A beachside Valentines Day at Vung Tau

Who is this beautiful girl ? Well that would have to be Yi, my wife :)

I wasn’t able to come with Yi to her family’s house in the Mekong for Tet. A week earlier we’d been invited out to dinner at a Vietnamese BBQ place by another journalist at one of the publications I write for who was doing an article on us and well, the food was not so good. We all got sick to varying degrees, me the worst. So I stayed home and she went on her own while I lay in bed and felt awful. We talked every day on the phone and when I got better I told her I would come down to meet her. She insisted it was too far for me to ride and instead said “You still want to go to Vung Tau ? Maybe I come home early and we go Vung Tau”. I was quick to agree. Yi’s holiday ended the day after Valentines Day, so I thought this would be just awesome. And it was.

We left as early as I could wake her (a mission that requires superhuman feats I can assure you) and jumped onto my Yamaha and headed off, trying to get there before the sun got too hot. Sadly we did not leave early enough and by the time we got there I was thoroughly fried by the sun meaning my nose was as red as Rudolph’s.

Cam Tu, the hotel I always stay at in Vung Tau had been uncontactable and I realised why when we arrived. It had been taken over, renovated, and it had a new name and number. It was also full. Pretty much everything was except for some of the higher class hotels. We settled on a smaller local one that was 500,000 dong a night. An absurd price for such a shitty old hotel without even a window, but it was still Tet holidays and every man, woman, child and their dog in Vietnam seemed to have come to Vung Tau to enjoy the beach. We checked in at 10am and I was glad we did because a few minutes later as I stood on the balcony puffing on a cigar while Yi slept some more, I observed a Vietnamese couple stop and the guy went in and asked for a room and was turned away. I smirked and felt like saying “Sorry, no room at the inn” if I could have said it in Vietnamese and the joked had even translated.

When Yi woke up we rode around to the front beach. It was incredibly windy and unpleasant and even quite cool on the seaside with the strong gusts dashing the waves over the rocks on the headland. We went to David’s, the Italian restaurant near the ferry terminal which is listed by the Vung Tau council as the best Italian food in Vung Tau, but I firmly believe it may be some of the best in all of Vietnam. I lashed out to a reasonable extent, ordering deep fried baby squid as an entree and two delicious cacciatore style meals; raviolo for Yi and stuffed ham and cheese chicken schnitzels for myself along with half a litre of the house wine. Even though the meals at David’s are pretty reasonably priced, the bill still came to a stunning 850,000 dong which I carefully paid without Yi noticing lest she go “OH MY GOD ! SO EXPENSIVE !” … Nice is taking a girl out to a good restaurant. Gentlemanly is not letting her know how much it cost and she would have thought that $40 was unreasonably expensive.

The food was divine as always and after finishing we took a little ride around, but front beach was a little bit unpleasant due to the weather so we headed to the back beach and I located the great beachside Russian Bar that I had visited many times on previous visits. It’s just this little thatched-roof bar with some stools, but right on the beach they have a small hut-style building with another bar and some low tables and a couple of beach chairs. It’s very quiet and rarely has too many people there (mostly a Russian crowd actually) and it’s not hard to pull up a comfortable lounge chair right on the beach, which we did. As I sat with my arm around her, a beer in my hand and a Baileys and milk in hers I asked her “Have you ever been to a beach ?”

“A what ?” she asked.

“A beach. Bãi biển. This” I said, pointing to the sand in front of us.

“No” she said casually.

“The ocean ? Đại dương ? You’ve never been before ?”

“Never” she said with a small shake of her head.

“You like it ?” I asked.

“Very beautiful” she said.

She’s not one to overstate things. Despite being pretty immature at times she’s not the type to run around with her hands above her head screaming “Oh my god. So amazing !” She cares what people think and she plays it cool most times. I already knew she’d never been to a beach before but I just wanted to confirm it. It felt good knowing she was experiencing something new with me. No big deal though. We just rode to the ocean and hung out on a beach. That’s all. But we did it in reasonable style.

After a few drinks we were feeling tired so we went home and retired. I told her it was ok to have an early night because tomorrow we would be getting up very early. She asked “Why ?” but I just smiled and said “I just want to wake up before it gets hot ok ?” which I knew she would accept.

The next morning came and I woke her up at half past four. I did this because I knew she has to get used to the idea of waking up slowly and she would want to sleep for another hour while I pestered her to get up. Eventually we dressed and went downstairs and woke the reception boy who sleepily dragged himself to the front and unlocked the metal roller door and then unchained my bike and let us out. We rode towards front beach in the early blue light of pre-dawn with Yi saying to me at least three times “So early. Very dark”.

