Cảm O’n Vung Tau

Emboldened by the lack of illness from the Ca Phe Den with ice that I had for breakfast yesterday, and despite the constant drizzle of rain today, I head back to Bistro 9 to try the Ca Pha Sua Da – Vietnamese coffee with milk (and ice) and am rewarded with yet another delicious cup of wake-me-up.

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Watching the construction work take place at the Rex Hotel across the road, I sit in stunned contemplation.  Safety is certainly not a priority here as the helmetless foreman, cigarette in hand, leans over a window opening (no safety harness) to direct a truck that is back up below.  Another helmetless worker dumps wheelbarrows full of concrete rubble over a similar window opening (again no harness) into the truck, three stories below, rubble and dust freefalling down the front of the construction.

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Back home, that job would have been stopped – or rather, it wouldn’t have even started when the workers rocked up sans safety boots.  A harness carrying sacks of cemet is pulled up to another window, swaying madly and on an angle.

The rain seems to have settled in, and with nothing much more I want to do out in the heat, I people watch from my hotel window, watching people go about their Monday morning.

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I bid farewell to Moon and Uncle G at the dock, having had a really nice time, and board the ancient Russian ferry back to Saigon.

My next hotel is a cute little place called Townhouse 50, not far from the Ben Thahn Markets, which I have no intention of visiting.  My last trip here consisted of a t-shirt and knickers hunt after my luggaged failed to arrive in Vietnam at the same time as I did, so I consider my trip to the markets done.

What I didn’t get to see was the War Remnants Museum and that is particularly what I wanted to visit this time around.  There’s plenty of time to do that this afternoon, so I take  a deep breath and head out onto the crazy streets of Saigon.  Its quite the journey trying to find my way amongst the maze of streets, dodging scooters that have decided to ride on the footpath and trying not to stack it on broken, upended bits of concrete, but I finally make it.

Four floors of exhibitions relating to what the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”, and all of them packed with tourists.  Tourists going the wrong way around the exhibition, tourists standing in front of exhibits for way too long while bigger and bigger groups of tourists cluster around them…I should have known better.  Normally, I would grin and bear it but for some reason today, it is really grating on me.  I just can’t make the most of my time here and I’m annoyed (in hindsight, I should have returned early one morning before everyone else like I normally do instead of braving the afternoon session).

So I return to the hotel area instead and make it in time for happy hour at the MZ Wine Restaurant.  I’ll start exploring tomorrow.

A Reason for Cold Showers

How was your bath? you ask.

COLD.  It was cold.  I turned on the taps, popped in some bubble bath, cracked myself a cold drink and was all ready to get in the bath when my toe realised that this was not the haven of relaxation I was after.  Oh dear, the bath will have to wait.  Luckily, it’s so freakin hot in Vung Tau that a cold shower doesn’t really matter.

I’ve got one last day of exploring in Vung Tau because tomorrow I head back to Ho Chi Minh.

For breakfast I’ve had enough of eggs, which is basically what I’ve been living off for breakfast and dinner the last couple of days.  I’m so sick of eggs.  So sick of them in fact, that I throw my freshly cooked ones into the bin and head to the streets in search of a ‘real breakfast’.  Bistro 9 comes to my rescue.  With an omelette.

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It’s a really good omelette though.  Throwing caution to the wind, I also order a Ca Phe Den – black Vietnamese coffee.  With Ice.  Yes, I know, don’t drink anything with ice in it.  But you know what, it feels ok here and let’s face it, the hotel is just around the corner if I need to spend the rest of the day there.  And besides, it’s delicious.

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This morning Uncle G is taking me to the Worldwide Arms Museum.  Robert Taylor managed to amass an enormous collection of uniforms, models and weapons from across all wars and all 52 years worth of collecting are now on display here.  Entry is 100,000 dong and the museum is set in a beautiful colonial building.  An army of handsome male models proudly display war time uniforms of different countries and eras, adorned with massive furry hats, pompoms and pouffs, heavy wollen coats and skirts – all of which would be heatstroke-inducing in this climate.

There are rare firearms, photos and other memorabilia all housed here – quite an amazing collection.

After leaving Uncle G at his apartment, I decide to head out and make the most of my last afternoon in Vung Tau.  Despite the oppressive humidity (thank goodness for the cold shower in my room, huh), I stroll down the waterfront in search of Bach Dinh, Villa Blanch or the  White Villa as it is known and depending on who you are talking to.

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Bach Dinh is a colonial era mansion overlooking the South China Sea and it was built as a retreat for French Governor General Paul Doumer on the site of a former Nguyen Dynasty Fortress.  Doumer was an important force in the major expansion of infrastructure in the capital, most notably the bridge across the Red River and he went on to become French President until his assassination in 1931.

