Vung Tau is the closest coastal town to Ho Chi Minh City. By Lee Starnes
The most famous landmark here is the Christ of Vung Tau, a towering 105-foot-tall structure akin to Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. Arms outstretched, the Jesus figure stands part way up Vung Tau's Small Mountain. All you have to do is make the hike up a generous set of stone stairs, enter the statue, and perch on its shoulders for an incredible view of the ocean.
Nestled in a tangle of trees are several old military garrisons which, it seems, have gone largely untended since the French departed in the mid-20th century. These untended outposts, set up to protect the mouth of the Saigon River from invaders, remain outfitted with cannons and other military equipment. On another hillside, White Villa is a mansion originally built for the French governor, and an interesting look into the domestic life of the colonialists.
Vung Tau is the birthplace of one, much-loved Vietnamese dish, bánh khọt. While the setting isn't much, the home of the local specialty, Bánh Khọt Góc Vú Sữa, still serves this dish to hungry visitors. Bánh khọt are crispy cakes with a plump shrimp in the centre. Roll them up with lettuce and herbs and dunk in fish sauce for a perfect seaside snack.
Vung Tau's beaches are not the most stunning in Vietnam. Beachgoers often opt to stay at resorts in Long Hai, an even sleepier, more local seaside town, or Ho Tram, which is home to a high-end resort casino and Greg Norman-designed golf course.
Depart from Saigon in the morning, either by boat or hydrofoil, and arrive in Vung Tau around mid-morning. Make the trek up to the Christ of Vung Tau for an aerial view of the city before exploring the French garrisons that dot the hillside. When you've had enough, grab lunch at Bánh Khọt Góc Vú Sữa and laze for a while either on Front Beach or in one of the nearby cafes. Pay a visit to White Villa once you've recovered from the midday heat. You can also tuck into a helping of local seafood, time permitting, before heading back to Saigon in the evening.
For a full two-day stay in Vung Tau, tack on a sundowner on your first evening and make the local seafood a must. The following morning, make a trip out to the Vung Tau lighthouse before putting in some quality beach time; for sunbathers, Back Beach is best.
Vung Tau experiences its best weather from November to April, when the dry season staves off heavier rains, though it tends to get hot around the end of April and into May. Just when the heat becomes unbearable, the rains arrive and provide steady, daily downpours from May through October. The coolest weather occurs during December and January.
Currently, most travellers visiting Vung Tau make the trip by bus, with regular, air-conditioned vehicles departing from the southern hub and traveling along a relatively new, motorbike-free expressway, cutting travel time down to about two hours. The only other transportation option is one of the hydrofoils which depart from downtown Ho Chi Minh City and take around an hour and 20 minutes to reach downtown Vung Tau. While you'll have to hop on a local bus to make it to Long Hai, resorts in Ho Tram routinely offer shuttle service to and from Ho Chi Minh City. As a popular destination for city dwellers, prices in the beach town tend to go up at the weekends.