I found myself on the road after a month long break from travelling. I resumed where I had left off and travelled to the nearby beautiful seaside town of Vũng Tàu, a destination popular with the Vietnamese and slowly gaining popularity with international tourists. I spent a few days making unexpected friends and easing into the backpacking life once again.
On The Road Again
I found myself in Long Khanh at the end of my month long teaching stint with Thai Binh Duong. I was in Long Khanh, at TBD’s oldest center, to attend a felicitation ceremony for the students who had completed their course successfully. I stayed overnight in the town because the buses to Vũng Tàu would have ended for the the day. The center graciously offered to cover my stay and I was thankful as always. It was a bit overwhelming since I was offered page long advices for Vũng Tàu and the next morning I was being messaged to check if I needed help finding my way to the bus stand! I had, in fact, been waiting at the wrong bus stand somehow and after a bit of waiting around, had realised my mistake and walked on to the correct one. The backpack seemed a little heavier after all the days I had spent relaxing. I walked to the Victory Monument and stood on the other side of the highway. Bus number 22 came around in a bit and I got in. The road seemed beautiful.
Bus stand across the Victory Monument
I got to Vũng Tàu without much incident. The bus did a nice tour of the city before dropping me off in the main area.
Bus ride around Vũng Tàu
Vũng Tàu seemed like a beautiful and small city, just the kind I liked. I got off at a spot closest to Gecko Hostel. I had not eaten since morning so I decided to grab a bite before heading to the hostel. A Com Tam place right next to where I took a drop advertised food for 16 kVND so I decided to get a plate of rice and meat. The meager quantity served justified the cheap price.
I walked up to the hostel and it turned out to be a really nice one. Judy, the manager, checked me in. There were just two guys fooling around in the common area, both South Asian by their looks. I talked to one of them before heading up to my bed. Sanjeev was a Hyderabadi by birth but had left for USA when he was 4. He was an American citizen now. The other was Ali, a Lahori who had grown up in Lahore but was an American now. Our conversation was short lived for the time being. Judy told me that the hostel was jam packed till the day before. It always used to empty out on Mondays before building up for a crowded weekend.
I got a map from Judy and decided to head out for a walk to the “back beach”, the one at the Western side of the town. There was a public park in keeping with the usual Vietnamese beautification. The beach was just a small patch of sand but the happy people swam in it and some sat enjoying the sea breeze.
Public parks of Vũng Tàu
I saw some locals playing football and I asked if I could join in. They agreed and despite the slippery shoes I was wearing, I managed to play decently well so that they did not turn me away. I was happy with myself; I was happy at how I had changed from the shy and over-thinking person who had set out uncertainly to travel to satiate a whim, to the smiling and sweating one who had just enjoyed a game of football with people he did not know and could not talk more than a couple of words with. I had changed, to put it mildly, but I was surprisingly happy with how I had changed.
I took a time-lapse of the sunset but messed up the frequency. I really liked the concept of time-lapse and getting better at it is proving to be a time consuming process.
Then I went for a walk along the Ha Long Road as Maya (another amazing teacher at TBD) had suggested. I got a coffee on the way to refresh myself. The walk turned out to be a long and lovely one. The road went along the seaside and was quiet and windy. The famous Jesus statue of Vũng Tàu was visible up high on the rocks. It was lit up in changing colours (another Vietnamese obsession) and looked haunted. I walked a long circle back to the hostel.
Ha Long road at night
Ali and Sanjeev were listening to some blues music over a bottle of whiskey. I grabbed a beer and joined them. Ali knew an awful lot about music. It had been his lifelong passion, as he told me later. We went out for another bottle later and I joined in the drinking. We moved from blues to qawalis; Ali and I debated over things like the American dream and India and Pakistan playing slaves to the western world. It was a pointless discussion as always but it was extremely interesting to listen to the point of view of a South Asian born American citizen. Long, another manager at Gecko hostel, had brought fresh squids and cooked them for us. I lost a bet about Zeest, the band, and bought the next bottle of vodka (unfortunately the only thing available at that late hour). Sanjeev ran out on his bike and Ali went to find him. It was a rowdy and random night! Something that I had not had for quite some time now.