The house displays a collection of China recovered from a ship that sank off the coast, but the actual house itself sits in a state of neglect, which is a shame.  Though, for 5,000 dong, it is still worth a visit – even if just for a whisper of breeze from above the ocean.  The views from the massive windows are fantastic

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Tonight is buffet night at the Red Parrot.  That also means 2-for-1 drinks.  Woo hoo – Jack Daniels coming right up!  The buffet is a Western style and is pretty good.  The venue is cool too, decorated with flags and a host of memorabilia.

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It’s been nice to spend time with Uncle G and I’m so glad that I gave Vung Tau a good few days to feel the vibe and explore without rushed timelines and enjoy chilling out and dining on magnificent seafood, rather than just a night or two.  It’s not something I usually do but something that I seem to be gravitating towards more and more – simple things and relaxed time.  I still need my days of go, go, go, but relaxing is good too.  I must be getting old.

Day 3 in VT

I have to swap accommodations today due to a ‘booking mishsp’.  Uncle G is furious because, like me, he’s a planner and had this room booked for me well in advance.  I don’t mind so much firstly cause I get to try out another place and secondly because this one has a bath!  Besides, Darby Park is right next door to Sunshine.

But that doesn’t happen til later so the three of us take a 45 minute taxi ride out to Long Son for lunch.  Only in Asia would you consider doing this because in Australia it would cost you probably $100.  This trip costs about $40 AUD.

On arrival to Long Son Island, floating restaurants lay bobbing on the water just a quick boat ride from the dock.

Moon chooses Lang Be – she sure knows how to pick great places to eat and after negotiating our way over the planks to a table, she begins to plan the menu.  The food is fantastic, yet again.  I never usually eat so much seafood back home in Australia, because it is expensive.  But here it seems as though there’s hardly a meal where seafood is not included.  

It is quiet here at the moment, as we have arrived before the rush, but as we eat groups of people start arriving and the place fills up quickly.  I could imagine spending a whole afternoon here with a group of friends, swinging away on one of the hammocks, beer in hand eating delicious seafood.  Heaven.

Oyster farming is big business here with many families enjoying an increased standard of living thanks to the income earned.  The oysters raised here are apparently much bigger than those from the sea.  Once harvested, the oysters are sold to farms or to the floating restaurants on the Rang River, like the one we are dining in.

Long Son Island is a fairly untouched place and not on the usual tourist trail.  I love places like this, places that you usually find only with the knowledge of locals.

Back in Vung Tau and settled into my new abode, I decide to head out to hunt for a glass of white wine down along the front beach.  Gripping onto my bag and camera tightly, because EVERYONE has told me to be careful around here, I’m not sure where I’m heading, so I just keep walking until I find somewhere just right.  That place is the Summer Wine Bar – perfectly named.

While I’m sipping my wine, which is not the best wine I’ve ever drunk, but still nowhere near as undrinkable as that ‘mystery wine’ in Lyon earlier in the year (trust me, if I find a glass of wine undrinkable, it must be bad), two cops pull up on a single bike and sit for a while.  I wonder what they are doing, until I see an old lady struggle to her feet and lift a bamboo pole laden with wares to her shoulders.  She’s been asked to move on.  At least she doesn’t have to run when she sees them coming, as happens in Hanoi.

The breeze occasionally wafts in from the beach but otherwise its still really warm.  My mind keeps drifting back to one thing – I can have a bath tonight.

The sun beats down on me as I walk along the foreshore.  People are out enjoying the afternoon, fishing, walking, exercising, cyling or just chatting.  Little sandcrabs scurry along the beach, the tide lapping after them and there are shells – real shells like I haven’t seen for years.  It seems this is quite an idyllic spot.

 

Oh My Ho May!

I’m excited that today my clothes are getting washed in something other than a hotel basin or under the shower.  I’m dreaming about picking up the bunch of fresh smelling clothes, holding them to my nose and cuddling them.  I’m taking advantage of this opportunity and putting out everything that I’m not wearing.  I never value clean clothes as much as I do when I’m travelling.

Moon and I are going shopping today which really consists of sorting out a local SIM card, stopping by the florist shop where she works and chatting over a drink at a local cafe.  By the time we return to my room, my clothes have returned, all neatly folded or hangared.

Ho May Park is our destination for the afternoon.  You can drive up there but it’s more fun to take the cable car.  It costs 300,000 dong which includes a return cable car ride and entry to the park.  You could be forgiven for thinking the park was abandoned.

But, despite it being a quiet weekday, there was a load of attractions – carriage rides, temples, fishing, dog and monkey circus, ziplining, wild animals, fair rides, 5D movies, waterslides and seemingly the most popular of all – a waterpark.  There is, in fact, so much to do here that you could easily spend the whole day here.  Or stay overnight!  Because there’s also a resort and a hotel.

