Vietnam Reprise: A Short Foray Into Saigon And Vung Tau
On my first visit to “Nam” at the beginning of this year, I achieved my primary objective of visiting and photographing some of the cave sites at Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park. I was happy enough with that outcome but felt I’d short changed myself in regards to checking out Saigon. I’d left in a bit of rush and figured I owed myself another trip and a bit more time to get a better feel for the place. With an unscheduled short break in my work commitments, I had the opportunity for a reprise. My primary goal was just to have a nice little vacation but I was also going there for a bit of reconnaissance. The few who know me well are quite aware of my disenchantment with Bangkok. In the not too distant future I’ll be packing up and relocating to a more tranquil location. It’s more of a lifestyle choice than anything else with the need to live near the ocean being my main focus. Phuket is a primary option but I also wanted to have a look at Vung Tau before making a final decision. I’ve got a number of work associates currently residing there and they all seem to be quite happy with the move there.
After a couple of days back in the Big Mango to sort myself out, I was on the early morning (0745 AM) Thai Airways flight to Saigon. A short side note here regarding Thai Airways – and this is something Stick mentioned a few weeks ago in his weekly column – Thai Airways are still bussing people from the terminal to the planes. Because of the ongoing refurbishments to Suvarnabhumi a number of the gates are out of action. This has been going on since the beginning of the year and Thai Airways are being just a wee bit cheeky in not coming clean and letting the public know how long it will continue for.
If they were a budget airline it wouldn’t be an issue but the fact is they’re one of the most expensive in the region. Besides adding a 30-minute delay to the departure time you’re also paying top dollar to be bussed out onto the tarmac at what is supposedly an international airport. Now I know some will say why not fly with another airline? Fair point but I’m with Royal Orchid and just like everyone else I want my frequent flyer points.
The flight to Saigon is a relatively short hop – 75 minutes – and by 9.30 AM I was standing in line at Vietnam immigration waiting to be cleared. As far as visas go, getting one in Bangkok before traveling is probably the better option for avoiding a delay on arrival. Visas on arrival are available but if you’re an Aussie or Kiwi, the APEC Business Traveler Card is well worth considering as you get an automatic 90-day entry on arrival. Just on that it seems Thai Immigration is now using a discretionary method, not in line with the mandated APEC program, for an authorized entry period. When presenting my APEC card on my last couple of arrivals into Bangkok, I have been asked “how long you stay here?” by the immigration staff and, instead of being issued the standard 90 day entry, have only received a one month stamp. Is there anyone out there from either New Zealand or Australian Immigration who can shed some light on why Thai Immigration seems to be out of step in regards to length of entry, on arrival, on an APEC card? I’d appreciate hearing from you. <You're not the first to mention this although it seems to be an issue at the airport only, funnily enough, and not at land crossings – Stick>
The last time I was in Saigon (Jan 2013) I stayed at a very nice hotel (recommended by Stick) called the La Jolie – and I booked there again. An additional service they
provide is free airport pickup and as I pushed my way through the throng gathered around the arrivals hall exit doors I spotted the driver holding up an A4 sheet of paper with my name on it; all very efficient. For those needing to pay, the standard
taxi fare into Saigon is around 350,000 VN Dong; roughly a little less than USD 20. The La Jolie is what one may refer to as a boutique type hotel and if you’re on a budget, or looking for something inexpensive, it’s probably not
the place to go; the cheapest rooms start at about USD 70 per night. With the river front barely a 100 meter walk away it’s situated in a very convenient location for access to the hydrofoil to Vung Tau. Most of the major shopping malls,
such as Vincom and Parkinson, are only a ten minute walk away. Some of the hotel’s rooms provide great views across the Saigon River. However, a word of warning here, if you’re a light sleeper it’s better to take a room on
the road front as the rooms to the rear are subject to the techno thump, into the wee hours of the morning, from a nearby nightclub. I’d booked myself an executive suite for three nights and, after settling in and eating lunch at the hotel’s
restaurant, I decided to take advantage of the 50% discount offered on hotel guest massages. I figured it would be an ideal way to relax and recharge the energy levels for the coming evening’s adventures.
