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!


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


1 p.m.


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.


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.


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; 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.


9 a.m.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


9 a.m.


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.


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.


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; 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; 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; 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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