About a 110km to the southeast of Ho Chi Minh City is Vung Tau, a Vietnamese resort and the centre of the country’s offshore oil industry, but a grubby reputation acquired during Vietnam’s black gold bonanza has dimmed. It’s a busy city with a few poor beaches, an attractive summer palace, a couple of interesting temples and other attractions and not much else. Nevertheless, Vung Tau and its hinterland have enough attractions to make a short visit worthwhile.
Vung Tau is also the place to board a boat, plane or helicopter to visit the remote Con Dao Archipelago, 180km away.
Vung Tau’s history Vung Tau has a long history. It’s believed that Portuguese merchantmen anchored in the deep waters of the bay for shelter and provisioning during the 15th century. In the 16th century, it was used by the Kh’mer kings as a place to water their elephants. The first settlements appeared during the reign of Emperor Gia Long. At that time, Malay bandits and pirates were active in the area region, threatening the nascent trading centre.
Gia Long deployed three garrisons of troops to deal with the problem. In 1822, Emperor Ming Mang rewarded the three commanders who had led the army to victory by assisting them to establish three settlements in the area, which they became known as Tam Thang (Three Wins).
The modern name came later. The geography in the area forms a natural bay where many merchant ships sought shelter, hence Vung (puddle) Tau (ships).
The French began Vung Tau’s role as a seaside resort by building several fine villas to provide comfortable retreats for civil servants and officials Saigon, including the Governor General of Indochina. Later, the last Emperor, Bao Dai, had a holiday palace built not far away – today it’s a luxury resort hotel.
Vung Tau’s attractions These do not include the beaches in the city, all of which are small, grubby and poor for swimming!
The most spectacular item of interest is the ‘giant Jesus’, a 30m high figure along the lines of the statue in Rio de Janeiro. It’s large enough to accommodate six people on each of the viewing platforms on the arms. Niet Ban Tinh Xa is a modern pagoda built ion the side of a hill. Reputedly the largest in Vietnam, it boasts a half-tonne bell and a 12m reclining Buddha.
A late afternoon walk to the lighthouse on the top of Small Mountain will reward you with excellent views.
In the town, the Lang Ca Ong temple is dedicated to the whale. It is one of a number of fishing areas where the little-understood ‘whale cult’ of Vietnam is established. Inside are whale skeletons revered as votive objects, and photographs of the rituals and ceremonies involved in worshipping.
Probably Vung Tau’s best attraction is the former residence of Paul Doumer, the Governor General of Indochina (1897-1902), generally considered to have been the architect of the colonial system in Vietnam. Although the building and gardens are notable in their own right, its main appeal is a selection of the exquisite Ching Dynasty Chinese ceramics salvaged in 1990 the Vung Tau shipwreck off Con Dao Island at the end of the seventeenth century. The bulk of the enormous hoard was auctioned in Amsterdam but the villa contains some splendid pieces, some still encrusted with coral.
Near Vung Tau Twenty kilometres the city is Long Hai town, once a fishing village and now a decent small resort popular with Vietnamese people. During the American war, about seven thousand Australian soldiers were stationed in the area. Many former soldiers, and the families and friends of the 423 servicemen and technicians who died in Vietnam, return to visit the battle grounds and graves.