September in Saigon is the rainy season and the prevailing weather patterns for that time of year were THE same ones hitting Thailand. At around 5 PM with the skies clouding in, I decided it was time for a late afternoon caffeine hit at my favourite café in Saigon, Trung Nguyen. From the La Jolie, Trung Nguyen can’t be missed. Simply step out of the front door, go straight and its two blocks down on the left. A strange phenomena of this area in Saigon is seeing how many local males seem to be sat around on the street doing nothing at all except drinking coffee and smoking for a large part of the day. I asked a local lass about this and her reply was “they are making money the easy way.” Perhaps they’ve found the secret to life and know how to get paid for doing nothing?
All smiles, nothing much to do, and making money; apparently?
A popular spot for a caffeine hit in down town Saigon
A coffee at Trung Nguyen isn’t exactly third world pricing and a latte or cappuccino will have you parting with the equivalent of 3 – 4 USD. For the true coffee addict such as myself, there’s the cheaper option though; a kilo of Trung Nguyen ground will set you back the princely sum of 15 USD. As I sat there in the air-conditioned ambiance enjoying my cappuccino, I considered my plan of attack for the next 3 days in Saigon. My primary objective was to enjoy myself and have a bit of chill time after the grind of another long offshore contract but and in keeping with the core theme of this website, I was also keen to check out where the action was. This didn’t necessarily mean hardcore mongering venues such as one finds in Bangkok or Pattaya, but more along the lines of my preference; bars, clubs and freelancer venues. The only pick-up joint I had any real knowledge of was the “Apocalypse Now” nightclub which, as luck would have it, was situated less than 100 meters down the road from the La Jolie. A bit of internet research had also revealed the names of other potential pick-up joints and I decided I’d try one, the New World Hotel, before heading to the techno thump of the Apocalypse Now. I was also keen for a decent dinner and after enquiring at the La Jolie was pleasantly surprised to learn the New World Hotel also offered a great buffet for around 30 USD.
The New World Hotel is roughly 15 minutes in a taxi from the La Jolie. Somewhere across town, it’s a 5-star establishment catering to the high-end and business traveler market. There’s a lobby lounge bar with the standard jazz pianist to the right as you enter and the restaurant and buffet is to the left. At 7.30 I was comfortably in place enjoying the fine selection of seafood on offer accompanied by a cold, local beer. At the table next to me was another lone traveler so I said “hi” to break the boredom. Ian, a mid-forties Aussie businessman, was on his way back from an expo in Europe and was at the end of a short layover in Saigon. After a few minutes of feeling each other out I figured he was an old Asia hand and probably knew where the action was. I mentioned the names of a couple of venues I’d seen in my on-line research but was quickly put straight.
“Forget those places, mate, they’re not popular anymore. I’m going to the MZ Club after I’ve eaten; you’re welcome to join me if you want.”
“Sounds good mate, how’s the talent there?”
“Probably better than what you’ll see in Bangkok mate.”
The MZ Club is a short hop from the New World Hotel and at a few minutes before 9 PM, Ian and I were getting ourselves comfortable around the bar. The venue is set up for the Asian punter and as I sat there enjoying my cold Saigon beer and eyeing up the fine array of talent, I could see we were the only westerners there. The rest of the clientele were, according to Ian, mainly cashed up local businessmen. There is a bevy of beautiful hostesses available to sit with you and chat but in the Asian way of doing things; they expect to be paid for their chat time. There would also, according to Ian once again, be the requirement to buy a bottle to keep the mood moving along. I decided the waitresses behind the bar were just as beautiful and attentive as the chat girls and the fact I was a beer only person made me see no reason to pay for talking time or buying bottles.
