Vietnam’s south-central coast used to fly under the tourism radar, and was known only to locals and Russian visitors. But Vung Tau’s terrific seafood, activity-filled beaches, and great views couldn’t be kept hidden from the world for long.
Easy access from Ho Chi Minh City has made Vung Tau an easy weekend escape for Saigon city slickers, but there’s no reason they should have this city and its sights all to themselves. The next time you can spare the two hour-hydrofoil ride from Ho Chi Minh City, visit Vung Tau and see what’s driving the hype.
Surf on Back Beach
The 2-mile-long Bai Sau (Back Beach) is ground zero for water sports in Vung Tau. Thanks to its sandy bottom, steady swells, and forgiving waves, the beach provides a perfect environment for surfing newbies, longboarders, windsurfers, and stand-up paddling enthusiasts.
Swells from three to six feet in size are par for the course on Back Beach, with the best surfing conditions available between July and November (close to Vietnam’s typhoon season). With warm waters all year round, you can dispense with the wetsuit when surfing here. The hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City allows you to transport surfboards from the southern capital; otherwise, you can rent boards at nearby Vung Tau Beach Club.
Feast on Vung Tau’s Seafood
Vung Tau’s seafood scene combines low prices and great taste. You’ll enjoy only the day’s fresh catch when you sit down at one of the city’s classic dining stops. The city’s must-eat treat is banh khot: bite-size savory pancakes garnished with shrimp or squid. It’s available everywhere, but every local swears by Banh Khot Goc Vu Sua.
There’s more to the local food scene than tiny pancakes, though. A few other options for foodies can be found in Vung Tau: Lau Ca Duoi Hoang Minh for Vung Tau’s other specialty, the fragrant stingray hotpot called lau ca duoi; Ganh Hao for a wider selection of cooked-to-order fresh seafood; and Ginger for a five-star Vietnamese feast.
Golf enthusiasts can practice their game in earnest on a world-beating course that leverages Vung Tau’s hilly seaside topography to the fullest. Widely recognized as one of Asia's top golf courses, the Bluffs Ho Tram Strip was designed by Greg Norman, who used the lay of the land to create a natural-looking links-style course. The scenery is as integral to the game as the terrain: golfers play through a course flanked by the South China Sea and the Binh Chau-Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve. Players enjoy the best views at the long par-3 15th green at the Bluffs’ highest point, some 165 feet above sea level.
Cross the Sea to Hon Ba Island
Off the southern tip of Back Beach, Hon Ba Island looks completely inaccessible except by boat. But in the middle of the lunar month, a miracle occurs: the sea recedes enough during low tide for devotees to walk to Hon Ba on foot!
On the island you'll find a small temple, built in 1881 to worship Thuy Long Than Nu, the “water dragon goddess” who influences fishermen’s fortunes. Locals often visit to pray for a good catch.
Go People-Watching at Front Beach Park
Vung Tau’s Bai Truoc (Front Beach) benefits from a three-hectare park; located between the sand and Quang Trung Street, it's where locals go to relax and socialize. A set of 41 sculptures in the park evokes the connection between Vung Tau and the sea, while bicycles can be rented around the park premises. Wait 'til sunset and watch the sun paint the sky red from your Front Beach Park vantage point.
Visit a Colonial-Era “White Palace”
This mansion’s name and purpose has shifted over time. Built at the cusp of the 20th century for French Governor-General Paul Doumer, “Villa Blanche” was intended as a summer vacation house, but later served as a temporary jail for Vietnamese freedom fighter Thanh Thai.
Now called Bach Dinh (“White Palace” in Vietnamese), today it houses a museum of Chinese ceramics and other artifacts rescued from nearby shipwrecks. Linger afterwards for the view; the mansion stands on the side of a hill, some 88 feet above sea level. Walk around Bach Dinh’s lush gardens to enjoy scenic panoramas of the sea and Front Beach below.
Hike Up to the Christ of Vung Tau
French missionary efforts helped Catholicism retain a solid foothold in Vung Tau. To advertise their faith, local Catholics built a massive statue of Jesus Christ, the second-largest in Asia (exceeded only by the Jesus icon on Buntu Burake, Toraja, Indonesia). The statue towers 105 feet over Nui Nho (Small Mountain). Inside, a 129-step staircase ascends to a viewing deck at neck-level, with balconies on either shoulder for up to six people.
