Vietnam’s richest city, Vung Tau is a bubble. Jutting out into the sea on a small peninsula, two hours south of Saigon, it feels somewhat detached from the rest of the country. Its wealth largely due to offshore oil rigs, it’s rapidly changing to become a trendy place for rich young Saigonese who throng the many new cafes and restaurants at the weekend. Even during my year here, it has changed; there are a lot more cars on the roads and new buildings continue to spring up. Scooting around the coast on my motorbike during my last day in the city, part of me wonders if I’m mad to leave; if it wasn’t for the heat and my ignorance of the Vietnamese language (people often think I’m speaking English when my attempts go beyond basic words), I’d be tempted to stay. Life has been very comfortable for me here and I’m going to miss the freedom of the sea and small forested mountains on the peninsula, as well as the good friends I’ve made with ex-pat teachers and locals who I regularly hang out with in cafes and restaurants.
Vung Tau has a sleazy reputation. The main strips along the two main beaches have many ‘girly bars’ who cater for the large offshore workforce when they return to land along with older (mainly Aussie) foreigners. One Scouse ex-pat I was chatting to in Saigon told me his lasting memory of Vung Tau was being chased down the street by a prostitute who was threatening to kill him. Luckily, this bares little resemblance to the city I know, which has generally been kind to me and I’m glad such a place exists where few backpackers come (despite being so close to Saigon, nearly all travelers pass it by on their way northwards).
For a long time, I found the Vietnamese very socially conservative and their attitude to foreigners completely bemusing. There are a lot of misconceptions. Perhaps such awkwardness is a manifestation of their difficult history which they’ve mainly put behind, or perhaps it’s more to do with my own reserved nature which doesn’t help to overcome the language barrier, or a combination of both. Being a bit withdrawn for the first few months I lived here, it took me a long time to make friends outside of the teacher’s circle. When I did, I was a lot happier at having connections to those who live here permanently. Van, was the only one of the teacher’s assistants I worked with who became a good friend and I also worked with her father (an English teacher) giving private lessons. Hà Giang, who owns a cafe around the corner from where I used to live, steadily became a close friend after frequenting her homely cafe. Their good company, humor, kindness and help when I needed it, made the past six so much more enjoyable than the previous six.
The year has flown by. Constantly on the go, I never seemed to have enough time between work to properly relax and do the things I wanted, whether it be exercise, eating enough or reading/writing, although my social life has been healthy. It’s like I’ve been stuck in some strange time-warp between two wee mountains on a small peninsula and the oil-rigs and ships glimmering in the distance. It’s been strange, in a good way. My friend Lisa who recently visited me (having traveled all the way overland from England!) commented on how I drive as fearlessly as the locals through the motorbike mayhem. A year ago I told myself I was never going to ride a motorbike again (having had a minor accident years ago in Australia); it’s a place that has challenged me for the better. Despite the many frustrations, mainly with time not being my own, I know it’s the sort of place that’ll always hold fond memories. It may even draw me back one day and then I’ll realise it’s not quite how I remembered it. Vung Tau is one of the lesser-known gems of the new, confident, albeit more unequal and faster-paced Vietnam.
On my way out of the country I stop in Saigon for a couple of nights. I don’t think I could ever live or work here; it’s too big, too busy, too polluted and too noisy. The only thing that could persuade me are the people whose company I enjoy. Two such locals are Thanh and Yen who I meet up with the night before I leave. I met them on a staff trip months ago (the company I worked for has centers across Vietnam) and have stayed in contact. It’s a pleasant farewell to this land and my mixed feelings about leaving continue as I get on the bus to leave. Next stop Cambodia.