A couple of charmers (waitresses) at the MZ Club in Saigon
The MZ Cub also has live music with the sounds a mix of jazz and blues. The musicians, all locals, were highly talented and it wasn’t just the beer making things sound better either; the music was great. Every three to four sets the vocalist would change and to salve my curiosity, I asked Ian what going on, why the vocalists were changing out so regularly?
“They’re all popular and in demand at other clubs around town mate. They do a set here then rotate through another couple of venues before coming back later in the evening.”
I’ve seen some good acts during my time in Asia and most of the better ones were Filipino but this seemed to be at another level altogether and it wasn’t just the beer making things seem better either. One gal in particular was highly talented and rattled off her first number in English, the next in French and the third in Vietnamese. Technically, the backing band was brilliant as well.
As the night progressed, and we ordered more rounds, I was spending a good deal of time eying of some of the gorgeous hostesses in their Ao Dai style evening wear. Ian, obviously seeing my growing interest, chimed in with some friendly advice.
“If you want to take one them out of here mate you’ll get no change out of three to four hundred US.”
“I think I’ll keep my powder dry until we hit the Apocalypse now,” I said sobering up on the idea of a liaison with the chat girls.
By 11.30 pm we’d had enough and decided it was time to make a move to the Apocalypse Now. Ian had already intimated that things didn’t really kick off there until after midnight and the venue, although advertised as Saigon’s number one nightclub, in reality was simply a freelancer meat market. We arrived at the door, a couple minutes before midnight, only to find there was some kind of entrance restriction. For anyone planning to hit this club it might be worth doing some homework because it seems there are certain nights where only those with membership or some sort of VIP status can gain entry.
“No problem” said Ian stepping up and flashing his VIP membership.
In typical late night venue style the place was thumping with the usual MTV style techno and hip hop. To be honest I can’t stand that style of music, it’s shite with a capital S. The venue itself is like a long hall with a large dance area in front of the DJ’s stand. Think something similar to Insomnia, in Bangkok, and you’ve got an idea of what it’s like. Ear-splitting music belting out and hordes off people packed in and getting tanked up. I think Ian might have got his timings wrong as the place was already packed with swathes of farangs and VN pussy crowded in on the dance area. We grabbed a table towards the rear and ordered a couple of beers from the passing wait staff. I figured it might be a while before I spotted anything resembling the type of spec I like – something similar to the waitresses in the MZ Club – as most of what was on offer had that all too familiar look of the low-end types that seem to end up at farang venues. And then I spotted Lana. Short, with curves bulging everywhere and fair skin, I made a bee line for her. To be honest, the kiwi approach to chatting up a bird in these type of joints can be fairly agricultural but, with a horde of other guys licking their lips on the sidelines, there was no time for wasting words.
“Hi, I’m Mark from New Zealand.”
“I’m Lana from Saigon.”
“I’m staying at a hotel just down the road.”
“You want me tonight?”
“What’s your price?”
“Two hundred US long time.”
“I’ll give you five hundred for three days.”
Lana; my curvy tour guide and GFE for 3 days in Saigon
“Let’s go,” I said grabbing her hand.
I never saw Ian again but if by some remote chance you are reading this mate, thanks for a great first night out in Saigon.
