My friend Jess wanted to go to the beach while visiting me, and I had never been to a beach in Vietnam despite being only (“only?”) two hours from it, so on our free day we decided to go to Vung Tau.
"Seaside status makes Vung Tau a nearby paradise for Saigonners. However, for well-travelled foreigners, expect a bit less. The beach is not all too attractive with litter lining the coast, and most of the sandy eastern beach has signage about dangerous swimming", informs Wikitravel. Neither of us were really the most well-travelled beach-connoisseurs, so I wasn't too fussed about this description. A beach is a beach.
|And this is what it looks like according to google|
Two hours by bus from Saigon, two hours by bus from Bien Hoa. So we decided to leave from Bien Hoa. Which proved to be quite difficult from the start, since everything leaves from central Saigon but only bypasses Bien Hoa if that.
My super helpful Vietnamese friend Dung (also #9 in the Vietnam's Next Top Model TV-show... just sayin'...) got us info on how to get to Vung Tau from Bien Hoa – get a taxi to the Vung Tau intersection, then catch a bus to Vung Tau. It sounded exactly the kind of plan that would be easy in many countries, but maybe not so much in Vietnam... In any case, we did not hesitate to brave this new adventure.
We got ourselves some ice coffees to go, and easily enough found a taxi, which we were able to tell where we wanted to go (Miss Dung also had sent me a text to show the driver so there would be no confusions about our destination). After about twenty-five minutes we had arrived at our first destination. Well, destination and destination. I checked from my google maps that we were indeed at the junction we were meant to be at, but where to catch the bus...? It was your general Vietnamese scenery – dust, a few miss-matched stalls and houses on the side of the road, a few people. Where does The Vung Tau bus leave from?
“Hoa Mai,” said our taxi driver. I gave him my best friendly-smile-but-simultaneously-politely-raised-eyebrows-meaning-I-am-foreign-and-did-not-understand-you-and-apologise-for-that-could-you-please-say-it-again-look. “Hoa Mai, Hoa Mai,” he repeated many times. I repeated this slowly first in my mind, then out loud, and came to the conclusion there is no way I'd understand what he was saying, so I smiled and nodded politely in your typical ah-yes-I-understand-(no-I-don't-really) Vietnamese fashion.
'Luckily', we didn't have time to contemplate Hoa Mai too much, because just as we jumped out of the taxi to get our bearings about where we are, we saw a bus coming towards us on the road. The bus was small and pretty, er, traditional-looking (not the newest make) and, hurrah, it said 'Vung Tau'!
|Our bus at a pit stop|
Empty iced coffee-cup in one hand, my open purse in the other one, back bag on back and hat somewhere, we ran towards the bus, managed to hail it down, jumped in, and, lo and behold, we were in this very authentic bus packed with locals heading to The Beach! We got the last two free seats which were right near the door, and after paying an excorbetant (how do you spell it) price for tickets and getting over them typical stares from everyone, started enjoying the ride. Who needs aircon in a bus when you have a wide open door right next to you!?
We had put our empty iced coffee cups under our seats since we couldn't think of any better place to dump them for the time being. Until we got an extra passenger with two back bags. He was ushered in by the usherer-in-come-conductor, and after he'd awkwardly taken off his main back bag in the moving, packed bus, the conductor decided to make space for it by squatting down to our feet, grabbing our empty iced coffee cups from underneath our seats and chucking them out the window. “There go our iced coffees,” remarked Jess drily. Hoping there weren't too many vehicles driving behind us/next to us.....
So there we were, with a strangers bag underneath our seats, bobbing along on the road on our way to Vung Tau.
|Our conductor flappy-arming bikes out of the way|
After a while, when we were probably about 20km away, the bus stopped at a place where a few other buses had stopped, and we were told to get out. Vung Tau is that other bus over there, pointed our driver. Ok...? No one told us we needed to change, but luckily this second bus left, we didn't even have to pay, and we continued on our way to this Famous Beach Destination.
Finally we arrived. Got out of the bus, it was past midday, scorching heat, immediately surrounded by xeom- and taxi-drivers keen to take us places. Vaguely stressed about this long trip and my, once again, unpreparedness of sightseeing with my guest, I ignored them all and we walked off. Trying to search googlemaps where we should go. Which way is the beach? Is it worth it? We only have like four hours till we have to go back, we didn't wanna waste it...
In the end, from Jess's careful suggestion, we went back to the xeom-drivers and said “Beach?” Relatively straightforward – we both got a friendly xeom driver, and the price wasn't even too bad. The beach was about 4km away, so pretty happy we did get them xeoms.
Suddenly, we were near the beach. Lots of people around and we could see the sea – hooray! Finally, our ultimate destination, after about three hours of travel.
Our ultimate destination.
Ok, descriptions. It was crowded. No, wait, please take a moment and describe Finland as crowded. Then, compare Finland to Vietnam. (For your information, Finland is the 65th biggest country area-wise, while Vietnam is the 66th. Finland has a population of 5 million while Vietnam has a population of 90 million.) That is the comparison between the word crowded and the adjective to describe the amount of people on Vung Tau beach.
And not just people, but also litter. (yes, as predicted by wikitravel)
|Pictures do not do it justice, I'm afraid.|
If I used words like anti-climax, I would use it here. But luckily I don't. No, we put on a brave face and started to debate if we want to go swimming immediately, or, more pressingly – go swimming together and risk having possessions taken, go swimming one at a time, or potentially find a locker?
After a long time's deliberation, and a visit to a rather horrendous beach toilet, we left our stuff at a locker and went swimming.
And in all fairness, it was a lot of fun. The waves were big and exciting and it was fun jumping around in them. So, it was worth it.
The rest of the day was wandering about in very sticky, wet and salty dresses (we did it the Vietnamese style and went swimming in our clothes. (There was literally not a single other female in what we'd call a 'normal' swimming costume let alone bikini)), eating relatively nice rice at a random local food place and counting westerners. (We walked past two, in addition to ourselves.)
We found the place to get the bus back relatively easily, luckily. We waited for ages for our minibus, which was called Hoa Mai. You remember earlier, the taxi driver repeating 'Hoa Mai' all the time? Well, he was telling us which company to use. The Hoa Mai minibuses, as opposed to the overpriced (for us) (literally, our way there cost over double our way back) authentic bus which didn't even go up to Vung Tau, which we had found ourselves on on our way there.
|The famous Hoa Mai, as taken from our Authentic Bus|
Do I recommend Vung Tau? That's debatable. Since I like to stay positive, I'll say I do recommend it. Except, don't make our mistake. DO NOT GO ON A SUNDAY. Or weekend in general. It's a lot, lot, lot emptier on weekdays...
And, in all fairness, it was quite haphazardly planned (read: not at all planned), and I know Vung Tau has quite a few sights apart from the beach - I'd definitely not say no to visiting it again.
And maybe do an easy tour from Saigon. Not via Bien Hoa.
Toodle-pip 4 now munchkinzzz,