I swung around the headland as we rose up the side of the mountain to get to the eastern side of Vung Tau’s peninsula and to my surprise many, many couples had decided to see the sun rise over the water on Valentines Day in one of the few places you can do it in this country. Not only were there already around a thousand down on the beach proper, but on the areas leading up the side of the mountain, large groups had come to sit on the marble railing that runs for about 20km around the whole of Vung Tau. Many had even slept there, and as we stopped and I parked my bike Yi commented “So many the people sleep here last night”. I think she didn’t quite understand why. I didn’t bother mentioning to her that it was mostly because it was Valentines Day as well as just after Tet holidays. She’d never been to Vung Tau so I guess she just thought this was what people did there. Many activities in Vietnam are city-specific and people tend to have a thing that each city or district does that is unique to them.

We walked to the edge of the lower part of the mountain where a few other couples were sitting, looking out at the small Buddhist temple in the ocean. It was hard to see much on this beach before the dawn as many clouds were obscuring the sky but fortunately the camera sucked up all the available light and produced some magnificent photos that revealed the view that our own eyes couldn’t see so well. After a few minutes I urged her to get back on the bike.

“Where we go now ?” she asked.

“The beach” I said, with no more explanation.

It occurred to me that while she had seen the beach yesterday, she had not yet stepped on it. She had never run up a beach away from the surge of a wave of cool salt water or felt the sand between her toes. I guess that since that was such a big part of my life and she hadn’t done it that she was missing out. So I took her down near the Russian bar and we parked the bike in one of the many nearly-full impromptu parking lots that had sprung up and we walked down. It was still only about ten minutes past six at this point and I said to her “Very soon”. She just looked at me and asked “What ?”. I said “The sun. Ten more minutes”. She said no more and we walked a little, feeling the cool morning air with the smell of salt on it.

About seven minutes later the sky started to fill with red. There were a few Vietnamese photographers walking around but also a lot of children and parents just playing in the water as it washed up. A few were even swimming. The next moment, a crack of bright orange appeared over the horizon in the small space between the ocean and the clouds. Like a long orange neon tube it seemed to illuminate everything. I began taking photos. It rose so quickly and the slightly hazy sky gave it a very surreal and soft look. I mostly took photos of Yi with the sun behind her at varying apertures and focus levels for a while and we walked up and down a bit and held hands for the brief time before it rose completely above the ocean. The scene was spectacular with such a wide, uninterrupted view. Everyone on the beach was quietly taking in this manificent visage with their loved ones. I had meant to say “Happy Valentines Day” at this moment but it slipped my mind as I was too busy admiring the beauty of both Yi and the sunrise. Vung Tau is one of the few mainland places in Vietnam where you can see the sun both rise and set over the ocean and I hoped to capture it later that evening as well before we went home.

After wandering around the beach for a while and getting some cold green tea I told her we should go and have breakfast. We circled the headland again and stopped opposite the ferry terminal at Ned Kelly’s. Ned’s is an Aussie bar with a particular focus on the Australian veterans who were stationed in Vung Tau. Inside it has a lot of small tributes to soldiers by their family and fellow ANZACS. I got a bacon and egg breakfast and Yi got a plate of stir fried chicken and vegetables, of which she picked out most of the vegetables (she’s such a child sometimes). A large Aussie biker type came in with his Vietnamese girlfriend. His girl was very loud and Yi screwed up her face in annoyance. The waitress, about a decade older than Yi had the longest hair and Yi exclaimed over it. I commented that it was very impressive and she asked the girl how long it had taken to grow down almost to her feet. She said 5 years but I think maybe that was just from the already long normal Vietnamese length.

We headed back to the hotel and Yi went back to sleep (again) while I chatted on Facebook and told everyone how beautiful it had been. Eventually she woke up and we really just lay in bed and watched tv (well, mostly that) for a few hours and I drank a couple of cold beers I’d bought the night before and forgotten about. We went back to the front beach since the weather had improved and I had told her we would be riding to the top of the mountain later. We cruised slowly along the esplanade, stopping at the park to take some beautiful pictures and Yi got really excited about seeing the guys fishing with drag nets on the beach and insisted on running right up close to see the size of the fish they caught and telling that she loved that particular fish (they were sort of like whiting but maybe a different local variety).

Continuing on after some wonderful pictures of Yi standing under a pair of large shrubs trained to grow together in the shape of a large heart-shaped arch, we headed to the seafood restaurant at the other end of the bay which also played host to the bottom of the chair lift up the mountain. Yi didn’t think much of at as we approached, but on boarding, as the carriage took off roughly she started to panic a bit. I jokingly told her that only a couple of people a month died and that most got away with merely broken bones. The look of horror on her face was been immortalised forever in a quick photograph before she hit me and said “No joking !” and I roared with laughter and promised it wasn’t true, but rocked the small car a little bit anyway just to tease her.