Lana, although being a freelancer, had her life quite in order. She owned a clothing shop in town and was doing a fashion design course, putting in three hours a day in the classroom at a local technical college. She told me she just needed a bit of extra cash sometimes and moonlighting was her way of doing it. The bottom line being although she was a part-time hooker it was just a means to an end and not, as you find with so many Thai demoiselles of the night, a lifestyle choice. I spent three very enjoyable days with her in Saigon and she was a great tour guide and hostess. I’ve spent quite a bit of time liaising with VN ladies over the past few months, mainly due to work commitments in Singapore, and the standout thing for me, when comparing them with Thai ladies, is very few of them drink and none would be what I class as the career / alcoholic hooker type that so often personifies Thais on the “game.” The bottom line difference being the VN birds have a far greater degree of personal discipline about them. Maybe it goes with the turf but my take after being in the kingdom for the best part of 18 years, is the mai pen rai and sanuk mentality breed a certain degree of sloth, compulsiveness and reckless abandon that I don’t see in the VN girls. Stick’s recent weekly column “Woof Woof” highlighted this perfectly. What’s the reason for the tubby figures, crass tattoos, lousy attitudes and substance abuse that personifies Thai bar girls these days? It’s basically because they don’t give a shit; they’ve got no sense of trying to improve themselves. It’s far easier just to be slothful, indulgent and crass. The sense of pride they do have is all of the wrong sort. A good friend of mine, and a regular contributor to this site, asked me why so many Thai bargirls have this misplaced idea of superiority? To be honest I really don’t know because most you see around Sukhumvit these days are alcohol-swilling, overweight munters. Perhaps it’s the fact so many desperate, lonely farang are turning up in the LOS and giving them the idea they’re superior? And the crazy part is – take a good look at some of the pigs on Cowboy – guys are actually paying to shag them. I did not see one overweight woman in Vietnam, not one.
According to Lana it’s mostly to do with the Vietnamese diet. Most shy away from sugar and anything sweet. All meals are accompanied by large intakes of raw vegetables and chili seems to be an option, not a necessity. There was a time when I thought Thai food was healthy, but not anymore. This might burst the bubble of many Thai food aficionados out there but Thai food is often laced with copious amounts of sugar. Deep fried muck also seems to feature regularly and dishes drowned in coconut milk are guaranteed to add kilos to the waistline. When I’m back in Thailand my main type of food consumption is Japanese and not Thai. Wanting to get stuck into some authentic VN food I asked my attractive guide to take me to a good local food restaurant. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the place but it was somewhere near the big market. An open style setting (non air-conditioned) with rows of food stands displaying their raw ingredients, the restaurant was authentic VN food as you can get. Lana explained there was, much the same as with Thailand, food choices from the various regions of the country. We spent a bit of time wandering about checking what was on offer and then made some selections. The fried pork and shrimp spring rolls were brilliant as always but the escargot was a delicious touch as well.
A very popular Vietnamese restaurant, in the heart of Saigon, with plenty of healthy stuff on display.
Escargot, great with some minced pork.
After an hour spent filling up on some very interesting and delicious Vietnamese dishes, I figured it was time for a wander around the area to help the food digest. Lana suggested a visit to the nearby large, local market and we were soon on our way to have a look at what was on offer. The market and restaurant is in an area which is a tourist focal point. There is also a couple of parks and a catholic church in the same vicinity which seem to be tourist attractions as well. The market is one of those open air types, you so often see in Thailand, with all kinds of fresh produce, textiles and tourist nick-knacks packed in under a solid roof. The laneways between the rows of stalls, were teeming with shoppers and browsers. However, unlike many of the markets I’ve been to Thailand, the floors were solid concrete and swept clean. Much of what was on display was the standard fare one sees in most of these types of markets; the fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce are always good value but a lot of the manufactured stuff is just cheap junk. The only things which caught my attention were the bags of inexpensive VN coffee and the snake and scorpion jungle juice. I haven’t actually tried the stuff but most of the stallholders offering it for sale always assure me with a knowing wink, “It makes you strong.” I’ve always wondered how a dead entity, devoid of any nutritional value and soaked in alcohol, can make you strong? I grabbed another kilo of ground coffee and Lana, being the perfect tour guide again, led the way towards the another nearby photo opportunity; the Catholic Church.
The local market with more of the virility jungle juice on display.
The Catholic Church, another popular tourist attraction in Saigon.
A few minutes later we were standing in front of a fairly bog standard type of church. I grabbed a couple of shots and, to be honest, there’s nothing really remarkable about the site itself. However, what is worth noting is what you can’t see. Take a moment to look at the background of the above photo and you’ll see a skyline devoid of high-rise buildings. The charm of Saigon when compared with a concrete jungle like Bangkok, is it’s essentially a low-rise city. The city air is unpolluted and there’s a relaxed ambiance about the place which is a stark contrast to the Big Mango.
