(No.7, Vol.3, Aug 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The Back Beach (Bãi Sau) in Vung Tau, 2010.
Photo: Le Thang My

My ninety-year old father and younger brother came to Vietnam to visit for just six days. They had requested a trip outside of Ho Chi Minh. Time being of the essence, the easiest place for a quick getaway, I thought, would be Vung Tau. The party consisted of we three, my wife and teenage daughter and a friend and neighbour; six persons in all. I went ahead and booked a night at the beach side Rex Hotel. I worked out a plan of action. In retrospect, it was feasible but a little ambitious. ‘Even the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry,’ wrote Burns. Whilst I could have done better planning, Burns never having been to Vietnam, could not have known this is a place where there is hardly a dull moment. Things can never go wrong here; they merely take on a different course.
We chose to get there by hydrofoil. Not only is it quicker, but the scenery would be much better, I thought, for our visitors and much more interesting than taking the circuitous road route passing through endless drab suburbs and with every chance of being stuck behind trucks for miles on end. I was aware there have been issues of safety and breakdowns with these second-hand Russian vessels, but we experienced comfortable rides. However, going out, the company we had chosen to take us had to cancel and we were transferred to another but with no change in schedule. Something needed to be done with the means of boarding and disembarking. We were made to ‘walk the plank’ which is fine if you are young and sprightly. Dad is nearing ninety and I had to take great care of him. What would have been done with someone in a wheelchair? Presumably the disabled are not catered to in this situation. The shipping companies and the authorities need to ensure that proper metal boarding bridges with hand rails are provided. On the way back, the aisles were blocked with passenger luggage. ‘There seems to be little regard for safety,’ Dad remarked, ‘what happens if we have to get off this boat in a hurry?’
Otherwise, it was a great way to see the swamps and multifarious shipping, from one-man fishing dugouts to huge ocean-going merchant vessels. This was a very memorable river trip for my visitors. Graham, my brother, was amused by a regulations notice which prohibits the carriage on board of dead bodies and remains. Close inspection of the original Vietnamese revealed ‘remains’ means funereal ashes. You have been warned!
We docked at the front beach area. In my opinion, they have their beaches back to front in Vung Tau. The front beach is a squalid affair. It is polluted by all the boats that anchor in the harbour near it and the cloaca of an enormous sewer is certainly off-putting. At high tide, there is hardly any beach at all. The back beach, in contrast, is a lovely long silver strand facing open ocean and stretching for kilometres. My brother walked the half a mile or so to the hotel, mainly through a lovely park with a collection of stone sculptures that included ones of fish and a mother and child. The rest of the party went ahead by taxi to book us all in. The Rex is a good value-I would say three star hotel. The Vietnamese food and service are of high standards. It is a little worn in places, however, it does have one or two quirky points about it. I personally like to swim at night, floating on my back, looking up at the stars.
When I tried to do this shortly after dusk, I was unceremoniously told it closed at six o’clock. When I went for my dip the following morning, there was no life guard and I had to help myself to a towel. There was no concern for safety whatsoever-do they think it is easier to drown after night fall? The other odd thing was when we went to take a glass of wine on our room balcony the telephone rang and we were told to shut the door. ‘Either they have spies or there is a sensor on the door’ thought I. Was the concern about thieves rapelling down to our fourth floor room? More likely perhaps they were worried about us letting in insects and then bothering them for insecticide. Why not simply put a notice on the door?
Anyhow, I had chosen the hotel as much for its location as anything else. I had three objectives for this little escape and the hotel was well placed for all three. It is only a few hundred metres from the cable car station to the top of Big Mountain, which now has an entertainment complex to rival that of the famous Genting Highlands in Malaysia. Then, it is only a short taxi drive to the Temple of the Whale and the new International Armaments Museum (now temporarily closed) on Small Mountain.
After lunch, while the rest of the party rested up, my brother, daughter and I headed off in a taxi for the Temple of the Whale. The driver we hailed was from Hue and was clueless but had the gumption to call headquarters for information and got us there. Over our two days in Vung Tau, we had no taxi driver from Vung Tau and none of them knew the city. They came from Hue, Hanoi, Danang and Soc Trang. I only know one place worse than Vung Tau for taxi driver knowledge and that is New York.
Our visit to The Temple of the Whale was only a partial success. It is housed in a large compound with beautiful paintings of the story of the whale on the walls. The Vietnamese venerate the whale as an incarnation of an emperor. The ‘Save the Whales’ campaign must be proud of Vietnam. Whale meat is one of the few things that the Vietnamese on the whole do not eat. When one got beached and died in Vung Tau, the locals hauled its carcass to this place and built this temple in its honour. Unfortunately, the building in which it is housed was firmly locked and all we could do is photograph the life-size papier mache whale standing in front of it. A temple next door was open and it had a lot of beautiful gilded statues in it. A friendly monk lets us wander around and take pictures.
The following morning, we attempted to visit the fairly recently opened International Armaments Museum (now temporarily closed). The taxi driver, of course, had never heard of it but it was easy to direct him to it, as it is in an obvious location half way up the Small Mountain road. Unfortunately, it was Monday and when we arrived, we found this is the one day of the week on which it is closed. We were, however, able to appreciate the architecture. The magnificent building’s form matches its function. There are turrets and crenallations and the front porch has a dome on which there is a painting making it look like a mini Sistine Chapel. We also caught glimpses of gibbons behind netting-the place doubles as a sanctuary for Vietnamese primates.
Next we took a taxi to the cable car station. We had only a couple of hours, but just enough time to enjoy the ride up and down, as well as the view and a cup of tea at the top and maybe buy a souvenir or two. ‘Can not do that, you must have the package,’ we were told, ‘which is ten dollars per head.’ No doubt if you are comimg for the day that represents great value for the entertainment, but who ever heard of the ‘package’ being the only ticket you can buy?
Not to be defeated, we hired a taxi to take us by road to the top.We started to get our views on the winding mountain road. The taxi driver, of course, being from Soc Trang, had never taken this road before and near the top, it petered out into am impassable pot-holed track. Defeated once again, but at least the taxi escaped undamaged. We retreated a few hundred meteres back down and to our suprise we found a temple in the mountain woods. Given sanctuary was a troupe of macaque monkeys. My father wound down the windows quickly and shut himself firmly in. Two years previously he had been mugged by monkeys at Can Gio and he was not going near simians again! My brother and I did get out to pay a visit, climbing the stairway to photograph the statues representing scenes from the life of the Bhuddha. The monkeys looked on curiously and a couple of monks poked their heads out to shyly greet us.
The trip was a success in that it satisfied my father and brother’s request for a short trip to somewhere interesting outside of Saigon. They now know that there are relaxing places beyond that frenetic city. Personally, I regard Vung Tau as one of Vietnam’s more aesthetic cities and I am glad we did not quite get to see everything we had intended. It gives me a good excuse to return and discover more on a future, less-hurried trip. Vung Tau will always be there for those who need a little escape from life’s stresses, just as the French intended when they started the place as a seaside resort.

By Pip de Rouvray