Saigon can be… frenetic.
There’s so much to love about this city, including unexpected sights around every corner. But even for the most spasmodic, sometimes it can get a bit… much. According to the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transportation’s 2010 stats, there are 320,000 cars and 3.2 million motorbikes in the city and some days it feels like you’re battling every single one of them to get to where you’re going. Either that, or get stuck behind a city bus belching black smoke and one of the most annoying honking sounds you’ll ever hear. (I’ve been to Africa and the closest thing I can think of is a zebra braying…)
So, when some local friends invited me on a daytrip to visit the beachside town of Vung Tau, about 125km to the southeast of the city, I jumped at the chance. And since I was going with local Vietnamese, here’s a How To Guide on spending a day at the beach like a local.
Step 1. Gather 50 of your closest friends and charter a bus, preferably one with disco lights (optional, but encouraged).
Vietnamese have a thing about being alone. I think it comes from the traditional culture where extended family groups live together in small spaces. Back in the villages, rice farming was definitely a collective experience. Even in the city, where real estate is tremendously expensive, it’s not uncommon for grown brothers and sisters to live together in their parents’ house, with their respective families. Or for parents to share a room with their children.
Anytime I go to a restaurant and eat alone, I get really sad looks. I was recently on another trip with some friends, and the one family with us couldn’t imagine going off and doing anything on their own. We had to do everything as a group.
Vietnamese like to use the word “buon” a lot. It literally means “sad” but can also mean “lonely, bored or annoyed”. Any activity that doesn’t include a ton of people is termed “buon”.
Step 2. Brace yourself for the inevitable bouts of carsickness.
Now that you’ve made it out of the city, stop and take a deep breath of… Oh. my. God. What IS that smell?
Something you should know is that Vietnamese are not good at riding in cars. After about 30 minutes, expect to hear noises from retching and dry heaves. It’s strange — most Viets would much rather drive on a motorbike for long distances (where they can feel the wind through their hair, I guess) than take a bus. Me? Put me on a motorbike for anything longer than 30 minutes and my buttocks get numb.
So if you’re ever on a bus with locals, remember to pack a vial of stinky Chinese oil. If you’re a local, rub some into your temples. If you’re a foreigner, dab some under your nose like a coroner would with Vicks. Believe me, it helps.
Step 3. Stop for snacks every hour.
Vietnamese love to snack. Good road trip snacks include fruit (with chili salt, natch!), wafers (strawberry or coconut flavored) and whole peanuts.
The rest stop where we took a break had all of the above for sale and then some. Apparently, snake wine is really good for traveling since every stall had it for sale.
If plain old cobra wine isn’t good enough for you (and why should it be?), there’s always a snake EATING another snake, gecko wine or scorpion wine. And you thought the worm in Tequila was gross?
I thought I had seen it all until I spotted something that looked like a beak. No. It couldn’t be. But there it was. A beak attached to a very feathered crow-looking bird. In the wine. Bird wine? Very Edgar Allen Poe’ish.
Step 4. Once you get to the beach, go to sleep.
You’ve survived the trauma of the bus ride. You deserve a nap.
Step 5. About five minutes after you arrive, start setting up the food.
Yes, I realize it’s only 9:30am and everyone’s full from all the coconut wafers washed down with some lovely Crow Wine, but it’s never too early to start setting up the food. After all, if you’re a local Vietnamese, you’ve brought a lot of stuff with you. Like huge bags of whole corn. And charcoal. And huge jugs of water. A grill or three. A rice cooker. Marinated meats.
(I once went on a camping trip in Canada with some Vietnamese families. Our little Saigon of camping spaces was decked out with microwaves, TVs and toaster ovens. On a camping trip.)
Step 6. Go for a swim.
Of course, this means swimming full clothed. And strapping bright orange life jackets to all your children.
I would venture to say that a good portion of Vietnamese people can’t swim. Unless you grew up by a river, there’s no real reason to learn how to swim. The average Vietnamese doesn’t go on holiday very often. In fact, for a few people on this trip, it was their first time seeing the ocean. So at a typical Vietnamese beach, 80% of the people will be in water waist high or shallower.
Because Vung Tau is actually a peninsula and part of the mainland, the ocean isn’t very pretty. Skip the kitsch of Vung Tau (although you may want to detour to see the 32m Jesus statue, reportedly 2m higher than the one in Rio, not counting the base) and head to Phuoc Hai, a beach a few kms east of Vung Tau, where the water was cleaner and the beach was groomed and had lifeguards.
Watch the people dredging the sand for tiny mollusks. These are used as a cheap feed for ducks, a massive export industry in Vietnam.
Step 7. Play cards.
No Vietnamese outing is complete without some raucous card playing. Trash talk is optional, but definitely encouraged.
So there you have it. How to spend the day at the beach like the locals.