After a fairly interesting couple of hours I decided it was time to head back to the hotel for a massage, and a bit of down time, before my final night out in Saigon. Lana went home to tart herself up for the coming evening, and we agreed to meet in the lobby of the La Jolie at 7 pm. Our plan was to have dinner at one of Saigon’s new premier dinning venues, the Chill Restaurant and Sky Bar
– some 27 floors above the city streets. Part two of the evening was a few drinks at the Martini Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel. The dinner was the usual overpriced fare that one so often finds at these restaurants above the clouds; nothing out of the ordinary
but with a hefty premium for being able look out over the twinkling lights below.
By 10 PM we were sat comfortably in the Martini Bar grooving to the sounds and enjoying the ambiance of an up-market style of bar in a five star hotel. Think a smaller version of Spasso and you’ll get the general idea. The place had a mix of foreign business expats, cashed up local businessmen, and, you guessed it, dollied up, older birds on the game.
The view from 27 floors up in Saigon; an overpriced meal with the twinkling lights beyond.
The only negative about the place being it closes at midnight. Lana wanted to kick on to the Apocalypse Club again but I wanted to have an early night due to the fact I was heading to Vung Tau the following morning. Even though I’d had to pay for her company it had been a great three days and it kind of reminded me of how the girlfriend experience used to be 15 years ago in Thailand. There’d been no attitude; she’d been an obliging sex partner and a great tour guide. She’d tried the shopping nonsense but I’d quickly snuffed that out by telling her “I don’t do shopping.” When she left the following morning at 9 AM I gave her the arranged fee plus a few extra dollars as a tip for great service.
I checked out of the hotel at 10 AM and grabbed a taxi for the short run down to the ferry terminal. There are two hydrofoil services to Vung Tau and both charge 200K VND for a one way trip on week days and 250K VND for the weekend. The trip is a fairly sedate one hour cruise down the Saigon River and then a final 30 minute dash across a stretch of open sea to the jetty at the Vung Tau terminal. The last departure time from either end is 4.30 pm. There is no ferry services at night due to potential hazards along what would be a blackened waterway. As with many travel terminals, in this part of the world, the jetty had touts offering to carry my bag onto the ferry for 20k VND (1 USD). I couldn’t help but laugh when one got more than he bargained for when grabbing my 24 kilo bag and staggering off towards the gangway. After placing my bag in stowage for an extra 20k VND, I took my allotted seat in amongst a bunch of Aussie mine workers heading to Vung Tau for some R & R.
Leaving Saigon behind as the hydrofoil works its way down the river towards Vung Tau
I’d worked in the mines in Western Australia some 30 years previously and was familiar with their jargon. They work in a harsh environment but are well compensated for putting up with the isolation and intense heat of the outback. Most do some kind of fly in / fly out rotation which varies depending which mine or company they’re working for. Those working in the larger producing iron ore mines are usually on a four weeks on and two weeks off rotation. Many buy condos in places such as Pattaya and instead of being bored in Perth on their time off, head for the fun and frivolity of South-East Asia to unwind. In some ways I envied them. They lived back in the real world and earned a substantial income, accruing all the benefits that come from doing so, and were still able to afford regular blow outs in Asia. But then again I’d been there and done that and couldn’t really complain about the life I’d made for myself in Asia these past few years. And as much as the idea of a regular hedonistic holiday might appeal, there’s always a price to be paid for that way of life. There was a group of ten. Most were probably the same age as me and they all looked really out of shape with their ample beer girths bulging over their waistbands. My time in this part of the world had taught me there is a choice here in terms of lifestyle. Most expats turning up on these shores end up in an alcohol-based life style and the price for that is a marked deterioration in health. Those, like me, who choose a health and fitness based lifestyle also pay a price; normally we have very few friends. As the boys continued their jargon I grabbed the camera, stepped out of the air-conditioning and on to an open part of the vessel. The heavens were clouding in as Saigon’s skyline fell away in the distance and was replaced by a heavy dark mass. Within a few minutes the tropical downpour was upon us so I retreated back into safety of the cabin. As I pushed back my seat the boys were still talking about the mines. Maybe I wasn’t missing much after all?
