE Asia. It’s predictable coming from me, but you can’t go wrong with the food!

    Daily Spud: It’s nice to see that people are understanding of my “leave of absence.” I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still a ways off. I’m glad my post brought back nice memories of Vietnamese-style coffee, by the way. It’s interesting to me how often people recall the coffee there. I met someone the other day who told me they were in Vietnam over the millennium. And as soon as they said this they blurted out: “Oh man, I love the coffee over there!”

    The Epicurean’s Market: Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and letting me know you enjoyed it! You read it several times? *Blush* Thanks, too, for the good luck with querying. I need it!

    Trang Le: “Vietnam woot woot!” right back atcha. :)

    Sippity Sup: Greg, if I’m ever in a position to hire a valet, I’ll let you know straightaway. I greatly appreciate the compliments, though you’re far more deserving of them than I am. As for the Hemingway comment – ah, I only wish that it were true! I’d do anything just to write with 1% of his brilliance. In any case, it’s good to feel appreciated, and I thank you for your encouragement!

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  13. I was wondering what rock you were hiding under! :P Looking forward to reading more of your work, Sapuche!

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  14. Well you've been busy but with amazing opportunities! Can't pass that up for anything. Looks like you had an amazing trip. Your life is good. :)

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  15. That is a great post. I am so Jealous. Thanks for sharing it.

    Ian
    www.easycaribbeanshop.com

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  16. Hi Sapuche,
    Long time no see. How are you? Hope you doing fine whatever you are.

    First of all Congratulations on getting published in e Honolulu Star-Bulletin and I hope your 36 hours piece gets accepted to be publish soon.

    I'm so jealous with your Vietnam trip. I so just back from Malaysia after 2 months+ overthere. But nothing fun. Different mission.

    Anyway hope to have more time to read more your great posted.

    Greeting~*
    Tan;)

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  17. Hi Sapuche,

    Congrats on the Honululu Star-Bulletin piece!! I can't wait to read it!! =D

    And...I miss having you around...virtually! =( rif and I were wandering where you were. All the best in getting more amazing opportunities!

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  18. I met my wife in Vung Tau, the first thing she took me to eat was Banh khot, o man those things are yummy, cheap too. Everytime I go back to visite her, I always stop and eat Banh khot.

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  19. There isn't much info online about Vung Tau. Am glad to have found these posts. Made my trips there much for fun. Great way to begin the trip with some concrete information about what to expect in terms of sightseeing. Thanks!

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  20. Hello guy. Cool blog. Could you perhaps tell me where i could buy really good ground coffee beans to take back home? Also, could you recommend a good tattoo parlor?

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