I woke up the following morning with a terrible hangover. The alcohol and squid from last night were making me uneasy so I crashed again and slept till 2 in the afternoon. At 2 another guy checked into our dorm room. He looked South Asian as well and all of us had a good laugh about it later. This was Richard from the Netherlands. His parents were from Suriname, a small country in South America that was colonised by the Dutch, but he knew he had Indian roots somewhere in his ancestry. Ali and Sanjeev had got up as well and their plan to leave Vũng Tàu had to wait another day. They had been in the town for more than a week now!
I rented out a motorbike with the intention of doing some sightseeing that day. I went around looking for something to eat and ended up in the same 16 kVND Com Tam place. My hangover was not getting any better so I returned to the room and slept tried sleeping it off. It had started raining outside and the empty dark room seemed like a perfect resort. I slept till 4ish and then got up to bike around a bit.
It was too late in the day to see any of the touristy places (most close by 5 or 6 in the evening), so I rode till the Lotte Mart and went to a Book Cafe right behind it. The cafe was a pretty one, the kind that I would like to own some day. A small library on the rear end; some cafe like things; books all around. The weather was rainy and perfect for a big glass of blueberry smoothie.
Blueberry smoothie at the book cafe
I read for a while and then headed back to the room. The vodka from the previous night had wasted my entire day. Never again! The guys were back in the hostel and we decided to go out to grab a bowl of noodle soup. Ali and Sanjeev were raving about it but I found my Hu Tieu mediocre. Richard and Sanjeev seemed to be the spiritual kind from what I could gather from their talks. Ali had the look that said he found it all bullshit. I stayed quiet mostly. Richard had been working as a dock hand in Australia and NZ for the past year or so. He was going to do the bike trip across Vietnam, something that Ali and Sanjeev were also doing, but before that he was headed to Cambodia for a vipasana session.
We came back to the room and I wrote a bit. Ali and Richard went to smoke up while Sanjeev and I sat in the room talking about various things. He was a Java developer and was trying to make the digital nomad thing work. He loved writing as well and we talked about how writing was therapeutic in many ways.
Ali was playing Civilization V on this laptop and I would have joined in and wasted another night but thankfully I had not installed the game on my new laptop. 😁 I slept after working for a while.
The vodka had left my system after more than 24 hours of consumption and I woke up fresh the next day. I woke up early because I wanted to use the motorbike a little before having to return it after the 24 hours of rental. Up first was the White Palace. The ticket for entry cost a mere 5k and the parking was another 3k. I took the road instead of the stairs going up. It wound up the hill and was shaded and beautiful. It led me to the point where the stairs would have gotten me. The White Palace was a pretty house of colonial times. It used to be the summer home of the emperor, as Long informed me later. The colonists and royal folk really knew how to choose a spot for their summer homes!
The architecture was really nice. There were Greek looking busts outside that seemed quite intricate. A few canon guns were placed outside the palace though I am not sure what purpose they could have served. The balcony looked out to the beautiful blue sea. I walked in to see an exhibition on the ground floor. It was of things retrieved from a ship that had sunk in the waters around Vũng Tàu. The exhibits were mostly pottery with some Chinese art work that is considered rare.
White Palace facade
The inside of the house was just as pretty as the facade. Two floors with some rooms and beds preserved like what I had seen in Bao Dai’s Palace in Đà Lạt. The furniture and sheets here were a bit more worn out but the number of visitors and ticket prices had not suggested otherwise. I liked such houses; they reminded me of the house in Jamshedpur for some reason.