Being chased down the river by a serious tropical deluge
By the time the hydrofoil reached the mouth of the Saigon River the rain had cleared and was replaced by bright sunshine lighting up the blue expanse across to the peaks of Vung Tau. Vung Tau is on a triangular peninsular formed by the open ocean of the South China Sea to the east, and the wide mouth of the Saigon River to the west. Most of the residential area was at the tip of the peninsular with the city center situated on the Saigon River side; also known as Front Beach. I was looking for somewhere a bit quieter and the Eastern side, also known as Back Beach, appealed to me. I’d made an advanced booking for 3 nights at the Green Hotel; situated on Back Beach. After disembarking at the Vung Tau jetty I was quickly collared by a taxi driver and, after establishing the cab fare would be on the meter, we were soon on our way to the hotel.
According to the snippets of info I’d picked up in Saigon, Vung Tau is predominantly a weekend getaway for the Saigonese. I was also told that as it was still the rainy season things would be fairly quiet. After a 10-minute ride around the headland of the peninsular I was walking into the lobby of the Green Hotel. The rates, rainy season notwithstanding, were cheap enough; 750k VND per night. It would be just over the equivalent of USD 100 for my 3-night stay. The view from the balcony looked inviting enough with a long stretch of sand and ocean disappearing into the distance. After getting settled in and a quick lunch, I made a bee line for the beach. A lengthy walk along the wide expanse of sand revealed the pundits were right; apart from a few locals paddling in the small surf, it was dead quiet. No problems though as I knew the names of a couple bars over at Front Beach, and would take a look there after the sun went down.
The view along Back Beach from the hotel balcony
Vung Tau has a budding expat community primarily based on a recent influx of guys involved in the offshore oil and gas industry. Due to the recent development of Vietnam's nearby offshore oil and gas resources, Vung Tau has become the primary offshore supply base feeding that growing development. Amongst oil and gas workers such as myself, it also has a reputation for one of the best “runs ashore” anywhere in the world. A run ashore usually occurs when there’s a break in the work schedule and the work vessel needs to head back to the supply base for one reason or another. There’s also the bonus of a delay in mobilization; guys can end up in a hotel for days on full pay, waiting for the vessel to arrive. And when it comes to a run ashore in Vung Tau there is one bar which has become famous, or infamous, for a good time and friendly locals; the “Red Parrot Bar.”
By the time I got on the road back to the city center it was already getting dark. I told the taxi driver I wanted to go to the Red Parrot but there seemed to be a bit of confusion; either he didn’t understand what I was saying or he didn’t know where to go. A few minutes after leaving the Green Hotel we were pulled up on the roadside at the city center and, after repeated attempts to get him to understand where I wanted to go, the switch finally came on. “Ah, the led parlot bar,” he said lighting up as though he’d discovered the secret to life. Obviously my accent may have been the issue. A couple of minutes later he was dropping me off in front of a non-descript looking building with a sign which proclaimed, in glittering neon, that I was in fact at the “led parlot.” I entered the bar figuring it wouldn’t be all that much different to a beer bar in Thailand but was pleasantly surprised to find a rather stylish interior staffed by some very attractive ladies.
