Beyond the oil rigs and tourist traps, there’s another side of Vung Tau worth exploring

Vung Tau is a place I’d brushed over in the past and mentally scratched off the list. So when asked to return and give it another try, mid monsoon, I take it as a chance to dig a little deeper and see what the city has to offer beyond a long strip of beach and a giant hollow Jesus. And as it turns out: quite the bag of little delights, for those willing to go the extra mile.

For the unfamiliar, Vung Tau, somewhat like Italy (albeit on a much smaller scale) juts out into the ocean like a strangely shaped boot. At the foot of this boot lie two mountains, Little Mountain (at the heel), and Big Mountain (at the toes). It’s a two-hour or so drive from downtown Saigon, with the newly built Long Thanh expressway slicing a good hour off the old time. Or, alternatively, there is the refurbished hydrofoil service departing daily from Bach Dang pier in District 1.

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I pack my camera and some books into my trusty satchel and head out of the big smoke (Saigon) to the beach. The minivan drops us off on the main beach strip and we waste no time in acquiring some wheels, renting a scooter from a hotel in town and zipping out to explore the peninsula’s lesser-known sights.

Beyond the hotel-lined beachfront and seaside restaurant strips the forested hills of Vung Tau are honeycombed with gorgeous little roads that snake their way across the promontory hills, leading to old fortifications, shrines, grottos, and a lighthouse. The French put a battery atop each of Vung Tau’s mountains, and the cannons are still there today, pointed out to sea. Some of these roads, however, are military, as we unwittingly discover, following one into the back door of a small military base with squat French built bunkers cut into the face of the face. Only as I’m about to dismount for a photo opportunity do I realize my error, quickly backing out and away before alerting any personnel to our unwanted presence.

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Getting our bearings back, we head out for the lighthouse on Little Mountain for some winning views over sea and city. While nothing remarkable, it’s a curious edifice, a stubby cylinder on the mountain top with the odd spectacle of birdsong recordings playing out of loudspeakers at an amplified volume in the effort to attract the real thing. Go figure. The views afforded from this vantage point over the long finger of coastline and brightly-colored houses of the town nestled below make it well worth the effort. Also of note are the old French fortifications and an overgrown bunker, just down a set of steps from the lighthouse and its viewing platform. The hilly topography at the tip of Vung Tau’s peninsula is teeming with such relics and they make for an intriguing addition to the city’s attractions.

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Years back I’d road tripped out to Vung Tau with some friends. We’d found the trail that winds its way across the top of Big Mountain and followed it to a bombed out radar installation, a relic from the war. But where once stood only weeds and twisted steel, a kitsch waterpark has sprung up. Mo May, or Sky Park, which also includes on its premises a zoo, a zip line and a rollercoaster, comes complete with its own cable car to ferry up holidaymakers from Tran Phu Street below. Needless to say, things change fast, awfully fast, in Vietnam. Even in little Vung Tau.

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See Food

Another neglected gem offering scenic views is Doi Con Heo, or Pig Hill. Located on a rocky outcrop above the shell of an abandoned hotel project, this secluded little spot overlooks Hon Ba Island and offers beautiful photo opportunities. We reach it by small lane which winds its way up, passing by clucking chooks and curious children with monk-styled hairdos. Perched right above the city, the hill’s barren rockiness makes it feel like a world away from the bustle below, and an ideal camping spot for the more adventurous.

Hon Ba Island is perhaps the most curious sight in Vung Tau. This mysterious little outcrop of land (technically an islet) is linked by a natural land bridge to the coast, accessible only when the tide is low enough to reveal it, which is about once a month. The temple crowning the islet’s tip was built back in the 18th century to appease the goddess of the sea and bring good fortune to the fishermen. It was also a French fort for some time, the remnants of which can still be seen. When the tide goes out long lines of pilgrims clamber their way over the sharp rocks and oysters to pay their respects.

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Other than being a weekend playground and easy-to-reach beach getaway from the big smoke, Vung Tau has much to offer the budding foodie also. Our appetites kick in and we go in search of the local specialty, banh khot, a grilled rice pancake topped with shrimp, squid and chopped scallions. We find ourselves on Hoang Hoa Tham Street, somewhat of a central hotspot for the dish with no shortage of offerings to choose from, just as another squall moves in over the city. The Western food offerings in Vung Tau are equally as delightful, owing in no small measure to its thriving expat community, with highlights such as the popular David Pizzeria and stellar Bistro 9 worth making the trip for alone.

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We venture on to the very tip of the peninsula, Mui Nghinh Phong, Cape of the Greeting Wind, and wander up to the top of its little hill. Looking back, a small cove is revealed, tucked away in the fold of the cape; a hidden beach, devoid of the tourist traffic, and a pleasant surprise. A little stairway leads down to the beach. An abandoned restaurant hangs above and adds an eerie, forgotten atmosphere to the place. There is a small yellow shrine to the ocean nestled in amongst the rocks. I watch its keeper lighting sticks of incense before stripping down to his jocks and wading into the surf for his afternoon swim. A local woman collects limpets and oysters with her pants rolled up to her knees. A swimming monk and a smiling lady move about the rocks—these are timeless images. It’s a magical little spot, with the sun getting low on the horizon, and one that I hope remains that way, a sanctuary from the feverish rate of development.

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IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN