Vung Tau and Beyond
The following report about Vung tau has been put together from information gathered from a number of trips to this location over the past two years.
Vung Tau is a location which is often missed by visitors to Vietnam due to the fact it is seen as a destination with few points of interest, compared with the rest of the country, apart from the beach. While this at first glance may appear to be so, if you’ve got a couple of days to spare there are a few notable attractions which make the trip across from Ho Chi Minh City well worth the effort.
The locality, and city, of Vung Tau sits at the bottom end of a triangular peninsular formed by the South China Sea, on the Eastern Seaboard, and the wide expanse of the approach to the Saigon River to the South West. Travel from Ho Chi Minh is relatively straight forward and can be done using taxis and busses by road and the relatively more sedate method, the hydrofoil down the Saigon River. The road journey is approximately three hours and prices vary according to budget constraints and comfort requirements. The least expensive method is the sixteen seater bus – a one way trip is around 120k VND (USD 6) – but be warned, the seating is small and cramped and there is regular stops to pick up road side passengers along the way. There is a direct bus, operated by Jet Star Airlines, from the international airport (Than Son Nhat) and the cost is about the same as the sixteen seater bus. Travel time is approximately 3 – 3.5 hours; although the orange bus (Jet Star) seems to be faster as it only makes one stop (a toilet/drinks break) for the duration of the journey. The more comfortable, and less stressful option, is to take the ferry (hydrofoil). Departures to and from Vung Tau are at 2 hourly intervals, beginning at 0800 and finishing at 1600 – this is the last departure time from both ends each day. The jetty in Ho Chi Minh City is in District one and situated on the Saigon River. To get there just tell the taxi driver “Vung Tau Ferry.” During week days a one way ticket is 200K VND (USD 10) and on the weekends it’s 250k VND (USD 12.50). Travel time from jetty to jetty is 1.5 hours.
There are plenty of accommodation choices to suit your comfort requirements and Agoda is as good an option as any for checking what’s available and making a booking. There are two beach areas in Vung Tau; front beach and back beach. The Back Beach area is the quieter of the two and has a long, uninterrupted sandy beach stretching to the northern horizon. If you are a beach lover this is probably the preferred option. However, please keep in mind Vung Tau is a weekend holiday destination for locals travelling over from Ho Chi Minh City. The quiet beach you see from Monday to Friday will be a riot of noise and mayhem on Saturdays and Sundays. There is also the distinct possibility the hotels along back beach will be fully booked on weekends as well. The front beach area is closer to the city/residential locality of Vung Tau and offers a far greater choice in terms of hotels, restaurants and bars than back beach so if you’re a food connoisseur, or a bit of a night owl, this is probably the better option.
The main geographical feature of Vung Tau, and one which is visible from the distance as you make your approach, is the three peaks which form the headland at the tip of the triangular peninsular. The city/residential area of Vung tau nestles in-between, and on the flanks, of the three peaks. The peaks, working back from the tip of the peninsular, are Jesus Statue; old lighthouse and cable car/theme park. The highest of the three is the lighthouse peak which can be accessed all the way to the top by vehicle, offers a panoramic view of the surrounding terrain, and looks out over Jesus Statue peak.
A climb to the top of the Jesus Statue Peak seems to be the most popular sightseeing choice amongst visitors to Vung Tau. When viewed from the road which rounds the peak, the climb to the top looks a short trek. But looks can be deceiving when considering ascents up what appear to be a relatively small hill. After 500 steps I stopped counting; it is considerably more. For those keen to give it a go I would strongly recommend doing it in the late afternoon or on a day when there is thick cloud cover. On days when the sun is blazing down from clear blue skies, you’ll be soaked in perspiration by the time you hit the summit. To break up the long climb to the top there are a number of shaded rest stops where a cold drink can be bought from one of the vendors stands. And it is certainly a welcome respite in the midmorning heat. Once you arrive at the top there is little shade except for that provided by the impressive size of the statue. For those keen to say they made it to the very top, there are the extra few meters up to the viewing platforms on the shoulders of the statue. An internal stairway provides access to the viewing platforms. The round trip, without overextending yourself, should take about 1.5 hours. That will allow enough time for a rest or two on the way up and for banging off those all-important “proof I’ve been there” photos for the folks back home.