Friendly ladies at the “Red Parrot” Bar, Vung Tau
There can’t have been any vessels out in the anchorage as the place was rather quiet. But, as I worked my way into the interior of the premises, I saw a hand go up from a table at the rear. Nick, a guy I’d worked with earlier in the year, must have recognised me and quickly waved me over to join him at his table. He had a number of cuties gathered around him and at the table's center was the ubiquitous bottle and a bucket of ice. I took a seat, introductions were made and I ordered a Heineken. Nick had a permanent slot as chief officer on a Singaporean based diving support vessel. I’d done a 2-month job on it earlier in the year and we’d established a friendship during that time. He was now on his R & R and by the looks of things was enjoying life. Over the ensuing two hours we chatted away about work, life in Vietnam and our plans for the future. Nick, like most of the expats who’d settled in Vung Tau, had taken a local lady as his wife. And judging by the manner and attitude of the girls we had with us, it was not hard to see why. Even though these ladies were on the game they seemed strikingly different to the hardened types I’d seen so often in the bars in Thailand. Physically there was a difference as well. Instead of brown skin and tramp stamps, it was unmarked, fair complexions. The girls were attentive and demure, and anticipated our needs without being told. Drinks were never asked for but were gratefully accepted. Yes, they were still hookers, but unlike so many we see along Cowboy and Nana, they didn’t behave like savages from the jungles. With my exertions of the previous four days in Saigon plus the beers I’d consumed beginning to catch up with me I decided to call it a night. Nick suggested I might like to take one of the ladies home with me but I declined. As appealing as it might have been I’ve started shying away from paying bar-fines; these days I prefer the company of freelancers. I said goodnight and Nick and I made arrangements to meet the following day.
The wide, uncrowded expanse of Back Beach, Vung Tau
After a good night’s sleep I was up early for a long walk on the Beach. The overcast skies had cleared to reveal a bright, sun-filled morning. With the warm rays beating down on my bare skin it was great to be able to inhale a lung full of fresh, salt tinged air. This is what I’d come for and it was so good to be out of the polluted, urban madness of Bangkok. After a good hour of striding out along the empty, uncrowded beach I stopped and dived under the small surf to cool off. I hadn’t been in town very long but I was already beginning to like Vung Tau; it was uncrowded, unpolluted and offered a relaxed pace of life. I had a few things to consider regarding my planned move from Bangkok. The only thing which I could see as a negative was that expats in Vung Tau, just as they do in Thailand, seem to be drawn to the bar scene. Nick, a decent bloke by most accounts, was hanging out in a girlie bar while his wife was at home. Not that there was anything wrong with this of course but it begs the question of whether or not he was bored with the home scene or, like so many others, he was caught up in the alcohol-based lifestyle?
By midday the sun became a bit too intense so I took shelter for the afternoon in the cool environs of the hotel. Nick had called and suggested picking me up at 4 PM for a drive up to one of the peaks on the headland. There are in fact three peaks but only the summit of one, the lighthouse peak, was accessible by vehicle. Of the other two, the Buddha Peak was accessed by cable car and the Christ peak, on foot. Nick, accompanied by his wife, picked me up at the appointed time and took me on a tour of the peninsular. The plan was to hit the lighthouse summit, for a couple of sunset shots, and then have dinner at one of the ocean-side seafood restaurants.
The view from lighthouse peak in the late afternoon.
The view from the lighthouse peak provided a great overview of the peninsular, and after getting a couple of bog standard sunset shots, we made our way back towards the city center for dinner. The restaurant served traditional Vietnamese food with a seafood flavour and was set right next to the ocean at the base of a cliff and in amongst a thick stand of trees. As I sat there enjoying the delicious food, the cold Saigon beers, and the ambience of the location I had to admit I could see why many guys are drawn to the place. The catch 22, of course, is none of them are single. For a foreign male to able to live successfully in Vietnam it seems almost a necessity to have a Vietnamese wife, or girlfriend. But, having seen the caliber of the woman here there was certainly an attraction to that as well; Vietnamese ladies are amongst the most beautiful in Asia.