The hike from Ha Long Street to the statue involves climbing an 847-step ascent, which can be completed in 30 minutes. A strictly modest dress code is enforced for entry, and shoes must be removed before climbing the statue.
Admire the View From the Vung Tau Lighthouse
With a base that's 500-plus feet above sea level, the Vung Tau Lighthouse is another Small Mountain climb that’s worth the effort. The lighthouse was built to its present height of 60 feet in 1911, making it one of Vietnam’s oldest lighthouses.
A well-paved road gently ascends to the lighthouse; in cooler months, the walk to the top can be pleasant, with crisp winds complementing the unfolding views of the sea and cityscape. Admire the vistas from the platform, or ascend 55 steps up to the tower’s top for the ultimate view.
Pro tip: Many tourists pair a lighthouse visit with a snack stop at Yaourt Co Tien, renowned for its runny eggs and fresh yogurt.
Cosplay Ancient Battles at the Worldwide Arms Museum
After his retirement, British expat Robert Taylor turned his considerable weapons collection into a museum for worldwide arms. Housed in a colonial-era villa in Vung Tau’s Ward 1, the Museum of Ancient Weapons contains about 2,500 authentic artifacts from numerous wars across the globe, across time. Altogether, the collection forms the basis of the largest private weapons museum in Asia. (This museum makes little reference to the Vietnam War; visit the museums in Ho Chi Minh City to fill in the blanks.)
If the detailed signage next to each display doesn’t cut it for you, Mr. Taylor himself is often present to talk about his collection. Guests can even have their pictures taken dressed in military uniforms.
Explore Vung Tau’s Lesser-Known Beaches
Some of Vietnam’s best beaches are located around Vung Tau, but not usually where you’d expect them to be. Back Beach and Front Beach may be extremely accessible from the city center, but these beaches might be too unkempt for tourists’ comfort. Drive north to see some really pristine stretches of sand, like Ho Tram and Ho Coc. While five-star resorts are sprouting up along both beaches, you’ll also find beachside campgrounds for that roughing-it vibe.
There’s a lot to do and see around these parts, too. High-rollers can gamble at the Grand Ho Tram Strip, while budget tourists can rest their tired joints at the Binh Chau Hot Springs near Ho Coc.
Visit “Mr. Whale” at the Thang Tam Temple
Vietnamese fishermen honor the whale (called “Ca Ong,” or “Mr. Whale”) thanks to the belief that whales often rescue men whose boats have capsized. The folk belief lives on at the Thang Tam Temple, where whales are worshiped by devotees.
The Thang Tam temple complex holds an altar to three co-founders of Vung Tau in its central building. But the main focus of Ca Ong worship—a set of century-old whale bones in a place of honor—can be found in a side building.
Ca Ong devotion reaches its peak during the Nghinh Ong Festival and immediately after the Mid-Autumn Festival; the latter is centered around Thang Tam Temple.
The Ho May Culture & Ecotourism Park was built around the Ho May Lake at an elevation of approximately 700 feet above sea level. The slightly cooler climate and natural vibe make Ho May an excellent setting for a kitschy yet fun-filled day out. If you’re not into bumper cars and roller coasters, check out the largest statue of Buddha in the province, explore remnants of military structures left over by foreign invaders, walk through artificial forests planted around the lake, or watch the spectacular Ho May Grand Show from a 5,000-seat auditorium.
Ho May is accessible by a cable car from sea level—the scenic view alone is worth the price of admission!
Unwind at the Binh Chau Hot Springs
If you have a full day to spare, spend it relaxing in the toasty waters of the Binh Chau Hot Springs, 40-odd miles from Vung Tau and a short drive from Ho Coc Beach. The complex is 35 hectares in size, offering plenty to see and do.
A geothermal spring heats Binh Chau’s large outdoor pool to about 98.6 F (37 C); locals believe its hot, mineral-rich water improves internal health. Later, boil eggs in Binh Chau’s hottest spring, which reaches temperatures of up to 180 F (82 C). Play tennis at the courts, or practice your golf swing at the driving range. You can even feed crocodiles if you so desire.
Plan to stay overnight at one of the local homestays or resorts; there are some surprisingly cushy choices available. Avoid visiting during the weekend rush.
Official Website Vietnam Tourism. "Whale Festival." Retrieved December 30, 2020.