I walked around in the complex for a bit before heading down to get my bike. Judy had told me about an old artillery range somewhere in the hills and I thought I would check it out. The ride took me all the way around the big hill, across some temples and schools spurting out kids. I found the turn that I was supposed to take to go up the hill and the narrow alleys through residential buildings soon gave way to narrow winding roads flanked by greenery and beautiful views of the town and the sea. Vũng Tàu is what I would have imagined had someone told me to think of a colonial seaside fortification. There were the white houses with orange tiled roofs; the sparsely populated rocky hills; lots of jungle.
The artillery range was home to a few 15 tonne monsters facing the sea, aiming at some invisible enemy. There were 5 or 6 of them, all equally imposing. I walked around and then went to an underground torpedo nearby which turned out to be a U-shaped tunnel. It was dark inside but I had my headlamp with me. I am still not sure what purpose it served but it had some history about a certain warfare. The only torpedoes I had known before this were the ones used by submarines! 💩
Underground torpedo (whatever that is!)
I went further up the hill and took a detour on a mud path. I climbed a few rocks that gave me an amazing view of the vast sea. The mud track ended in a structure that seemed like private property so I backtracked to the main road. I was not in the mood to go all the way to the top so I decided to return to the hostel and return the motorbike.
Big blue sea
I went inside an interesting looking temple on the way back. It had a lot of Chinese influences and looked Buddhist. It was probably a Guanyin temple, as suggested by the big statue near the entrance. I walked around and clicked some pictures before getting out and returning to the hostel.
I returned the bike to Long, who was doing his shift at the hostel. He suggested that I see the White Palace in the night when it is beautifully lit up but I was not thinking of renting the bike again. I sat in the room to work for a while. It was raining and I waited for it to slow down into a drizzle before heading out to a cafe to work on a blog post. It is amazing what a lack of headache and a cup of coffee can make one accomplish! I came back to the room to wrap up the little that was left. We had a new dorm mate by now. This was another Richard, a Czech student who had been biking in Vietnam. He was studying Mechanical Engineering in Prague and showed Ali and me some pictures from his trip in the north. He seemed like a really cool guy.
The Desi gang had returned and everyone was planning to go grab some Indian food that night. I had been wanting to go to a Bo La Lot place for a couple of days now but I decided to join in for the Indian food. It had been a while and I had been craving the cuisine for some time now. I thought that once after three months was justifiable. We went to a place called Taj Grill. The staff there were Punjabis from Bhatinda. I talked in Punjabicised Hindi with them which felt weirdly out of place after all this time. The food was in small portions and ridiculously expensive. The taste was good enough though. Ali ordered some chai to top it off and we got a bill of a whooping 1 million plus. This was more than three days worth of my food budget! 😕
Desi gang out to get some desi food
I walked back to the hostel to digest the expensive food. Ali and Dutch Richard were smoking up when I reached. I sat in the room and finished my work. Then I tried watching a movie but the streaming did not work. Deva had pinged me regarding my return ticket from Chennai and I realised that I had booked the wrong date back to Pune. I had booked in a sale as well which meant that I would get no refund for the ticket. There were some issues with my Voda number as well and I had a long night trying to rectify all the things that had gotten messed up. Bad end to a day that had started wonderfully.
I woke up early once more and was out of the bed by 9. Sanjeev had left the room around 7 and Ali and Dutch Richard were still sleeping. Czech Richard was missing as well though I found him washing his bike when I went outside. I decided to walk to the top of the small hill, up till the Jesus statue. I took a road that Google Maps had suggested, which went up from the back side of the hill, through some shanties. It was horribly hot and I ended up burning myself yet again. There was a rocky expanse a little below the top that gave an excellent view of the eastern beach, the town in general and the small island to the south of the main land. The tide was low and I could see some people walking there and I considered doing that myself after seeing the statue.
Vũng Tàu from above
I walked up to the top in the unbearable humidity. The views were good but there was no wind up top contrary to what I had been expecting. I rested a bit before doing a quick round of the statue. The big Jesus was flanked by canon guns, a very appropriate combination.