Not to mention the views from top which stretch out over the bay of Vung Tau’s front beach.

Uncle G points me towards a restaurant which is currently closed (permanently or just for now, I’m not sure) and prompts me to photograph its menu.  Strange request, but OK.  Here it is…

So this is Ho May Cultural & Ecotourism Park right?

What you probably might not learn on a visit to Ho May, is that this was the site of an Australian radar station during the Vietnam War and one of the structures, a viba radar station, remains on the site as a historical monument, as Ho May Park now sits on what was known by the soldiers as Radar Hill or VC Hill.

Uncle G served in the Vietnam War in the 1st Ordnance Field Park stationed at the 1st ATF Base Nui Dat (Clay Hill), which is now part of the Ba-Ria Vung Tau Province in which Vung Tau lies.  In fact, here’s a photo…he’s the one under the umbrella behind the chair – you can see that a dislike of having photos taken runs in the family!

Uncle G Behind Chair

It is recommended that when visiting Ho May Park, you do so in the late afternoon so that when you leave, you can watch the sun set over the ocean.

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Welcome to the Seaside

I am embarking on my first ever taxi ride in Vietnam and although the hotel called the taxi, panic was simmering below the surface.  When the driver starts asking questions that I don’t understand, I thrust the piece of paper with the hydrofoil ferry address on it at him, hoping that he’s asking for the address.  Seems he was and a short while later we arrive at the street, but where number 5 should be, there is nothing but corrugated iron fences surrounding what used to be a row of shopfronts.  The driver perseveres and a few numbers along, we appear to have arrived at the docks or at least a driveway with a sign that has a picture of a boat on it.  I pay the driver 51,000 dong and grab my bags.  Common sense leads me to walk straight ahead towards the water and I finally see a red sign with Vina Express written on it.  I follow the signs like a breadcrumb trail until I come to a small box office next to a cafe. I am in the right place.  Now I wait.

There are other people here, a couple with an unmistakeable Aussie accent, feeding and cuddling a stray cat, a can of Tiger beer at his elbow (it’s 9.30am), a couple of cyclists and other assorted couples.

HCMC’s hydrofoils have been shut down for years after a space of at sea mishaps which included numerous fires.  They have only just been relaunched, but this is possibly not a longterm plan.  My uncle usually takes the bus.  So I hope this trip is all good.

The hydrofoil hums away dockside, and I’ve gotta be honest, it looks a bit dodgy.  At least there seems to be plenty of lifejackets.

 

Being a Thursday, the ferry to Vung Tau is not busy.  Vung Tau is a seaside destination for HCMC locals you see and most visitors are day-trippers.  Apart from that its populated by ex-pats, Vietnam vets and oil-rig workers.

I pop down a Kwell and pray to the seagods to give me a smooth ride.  The boat takes off pretty much dead on 10am.  Being such an old beast, the boat is incredibly noisy and I found my earphones to be a blessing.  I look around the boat, noting the brocaded turquoise curtains which would have been fresh and new at one stage but like a 70 year old man who struggles to maintain and repair everything himself with whatever he can find around the house rather than pay to get it fixed properly, they have been left out of the maintenance schedule.  And there’ll be no good photos out of these plastic scratched plastic view holes.  The trip is smooth and uneventful though and in just 1 hour and 20 minutes, my first glimpse of Vung Tau appeared through the grotty, scratched windows.

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My uncle is waiting at the end of the jetty with his girlfriend, Moon, and after hugs and hellos, we sit down at the dockside restaurant for some beers and lunch.  I find out that the ferries are 20 year old Russian things.

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After lunch, we catch a taxi to the apartments where I will be spending the next few nights.  The grounds of the Sunshine Residences are lovely with flowering frangipani flowers and a sparkling blue swimming pool.  The room is simply furnished but contains most of what I’ll need, the rest we take care of at a local department-style supermarket.

 

I have the afternoon to relax and unpack my desperately dirty clothes which I put aside for the washing service tomorrow.  Dinner is at Gahn Hao, a seafood restaurant set overlooking the beach.  The food, which Moon selects for us, is simple and tasty, not to mention extremely well valued compared to Australian prices.  Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos (extremely unlike me!) so here’s one I stole ‘borrowed’ off Gahn Hao’s website…

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Courtesy of Nhà hàng Gành Hào

As you can see, it’s quite the pretty little setting.  I like what I’ve seen of Vung Tau so far and wonder what this quiet little island has to offer.  Tomorrow I’ll will find out.

Note:  subsequent to this trip, the old Russian hydrofoil ferries were removed from service and replaced with new Pacific Express boats.