With our bellies full and darkness encroaching, Nick suggested going to another popular watering hole in town, Tommy’s Bar. Tommy, the owner and an expat Aussie, was a good friend of Nick’s and had settled successfully in Vung Tau. He actually owns three bars in town and all serve good western food and provide the usual feast of Aussie football codes on TVs scattered about the bars. Tommy and I got talking and he told me he was doing well promoting tours for groups of Australians to the battlefields of the Vietnam War. I was asked if I’d like to join one of the groups for the following day? Not wanting to seem rude I declined by saying I was heading back to Saigon in the morning. The truth was though I had no interest in nostalgic war tours. This seems to be something which is growing in popularity with some of the countries which were involved in the war in Vietnam but I can tell you categorically it holds no interest for the Vietnamese; they’re over it, period. Perhaps it’s the conflict losers who seem drawn to nostalgia but I really can’t see what purpose it serves reliving past tragedies.
The Vietnamese certainly don’t see the point of it. They’ve moved on and are getting about creating the future; the past is history. I can see how the veterans who served might be interested in returning to the scenes of their darkest hours to reflect on the sacrifices of their fallen comrades but I just don’t get what connection those who never served in the conflict might have with what occurred?
Our final spot for the evening was the MK Bar which, according to Nick, is the best bar in Vung Tau. Within a few minutes of being there I was inclined to agree with him. The owner, a rather interesting and enterprising fellow, has done a great job in setting up a two-level premises for diverging tastes. The bottom level is a stylish looking, air-conditioned pub featuring an excellent Filipino rock band six nights a week. The upstairs lounge bar is a more relaxed setting with toned down music, pool tables and one of the best line-ups of hostesses I’ve seen in any bar in Asia. I’m not much of a fan of rock music so I told Nick I’d feel more comfortable in the lounge bar. After ordering a round of drinks and kicking back in one of the large sofas, I was keenly eying off the talent. One taller and a little bit older than the others seemed to know Nick's wife. I mentioned an interest in her and without batting an eyelid, Nick's wife waved her over. Candy was around 170 cm, slim, fair skinned and spoke very good English. As she scurried off to the bar to order a drink, I asked Nick if she was available.
“More of a long-term thing mate, she’s the bar manager here,” said Nick with a smirk.
Candy’s very precise enquiries, interspersed during our friendly conversation, seemed to reinforce Nick’s summation. She was a skillful player for sure and a less discerning punter may not have picked up on it. But there was no doubt the questions regarding my employment status and plans for staying in Vung Tau were part of her assessment process on me. There was also, worryingly, too much of a friendly connection, between her and Nick’s wife, for me to miss; I now had a fairly good idea where my mate met his wife. Not that it’s really major an issue. If one didn’t know she’d previously been on the “game,” there was no real discernible way to tell. The lack of tattoos and her completely friendly disposition made it less obvious. During the course of the evening I met the owner of the bar, Dave, and as previously mentioned, he is a very interesting fellow from the U.K. Besides being a successful bar owner he’s also got one of the world’s biggest private collections of historical firearms. During our earlier drive up to the lighthouse Nick had pointed out a stylish yellow building on the hillside which was Dave’s historical firearms museum. Apparently he’s got weapons going back to the very first combustible weapons invented; blunder-busts, long bore muskets and small field artillery. As we were leaving the MK Bar Dave asked me if I wanted to have a look at the museum the following day. I answered in the affirmative almost immediately thinking I could do that and visit another of the peaks as well. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the best laid plans of mice and men are apt to go astray. When I arrived back at the hotel there was an email from work waiting for me; I’d be rejoining the vessel in Singapore in 2 days’ time.
The following morning I checked out and caught the 10.30 AM ferry back to Saigon. I had a few hours to kill back at the La Jolie, before catching the late flight out to Bangkok, so I called Lana and invited her over for a final fling. It had been a great six days and I was just beginning to get a feel for the place. I’ll be back, there’s no doubt about that.
Obviously we've talked much about this in person, but our thoughts on Thailand mirror each other. I see a lot of potential in Vietnam but I'm not sure Vung Tau is the place. Granted I have never been there, but the impression I have based on what little I have heard / read about it is that the expat scene there is dominated by drinking. If Vietnam really is on the radar, I'd spend time travelling around and checking out various locales.