Vung Tau and Con Lon

by Steven K. Bailey, Nov 1, 1998 | Destinations: Vietnam / Vung Tau

Review of The Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau: A Guidebook to Saigon's Beach Resort

If you spend any time in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), odds are good that you'll eventually make a day trip out to the beach resort of Vung Tau for a break from the Mekong Delta heat. You'll be joined by hundreds of foreign travelers and thousands of Vietnamese tourists for Vung Tau has long been a popular weekend get-away spot for overheated Saigonese. When you make your visit, why not bring along The Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau for beach reading. This slender little guidebook will tell you all there is to know about Vung Tau and the nearby Con Dao Archipelago.

I confess that I was initially put off by the book's unfortunate subtitle. It seemed to me that it was one of the least promising subtitles ever written for a tourist guidebook: Vietnam's Oil Industry...Sun, Sea, Sky...The Former Prison Island of Poulo Condor. This conjured up visions of oil-slicked beaches and penal colonies and did not exactly encourage me to visit Vung Tau, the erstwhile point of the book. Fortunately, I kept reading and found that the rest of the book did in fact make me want to visit Vung Tau and the Con Dao Archipelago, proving the old adage that a reader should not judge a book by its cover.

I found the subtitle less puzzling when measured against the three goals of the book as stated in the preface: to give a factual overview of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province and the Con Dao Archipelago, to serve as a tourist guidebook and to pinpoint the area's economic potential for foreign businesspeople seeking investment opportunities. These are worthy goals and the book achieves them admirably.

The Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau is the second guidebook in a new "Scenes of Vietnam" series from the prolific The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi, the first being a book about Halong Bay. Written by Tran Trung Chinh with help from Huu Ngoc, the book totals about 115 pages. It's a standard paperback product with newsprint pages supplemented by a section of glossy color photos. Whether by accident or design, the book remains the perfect size and weight for a guidebook. The book easily fits in a roomy pocket, is flexible enough to withstand bending or folding and weighs virtually nothing. If you overheat while touring Vung Tau, it will even serve as an emergency hand-fan.

The book does contain one interesting departure from the usual The Gioi format. Unlike any other of their books that I've read--and I've certainly read my share, The Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau contains advertisements. Doi moi and the capitalist instinct have evidently reached the Hanoi offices of The Gioi at last. Tacked onto the color photo section is a series of glossy ads for Vung Tau hotels that include the Grand Hotel, Far-East Pearl Hotel, and the intriguing Hotel Bosom-Friend. In somewhat eccentric English, all claim the standard list of amenities plus steambaths and massages.

Part One provides background information and history of the province and archipelago, while Part Two remains devoted to describing Vung Tau itself. Sometimes referred to by its colonial name of Cap Saint Jacques, Vung Tau lies about 78 miles (125 kilometers) from Ho Chi Minh City and is accessible via Highway 51 or hydrofoil service down the Saigon River. Though Vung Tau served as Saigon's customs port for many centuries, it was the French who established it as a beach resort around 1890. American and Australian GIs enjoyed R&R at Vung Tau during the war years and today the city caters to both foreign and domestic tourists seeking salt air, seafood and just a dash of sin.

Most tourists come to Vung Tau for the sunbathing and swimming and this book obligingly provides detailed descriptions of the area's beaches. There's certainly no shortage of sand, because Vung Tau occupies a peninsula that is technically an island, with the South China Sea on three sides and a tidal river on the fourth. The appeal of these beaches isn't pristine beauty--you'll have to head further up the coast for such beaches--but the fact they lie within day-tripping distance of Ho Chi Minh City. As might be expected, given the offshore oil drilling, oil slicks sometimes taint these beaches, as does raw sewage. Though this positive-spin book neglects to mention the pollution hazard, it does warn against treacherous tidal whirlpools at the popular Back Beach (Thuy Van Beach). Swimmers beware.

Beaches aside, the book will also provide you with a list of local points of interest. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 92-foot (28-meter) high statue of Jesus Christ. This statue towers atop the hill of Nui Nho in a scene reminiscent of Rio De Janeiro or even the Statue of Liberty, as visitors can climb the 129 steps inside the giant Jesus and emerge on his shoulders for panoramic photo opportunities. Other sights include the Lang Co Ong temple that holds the revered skeletons of two giant whales. You can also visit the former mansion of the French Governor General of Indochina, and the Long Ban Pagoda that features statues of the Ten Kings of Hell (the French Governor General, who founded the Poulo Condor prison, ought to be added as King #11).

Part Three concentrates on the Con Dao Archipelago, a cluster of 14 islands some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Vung Tau. Though close by, the Con Dao Archipelago remains its mirror opposite. Vung Tau is popular, well known and increasingly sophisticated. In contrast, the Con Dao islands are virtually unknown, sparsely populated, seldom visited and about as far from the center of things as a traveler can get in Vietnam. And unlike Vung Tau, long known as a place of rest and relaxation, Con Dao has been a name associated with terror, exile, torture and death at the infamous Con Lon prison.

Once known as Poulo Condor and long considered a Southeast Asian Devil's Island, Con Lon remains the largest island in the archipelago at eight square miles (20 square kilometers). In 1862 the French Governor General established the Con Lon prison. From then until 1975 the French colonial administration and later the South Vietnamese government held political prisoners in horrific conditions, often in tiny underground boxes known as tiger cages. Today a museum tells the prisoners' stories, and the Hang Duong cemetery holds the remains of the many prisoners killed by their jailers. The prison is no longer in service and the island is now attempting to reincarnate itself as a tourist mecca. At the moment this beach resort remains somewhat undeveloped, but this may appeal to travelers seeking an idyllic, if rustic, tropical island.

Part Four examines the area's economic potential, which remains closely linked to the dynamo of Ho Chi Minh City. Economic assets range from oil to fishing, and the book lists an impressive array of capital projects planned for the province that range from water-treatment plants to four-star hotels. The Gioi authors are always enamored of statistics and in this section they list data with a vengeance. Here you can learn that the province docks 2,212 fishing boats producing a total of 71,936 horsepower and that this leads to the annual production of six million liters of nuoc mam fish sauce. About 30,000 water buffalo plow 10,000 hectares of rice paddy; passengers travel on 657 buses. Armed with such details, a venture capitalist could no doubt become a dong millionaire in no time.

A number of excellent guidebooks cover Vung Tau and the Con Dao islands, from Lonely Planet's Vietnam: A Travel Survival Kit to Barbara Cohen's The Vietnam Guidebook. These are all penned by western authors with western perspectives, however. To get a counter-balancing view, I suggest reading a guidebook written by a Vietnamese author. This is what I liked so much about The Province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau: it provided a Vietnamese perspective and through this I learned a great deal about Vung Tau and the Con Dao Archipelago. I've already added both to the itinerary of my next trip to Vietnam.

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