The lighthouse peak, the second from the tip of the peninsular, is hardly remarkable apart from the fact there is a sealed road all the way to the top. If you have a vehicle it’s worth a few minutes of your time to make the drive up and get a few panoramic shots in the late afternoon. The third peak is probably the most interesting, if not entertaining, due to the fact there’s a massive amusement park spread across the wide expanse at the top. Access is by way of cable car from a terminal along the sea front road. Having visited a number of locations in Vietnam I’ve come to understand the Vietnamese have a particular fondness for cable cars. In Nha Trang there is a cable car linking the mainland to one of the offshore tourist hotspots. For those concerned about the possibility of seasickness, your worries are put at ease as you sit back and enjoy the view during your one kilometre ride out to the island. In the mountains behind Da Nang there is also a cable car up to a sightseeing area, some 1500 meters above sea level. Compared to both of these, the cable car in Vung tau is a relatively short hop. Roughly ten minutes after boarding you’ll be stepping out to enjoy the view out over the peninsular and surrounding waterways. Beyond the confines of the manicured garden area of the cable car terminus, a whole world of circus like entertainment awaits. The fee for the entry into this amusement area is 120k VND (USD 6 approx.) per person and, depending on your inclination for merry go-rounds, go-karts and paddle boats, may or may not be worth your time and expense. The locals certainly enjoy this type of entertainment and seem to have a standard formula when it comes to developing a tourist attraction; take one scenic location, or natural viewpoint, and turn it into an amusement park. For those who prefer a quieter location, I’d recommend giving it a miss as the crowds of Viet’s who swarm over these types of entertainment parks, particularly on weekends, create a cacophony of noise unmatched by others except perhaps the Chinese. The explanation, according to a local lass I befriended, is the Vietnamese are a curious people and like to enjoy themselves.
The peaks which form the tip of the Vung Tau peninsular when viewed, even at close quarters, seem relatively devoid of human habitation. With thick tropical foliage covering the entirety of the flanks all the way to the summits it would be easy to assume there isn’t much happening below the tree top canopy. But, as I was to discover, this is often not the case as there are a myriad of small tracks and trails, hidden by the swathes of greenery, zig-zagging across and up to small villages, pagodas and historical sites. One such location is the old French fort, and gun emplacement, approximately five kilometres to the west of Vung Tau City. Tucked up under the lush tree growth the site is hidden from view, from the coastal road below, and unless you have a local guide or a detailed map it will be quite difficult to find. I had the good fortune of befriending an expat who knew his way around Vung Tau. But even with a reasonably detailed, hand drawn map of where to go it was still difficult to locate due to the fact there’s no English language signage anywhere. Luckily I had the added bonus of a local lass to assist me this regard. The site is a few hundred meters up behind the fishing village, back along the coastal road from Vung Tau. In amongst the roadside seafood restaurants are a number of small laneways leading off to the base of the peak. After dead ending on the first two I drove up, I eventually got on the correct trail after my erstwhile tour guide spent a couple of minutes confirming directions with some local lads at a roadside cafe. The small laneway zigzagged its way up the side of the hill and a few minutes later I was pulling into the sites dedicated parking area on my motorbike. A neat stone and cement construction led away at right angles from the laneway and in the distance I could see large calibre cannons in raised gun emplacements. Back across the road was a small ma and pa shop selling cold drinks so I decided to grab a bottle of water before working my way through the gun battery. In the brief time making my purchase I decided to try and get some additional info about the site.
Through the use of my lovely assistant I was able to ascertain the following from the info provided by an oldish gentleman lounging around in the shade of the lean to. Apparently the fort, with its gun batteries, was built by Vietnam’s past colonial masters – the French – in 1937; in the lead-up to world war two. He had no knowledge if any of the guns had fired a shot but said the site, up until just a few years previously, had been largely neglected after 1945. It is now, by all appearances, well maintained. The brick work is in good repair, the cannons look free of corrosion and the gun emplacements are clear of any encroaching tree growth. There are actually two batteries, of four guns in each, which are situated at approximately a sixty degree angle to each other to take into account the curve of the coastline. When it was built the French no doubt perceived the Japanese as a potential threat. While history proved this a correct assumption there is little to show in Vietnam’s accounting of its history of conflict that a war was fought against the Japanese, more than seventy years ago. Most of the accounting is reserved for the French and the Americans. My thirty year old tour guide seemed completely ignorant of the fact her country was once in conflict with the Japanese. The little French fort with its gun batteries are a small reminder that her nations bloody past is not just about the French and the Americans.
As one travels about Vietnam it’s hard not to notice the locals reverence, and affection, for their preferred religion; Buddhism. There are Pagodas and temples scattered all across the country from the suburban setting http://www.megaworldasia.com/day-trips/vietnam/the-suburban-pagodas-of-saigon/ to some of the remotest and seemingly inaccessible locations; such as the end of a jungle encroached trail at the top of a hill. They vary in size from a small, one monk operation to the large, grandiose tourist type attraction.
