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As the Saigon River’s tributaries snake their way through mangrove and lowland jungle toward the East Sea, Ho Chi Minh’s nearest beach town peaks through the ocean mist. Vung Tau lies an hour and a half southeast of Vietnam’s largest city and is more commonly visited by domestic tourists than international travelers.
There are a few different ways to reach Vung Tau from Saigon. Most travelers opt for a bus or van and this trip should take around an hour and a half. It’s a relatively smooth and easy affair as the two cities are connected by a major highway. However, for the more adventurous travelers, there is an even better option.
From District 1 in downtown Saigon, a number of different hydrofoils ferry passengers to and from the beach. These high-speed boats should generally complete the journey about a half hour faster than a bus. For many, twisting through mangrove jungle is a far more pleasant experience than roaring down the highway. However, be warned that it’s not entirely uncommon for these boats to break down and travel times to double; so again this is the more adventurous route. Tickets can be bought in Saigon at Bach Dang Pier and shouldn’t be more than 10 USD each way.
As the hydrofoil whips into the East Sea toward Vung Tau, one of the first signs of the city you’ll see will be a large, white statue of Jesus jutting from a coastal jungle mount. After arriving at port, walk toward Phan Chu Trinh street until you reach the stairs at the base of Small Mountain. This lush outcropping is only 200 meters tall, yet offers fantastic views of the city, beaches and sea. Once reaching the summit, pay the nominal fee and climb to the top of the lighthouse.
For some, Vung Tau’s beaches may be a bit of a letdown. They’re not always the cleanest and certainly not to be compared to the beautiful beaches that dot southeast Asia. However, they are the close to Saigon and certainly a refreshing alternative to the concrete chaos. After working up a sweat on Small Mountain, walk away from the port and toward the sea. Back Beach runs for three kilometers on the eastern-facing edge of the city. Umbrellas and beach chairs can be rented for a dollar each and a number of different seaside businesses rent surf and kite boards.
In the afternoon, make your way back towards the port and purchase a ticket on the Doppel Mayer Cable Car for 15USD. After a short ride you’ll be met by some of the nicest views the city has to offer. Look out toward the sea and the statue atop Small Mountain. Have a snack at one of the food stalls and relax with the refreshingly calm and cool sea breeze.
Back down at sea level, it’s time to eat and seafood’s on the menu. Walk or take a cab along the rocky coast until you arrive at Ganh Hoa. This sprawling restaurant hanging over the East Sea may be home to the province’s best seafood. Fill up on oysters and fried squid as the sun sets and the lights of ships waiting to land in Saigon begin to illuminate the horizon.