Connected by hydrofoil to Ho Chi Minh City, and therefore a default weekend bolt-hole for its stressed-out inhabitants, VUNG TAU is a scruffy, and slightly seedy, but likeable place. “The Bay of Boats”, as its name translates, is located some 125km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City on a hammerheaded spit of land jutting into the mouth of the Saigon River. Once a thriving riviera-style beach resort, the city’s offshore oil industry and steadily growing port have transformed it into a more business-oriented conurbation, though residents of Ho Chi Minh City still flock here on weekends, when hotel rates rise. Locals are fond of swimming on the town’s beaches, but they’re all second-rate despite recent attempts to clean them up. However, the boardwalk along Bai Sau, known to seasoned expats as “Back Beach”, remains a pleasant place for an evening stroll, and perhaps a light seafood meal; “Front Beach”, where the ferries arrive, has more traffic and less appeal.
Portuguese ships are thought to have exploited the city’s deep anchorage as early as the fifteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth, French expats, who knew the place as “Cap Saint-Jacques”, had adopted it as a retreat from the daily rigmarole of Saigon, and set to work carving colonial villas into the sides of Nui Lon and Nui Nho, two low hills near the coast. Shifts in Vietnam’s political sands duly replaced French visitors with American GIs. With them gone, and the Communist government in power, the city became a favoured launch pad for the vessels that spirited away the boat people in the late 1970s.