Two other temples well worth taking some time to have a look at are in the Minh Dam area approximately 30 kilometres to the north of Vung Tau City. The first, and the nearest to the coast, is Linh Quang Tinh Xa Pagoda. It’s easily accessible by road and is a complex of small, beautifully ornate temples and Buddha statues in an idyllic setting on the hills overlooking the ocean. Aside from the beautifully presented main temple an interesting feature is the Bonsai gardens spread amongst the multiple levels of terraces and buildings. To be honest I have very little knowledge of the processes which go into creating Bonsai. According to a friend, who is an expat residing in Vung Tau; many of the Bonsai at the Linh Quang Tinh Xa Pagoda have at least fifty years of growth. Apparently a lot of care goes into creating what appear to be stunted little shrubs but on closer inspection reveal themselves as perfect miniatures of real trees.
Another interesting feature is the two life like mannequins in glass cases which sit in one of the smaller outer temple buildings. My mate from Vung Tau was desperately trying to convince me they were actual perfectly preserved humans but, having observed real mummified bodies on a past occasion in Thailand http://www.megaworldasia.com/dark-tales/tales-of-caves-deceased-monks-and-serpents/ , I was eventually able to convince him the two at this pagoda were just artificial. The main temple building is probably the most impressive offering of a visit to Linh Quang Tinh Xa Pagoda. Aside from the fact it provides a cool respite from the high day time temperatures it has a simple but beautiful interior which, when stepping inside, immediately offers a feeling of peace and tranquillity.
This pagoda, without a bit of local knowledge, is probably a hard one to locate and for that reason I would class it as being off the beaten track. The fact there were no other foreigners there, except myself and my mate from Vung Tau, during the time I visited certainly says as much. If you have a fondness for temples or things with a Buddhist touch then I would highly recommend a visit to the Linh Quang Tinh Pagoda. The only negative of my visit was the silly scam one of the temple helpers tried to effect on me and Nick, my friend from Vung Tau. I’ve seen a similar scam in operation in Thailand, the idea that by releasing a small bird from its cage you will receive merit at some point later on in your life because you’ve given the bird its freedom. All well and good except the bird (small swallows) doesn’t get set free because it’s drugged and only fly’s a short distance from the release point before being picked up and recaged for its next release by the unscrupulous scam artist.
Instead of swallows the set the bird free and receive future merit scam at the Linh Quang Tinh Xa Pagoda was being done with a pheasant. The “special price” for freeing the pheasant was forty USD. Except the poor bird would never be free after being released because a closer inspection revealed both its wings had been clipped. Those duped into thinking they were doing a good turn will be disappointed to see the pheasant flutter a few meters away before being captured again for the next round of this merit making scam. And it is a scam because the bird can never know true freedom again after having its wings clipped. I know these temples need to generate income for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings and grounds but receiving money through a scam such as this is just outright dishonesty and has nothing to do with the true precepts of Buddhism.
Not too far up the road into the surrounding jungle is the second and more secluded of the two; the Pagoda at the Minh Dam historical site. The landscape encompassing this pagoda site is a bit more rugged than Linh Quang Tinh Xa Pagoda due to the fact it’s higher up the peak. And this site also has an interesting history. According to Nick, my mate friend Vung Tau, the original pagoda complex was completely destroyed in a ferocious battle between the Viet Cong and American forces. The geographical area surrounding the pagoda site is a terrain of jumbled granite boulders. Apparently the Viet Cong forces used the natural caverns and tunnels, formed by the lay of the boulders to hide out and shelter from bombing raids and artillery fire. The battle, apparently, ended in a stalemate with the Americans unable to wheedle the VC out of their naturally formed bunkers. In the aftermath of the war, and the cessation of hostilities, American money paid for the rebuilding of the Pagoda.
The new pagoda and the nearby battle site are a few minutes’ walk up a small track leading away from the parking area. The new pagoda is quite resplendent with its beautiful polished heavy timber columns. It also seems to be one which doesn’t attract much attention from visitors; on the afternoon I visited there was no one else there. The battle area and its small war museum are a couple of minutes’ walk further on up the peak. The foundations of the old pagoda are still there to seen in amongst the encroaching jungle. The jumbled granite boulders surrounding the old foundations are riddled with holes from rounds of varying calibre size. One large, upright boulder to the side of the approach trail was completely pockmarked with depressions from bullet and shrapnel impacts. The small museum, off to the side of the old pagoda foundations, is worth a couple of minutes to check out some old black and white photos of the day and war paraphernalia, picked up in the years after the battle. There is also a VC fort/encampment at the top of the peak but, according to Nick it’s a lengthy hike – perhaps an hour each way – from the car park and should be done in the morning. As it was late in the day, we decided to do it an another time.
In conclusion I would say there is actually plenty to see in and around the Vung tau locality but you need to allow time to check it out and it also helps if you’ve got some local knowledge to point you in the right direction.