We got to the top of the cable-car route and proceed up the mountain via electric buses before being deposited near the top with a large map of things to look at. I realised Yi was a scaredy cat so I didn’t even try to persuade her to try the big “pirate ship” ride that swung back and forth, nor the Alpine Express ride down the mountain in small cars on rails which looked really awesome but it was single-person only and I would have preferred to just do things together, especially scary ones.

We went to the huge Happy Buddha statue on the peak of the mountain and burned incense and prayed together and then walked across to the other peak where I admired the large radar tower the Vietnamese had built to detect incoming ships or aircraft during periods of war far behind us. I wanted to walk around the edge of the mountain to take photos of Vung Tau far below and while she did it, I think Yi must have complained about the heat around about 32,583 times in the space of 30 minutes. Sometimes her sentences just ran together and it seemed like “hot hot hot hot hot” was all she was saying. I told her it was best she didn’t ever live in northern Australia or some of the places in the Pacific I’d lived.

We looked briefly at the horses which amused Yi but she was horrified at the idea of riding one. We looked at the ostriches (which she might have ridden, ironically) and then stopped at a stall that was selling them BBQ’d on sticks which I jumped at because ostrich shish-kebabs are probably the tastiest BBQ food on the planet. We looked at the small lake under the waterfall where people were paddling in swan shaped boats but she wasn’t keen to do that. I think she might be scared of water but I’m not 100% sure yet.

We looked at some peacocks and some flowers and then stopped at a very inexpensive restaurant (you had to pay so much to get up the mountain that I guess the stuff up there had to be reasonably priced) but the service was terrible and we spent the first 20 minutes watching one woman and her family from a nearby table absolutely scream at the staff and cause a huge scene which everyone watched with great interest (the Vietnamese have excellent public arguments over stuff. If you fuck up badly at a restaurant and you have Vietnamese people for customers, watch out) before finally getting served some rather average and cold stir fry, fried rice and crab soup. It was shit, but it was cheap and I didn’t mind because we’d spent a fortune yesterday and we’d come up for the view, not the dining. The place was pretty much an overly busy tourist trap on that day and Yi was pretty eager to leave.

I think we both enjoyed it but really had no desire to try and savour it for too long because it was hot and crowded, but there were lots of great things to see like the Happy Buddha and Ho Chi Minh’s Garden on the tip of the mountain and of course the amazing view of Vung Tau far below with the second largest statue of Christ on the planet standing on the peninsula with its arms outstretched, welcoming everyone to the most exposed tip of Vietnam to receive their Christian salvation. I thought it was interesting that the park had both Buddhist and Christian exhibits and features, showing off Vung Tau’s importance as a place of religious expression for both groups of believers.

We went back out to the Russian Bar again but Yi was feeling a bit under the weather. I stopped to get her some medication because she had bad stomach pains again. The evil stuff in the prawns we had eaten over a week ago had left us with pretty bad pains in our kidneys that would come and go and as yet no antibiotics or anything had been able to fully rid us of them. We relaxed and had a couple of beers and I spent a while texting a friend who was also away on holiday, but much further up the country in Nha Trang. We exchanged some pictures and he asked if I wanted a Chinese BB gun which of course I did because they were in the shape of AK47’s which was so cute.

My goal to stay for the sunset over the other beach was dashed because Yi was tired and in pain and I could see that the unpleasantness of having to wait around feeling bad and then ride home in the pitch dark would not be worth the minor pleasure of seeing the sun disappear into the ocean from whens it had come 12 hours ago so I agreed that we should head home. We jumped back on the bike and headed off, with Yi taking some terrible photos along the way which I had to delete to her disappointment.

The road was highway all the way on the way back and not too crowded but it seemed to take ages. It was towards the end that it was the best because even though the road got smaller, there were few people on it and we screamed along way faster than I should have been riding, at one point just nudging it up to 110km an hour which was pretty amazing for a little 135cc Yamaha with around 160kg on the back not including baggage. I zoomed through traffic like I was playing Moto GP, playing by the rule that in Vietnam dodging is far more effective than braking since most of the bike traffic is in dedicated lanes, especially on the highway. I kept this up even into the city until I saw a police checkpoint near the An Phu border and realised I was doing about 90km in a 40km zone and I had better slow the hell down. I wondered why Yi never said anything to me, but I think she sorta loves screaming along on my bike on the highway. She likes resting her head on my shoulder and just watching while leaning against me. It makes it difficult to turn suddenly in traffic but on the highway it’s ok and it’s nice to have her close because it feels safer when we’re screaming along on a big wide road.

The first thing I did the next day was put copies of all the photos on her iPod. I knew that she would be eager to show them all to her bosses and friends at work. I made sure the photo on her lockscreen was a silhouette of her looking out over a stunning sunrise so that there would be no doubt where she had spent her Valentines Day. Watching the sun rise over the water in Vung Tau. An unforgettable experience.

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