Its beautiful and peaceful beaches offered a relaxing respite from the brutality of war raging just miles away.
It is a remarkable place, Vietnam’s seaport city of Vung Tau. Situated on a tiny strip of land shaped like a thumb extending into the South China Sea near the southern end of the country, it has long been a place of escape and of rescue, of refuge and of healing.
The resort beach, long known as Cap Saint Jacques, had been a favorite getaway for the French colonials and the wealthy of Saigon since the late 19th century. During the Vietnam War, Vung Tau was a city of both war and peace, serving as an important and active port and as a favorite R&R spot for fighting men. Today, spurred by the country’s economic vitality, oil exploration and a growing tourist industry, Vung Tau is bustling with development.
As the American troop buildup began, Vung Tau became a point of debarkation for tens of thousands of GIs. In the vicinity were a number of U.S. Naval facilities, and a fully equipped repair depot, USNS Corpus Christi Bay, was anchored a few miles away. A large contingent of Australian and New Zealand airmen were also stationed in the Vung Tau area.
But for most Americans, Vung Tau is best remembered as one of the most popular in-country rest and recuperation (R&R) destinations. Its beautiful and peaceful beaches offered a relaxing respite from the brutality of war raging just miles away. The place was so desirable that many men stationed at nearby bases were afraid to leave, refusing to take R&R elsewhere for fear they would be transferred out of Vung Tau when they got back. It was even widely rumored that not only was Vung Tau used by the Americans, Australians, South Vietnamese and their allies as an R&R destination, but even the Viet Cong would go to the city for some rest and relaxation of their own.
Many of the estimated 100 bars in Vung Tau during the war were named after American cities, towns or other familiar places, in an attempt to make the U.S. troops feel at home. Some of the bars in town were reportedly joint ventures between Americans and Vietnamese. The downtown section was filled with dance halls and young women and soldiers poured into the clubs where the latest rock music blared. An article, “Vung Tau, Vietnam, Pleasure Capital of the World,” ran in Argosy magazine in 1969.
As early as the mid-1960s, both Vietnam’s General Nguyen Khanh and American General William Westmoreland eyed Vung Tau as a possible evacuation route should that become a necessity. Their thoughts proved prophetic. After the war, Vung Tau served as an evacuation point for tens of thousands of boat people fleeing Communist rule. Fishing trawlers bulging with refugees set sail, never to return. Some of the passengers made it to safety, while others perished. Many boats were forced back to land, and their occupants were arrested and served prison terms. One man told of having given all that he had three times to sail away, but the boat was forced back to shore each time; he served three prison terms. Thousands of South Vietnamese continued to attempt escape via Vung Tau through the mid-1980s.
Today, the resort town is split into two areas. On Front Beach are most of the more expatriate-oriented hotels, restaurants and bars, while Back Beach caters to tourists and Vietnamese vacationers. On one end of Vung Tau, beside Nui Lon (large mountain), a giant lotus sculpture raises its flower toward the heavens. It stands at the summit of a hillside park called Thic Ca Phat Dai. A Rio de Janeiro–style giant Jesus, built in 1974, stands on top of Nui Nho (small mountain), which rises at the city’s southern end.
Hotel accommodations run from luxury four-star operations to mini hotels and guest houses. Vung Tau is also home to Vietnam’s first links-style golf course.
Jeanne Conte is a freelance writer living in Powell, Ohio.
For more photos and recollections of Vung Tau, check out this veteran site:
Also, see the Vung Tau pages of the Vietnam Project at Texas Tech University:
And, take an entertaining trip back to 1971 with this rare short video from Vung Tau: