“Is this the biggest Jesus in the world?” That’s the question I found myself asking as I marvelled at the imposing statue standing 32 metres tall and spanning 18 metres wide, perched high on a hilltop before me. This impressive Christ the King statue is even larger than Rio de Janeiro’s famed Christ the Redeemer but, as it turns out, it’s not quite the world’s biggest Jesus, it ranks third. And you’ll find it overlooking the long, white-sand beach and clear blue sea off the coast of Vung Tau, Vietnam.
This southern Vietnamese city lies between two mountains on a small peninsula which juts out into the South China Sea. There’s a rich and varied history here, over the centuries it’s acted as a safe anchorage for European trading ships, a headquarters for plundering Malay pirates, a retreat for Vietnamese royalty, home to a former French president and an R&R spot for soldiers during the Vietnam War. Today, this prosperous city is home to around 450,00 souls and the heart of Vietnam’s oil and gas industry.
The cool sea breezes, long white beaches, manicured green spaces and growing selection of top notch resorts and restaurants on offer here make Vung Tau the perfect playground for well-to-do weekenders escaping the heat of nearby Ho Chi Minh City, a two-hour drive or 90-minute, $15, hydrofoil ride away. But despite its popularity with in-the-know locals, overseas visitors know little about this hidden gem.
That’s changing. The secret’s out for a growing number of shrewd expats who’ve taken advantage of the low cost of living, convenient location and laidback lifestyle which Vung Tau offers. On my recent visit, I met with some of those who’ve made the leap and found they couldn’t be happier.
“I wake up every morning and think ‘another day in paradise’,” says expat Rod Harlor, 69, originally from Wodonga. “My love for this place and the wonderful Vietnamese people just keeps getting stronger.”
Rod’s a veteran and first set foot in Vung Tau back in 1969. Little did he know then he’d one day retire here, but a friend convinced him to return in 2011 and Rod was bowled over by the thriving, progressive city he found. So much so, that he now calls Vung Tau home.
Wangaratta native Glenn Nolan, 56, fell for Vung Tau’s charms over a decade ago. “I think Vung Tau is the most underrated place on the coast,” says Glenn. “Most people have heard of Mui Ne, Nha Trang and Da Nang, but Vung Tau has remained a bit of a secret.”
The low cost of living is one of the big selling points for Vung Tau’s Aussie residents. For less than $400 you can rent a modern, air-conditioned apartment, minutes from the beach, with ocean views. Hundreds of restaurants serve up delicious local specialties like pho (rice noodle soup), banh mi (filled baguettes) and com tam (rice with barbecue pork) for less than $2, making it easy to eat well for less than $10 a day. Expat hangouts Matilda’s, Ned Kelly’s and The Down Under Bar dish up more familiar fare like steak, pasta and burgers for just a few dollars more and a taxi home after a night out is unlikely to cost more than a few dollars.
“Why would I pay $11 for a pint in Melbourne when I can get a beer for $1 over here?” asks Glenn. “Here you can afford to go out and eat every night of the week if you want.”
From Vung Tau, a two-hour drive on a brand new highway will have you in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, giving residents all the benefits of city living without the hustle and bustle…and for much lower prices. Direct buses to Ho Chi Minh’s international airport take around two hours, making it a convenient base for those who love to travel.
But you don’t have to leave Vung Tau for big city living. You’ll find modern shopping centres, cinemas, ritzy resorts, luxury apartments and great golf all right here. And, happily, despite all the modern developments, the unique charm and character of this Vietnamese city remains. Traditional wet markets, friendly, smiling locals, the crazy dance of speeding scooters, the alluring aromas from an army of street food vendors and of course, that giant Jesus, are all reminders that you are right at home in an exotic and exciting land…
Main Image: ©iStock.com/ThuTruong
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