Escape to Vung Tau

by Lou Dematteis / Sarah Tilton, Aug 1, 1995 | Destinations: Vietnam / Vung Tau

Vung Tau, once a quiet seaside resort known as Cap Saint Jacques, is changing. Formerly a getaway for French colonialists and later for Australian and US servicemen, the town is now a major tourist development and a hot spot in the rush to explore the South China Sea's oil resources.

A city of 650,000 people, including 2,500 expatriates, Vung Tau is marked by cafes, bath houses, hotels galore, hostess bars, karaoke lounges, beach-side kiosks and oil rigs. Gone are many of the Russian workers (Vung Tau is the headquarters for VietSovPetro, the Soviet-Vietnamese joint-venture oil company), replaced by land developers and European, American and Japanese oil men. Many of the villas built by the French and the wealthy Saigonese have been made into guest houses to accommodate the influx.

But the wildcatters aside, Vung Tau is still a popular escape for Vietnamese and foreign tourists. If you are in Ho Chi Minh City and looking for a weekend excursion or just a short trip to the beach, Vung Tau is the answer. Located 128 kilometers southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, it's an easy two or three hour drive to the Vung Tau Peninsula along National Highway 51, a decent road with pleasant though unremarkable scenery including rubber trees and an old US army base.

The city offers scuba-diving, snorkeling and golf. Or travelers can rent a beach chair and sit back and watch the local fisherman bring in prawns, shrimp, mackerel and cuttle-fish. Vung Tau's beaches are not the most beautiful in Vietnam, but they are easily accessible. Front Beach (Bai Truoc) is near the city center while the larger Back Beach (Bai Sau) is just outside town. Back Beach features eight kilometers of cafes, bungalows, rocky sand and hot sun. Nearby is the more relaxing beach at Bai Dau which lies in the shadow of Large Mountain.

When you have had enough of the sun, sand and surf, there are over a hundred pagodas and temples to visit and mountains with trails for cycling and hiking. The Vung Tau Peninsula shoots out into the South China Sea near the mouth of the Saigon River and is marked by Large Mountain (Nui Lon) to the north and Small Mountain (Nui Nho) to the south. On the side of Small Mountain is one of Vietnam's largest Buddhist temples, Niet Ban Tinh Xa. There is also a lighthouse on top of Small Mountain with a magnificent view of the entire peninsula.

While Vung Tau has a long history as a fishing, shipping and tourism center, it is the oil business that now fuels the area's expansion. Vietnam's three major producing oil fields are in the area. To boost the travel industry, the city's roads are being upgraded and the airport and port facilities improved. Fifty new hotels, a race track and a marina with 250 floating homes are also being planned as Vung Tau gets ready for a busy future.

See photos of Vung Tau in A Portrait of Viet Nam by Lou Dematteis.