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Front Beach Sand, sea, coffee and nightlife.  Front Beach is the place to go in  Vung Tau for some action…

Expats in Vietnam don’t rank Vung Tau highly on their lists of ‘must-visit’ places. They’re inclined to view it as a slightly run-down beach resort that may appeal to local weekenders from Ho Chi Minh City, but with nothing of note to attract a foreigner. At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, they’re mistaken about that. Vung Tau is a pretty cool place.

Why do I say this? I live there.


And what is it that attracts me about the place, and has kept me here for nearly a decade? In a word — serenity.


Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. The other evening I found myself in a terraced, coffee-bar-cum-cafe on the beachfront (with deckchairs rather than seats), ordered a beer, and lay back to watch the sun set over Vung Tau. The red orb teetered on the horizon for all of 30 seconds, then slid slowly, gracefully, from sight, to leave the sky smeared with orange, purple, violet and pink streaks.


I was the sole customer of this beautifully appointed cafe. With a sea view to die for, tall, shady trees wound with flickering fairy lights, and seating for around 40 customers, it had everything a discerning customer could wish for. Everything, that is, except for other customers. And for someone in search of a little peace and relaxation after a grueling day at the workhouse, that’s just what the doctor ordered.


Away from the Chaos


A Seafood Paradise Thanks to all the fishing in the area,  Vung Tau boasts some of the best seafood in Vietnam


A mere 90-minute drive or hydrofoil ride from Ho Chi Minh City, or a two-hour flight from Hanoi, Vung Tau is worlds away from the crowds, pollution, traffic chaos and frenetic activity of the big cities. The air is clear, the traffic (by Vietnamese standards at least) is sparse, and the pace of life is laid back. A constant sea breeze keeps the city cooler than Saigon, and the rainy season is brief and, on the whole, less intense than other parts of the country.


Surprisingly, very few expats visit Vung Tau. A few families intent on a weekend of lazing on the beach, a handful of Aussie vets revisiting the scene of their war years, half a dozen liquored-up oilies on shore leave, a backpacker or two, but that’s about it.
I partly blame Lonely Planet for this. In their 2005 edition they dismiss the destination with the words: “The beaches here aren’t Vietnam’s best, nor is the water pristine due to pollution from oil drilling. Beachgoers looking for a tropical holiday might do better by making the three-hour trip to Mui Ne beach”. The 2015 edition gives a better review, but only slightly better.


Beauty… in Spades


Bigger than in Rio The early 1970s built statue of Jesus  is 2m taller than its  better known rival in Brazil


Apart from the peace and quiet, what else does Vung Tau have to offer that might attract an expat? Well, for one thing, natural beauty. Vung Tau has it in spades. Back Beach is three kilometres of sand and safe swimming, with around 50 medium-to-high-priced hotels nearby to choose from. Front Beach, where the hydrofoils disgorge their passengers, is more commercial, with ships of all sizes and descriptions anchored in the bay, and towered over by not one but two mountains (hills really, but don’t tell the people hereabouts — they don’t have many mountains to boast of in southern Vietnam). Clinging to the sides of the mountains are a number of glittering Buddhist temples, and standing atop Small Mountain is a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms. Though not as famous as Rio’s, Vung Tau’s Jesus is two metres taller. A cable car makes its way up to the summit of Big Mountain, where there’s a smallish, rather neglected amusement park. Great views, though.


Front beach is where the action is, but don’t get excited by that word ‘action’ — by big-city standards it’s pretty tame. The beach is fringed by a strip of hotels, bars, restaurants and coffee shops, with a sprinkling of discos, karaoke bars and massage parlours.


There’s even a small street of girlie bars a block away. Across the road from the beach, vendors’ carts sell grilled octopus, dried squid, grilled fish, and scallops. The seafood in Vung Tau is second-to-none: fresh, expertly prepared and mouth-watering.


Yes, Vung Tau is the ideal place for a getaway. It’s just that nobody realises it yet. — Don Wills


Don Wills is from New Zealand. He has travelled and written articles all over the world, but mostly in Southeast Asia