I sat a while in one of the outhouses next to the statue that no one was paying any heed to. There was barely any wind but I managed to cool myself enough to take up the next leg of the journey. I walked down a few stairs before changing my mind. I thought that since I had come this far up, I might just as well see something worthwhile before heading down. The Jesus statue had failed to impress me but there was a lighthouse a little farther on another top. I walked towards it, ignoring a sign that warned me about some restricted area. There was no one around and the small trail led me to a closed gate. I could see the light house right up ahead but there was no direct way to get to it!
End of the road
Frustrated, I went back to the stairs and took them down to the Ha Long road. No more island; no more lighthouse. I walked briskly back to the hostel, having Com Tam in the same 16k place again. I returned to the hostel and cooled down before purging myself with a bath. I was planning to sleep and had denied the guys' invitation to join them for some mud bath place a little out of town. But they changed their plan and were now headed to the beach and I reluctantly agreed. I had still not seen Vũng Tàu’s famous “front beach” in the four days I had spent here. So I hopped on the back of Sanjeev’s bike and we rode to the beach. There were Ali, Dutch Richard and a Canadian guy, Mike, as well. These guys had picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way which I had opted out of. The heat and my budget did not allow me to partake in the afternoon drinking sessions.
We sat at the beach doing typical guy things. We drank, went into the sea, looked at eye candies, counted the number of girls in bikinis, discussed politics and philosophy. Richard and I had been discussing various things since earlier that morning. It had started with infinity and our versions of it, since we both had a tattoo of the symbol. Then it progressed to life and death. At the beach we were discussing how hunting for meat was different from eating farmed or factory produced meat. We also discussed about the origin of the word soccer and how it was not really an American perversion.
These guys eventually ran out of alcohol and this meant deciding what was next. Richard wanted to try his luck in a casino. I had thought that gambling was illegal in Vietnam but Mike assured me that there were four casinos around us. We somehow reached the conclusion that we would head back to the hostel to drink some more before heading for the casinos later. I joined in for the next round and we went back to the hostel and drank and listened to hip-hop and rap. There were two Australians there as well, Hamish and Andy. Hamish was looking to teach in Vietnam so I got him in touch with Mandy the next day. Everyone sat in the common room drinking and smoking.
I remember doing a lot of random things that night. I ate two plates of banh mi nuong; I shot another time-lapse and messed up again; I appreciated Hinduism as a religion of acceptance in front of Czech Richard and Sanjeev; I got fist pumps from Dutch Richard for speaking what was on his mind; I did some bhangra for some reason. We eventually did head out to the casino and some of us managed to lose the way in the short distance. We got out immediately after because it was an electronic casino as I had suspected all along. We returned to the hostel and I gave the common room a miss this time. I crashed in my bed; I had been looking to sleep since the afternoon!
I got up the next morning and decided that I needed to leave Vũng Tàu. My funds were running low as well (I was running out of dongs and I did not want to make another ATM withdrawal) and I thought I would head out to Cambodia that very day. I had not decided for sure but I booked a bus out to Saigon to confirm my departure.
I sat in the reception area and got talking to a woman who was waiting to check in. She was coming from Saigon and recommended me the place she had been staying in but it was out of my budget unfortunately. The woman was a middle aged Dutch lady. She was a single mother with two children. Now that her children were independent, she was making the most of her summer vacations (she was a school teacher) by travelling. She had travelled in Australia last year with her daughter and was doing a solo trip in South East Asia this year. Amongst all the mess that calls itself travellers these days, one does meet a rare gem now and then. I thanked her for her advice for Saigon and then headed out to grab some cheap vegetarian food with Czech Richard. The food wasn’t tasty but I ate a lot of it anyway. Then I got back to the hostel and sat around till it the van came to pick me up. I was stuffed and I slept for most of the way till District One.
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Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Vũng Tàu leg of the trip.