When Rod “Rocket” Harlor arrived in Vung Tau with a gun slung over his shoulder in 1969, retiring to Vietnam was the furthest thing from his mind.
But today 69-year-old veteran Rod is one of many Aussies who have chosen to make their home in this seaside town…
Vung Tau sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea. At various stages in history, it’s been a safe anchorage for European 14th- and 15th-century trading ships, a base for Malay pirates, a summer retreat for the last Vietnamese Emperor and home to the former French governor of Indochina—Paul Domer.
During the Vietnam War, it was a popular R’n’R retreat for Australian, New Zealand and U.S. military personnel after their tours “in country,” some of the fiercest battles were fought just down the road at Long Tan and Nui Dat.
Over the years, Vung Tau has quietly emerged as one of Vietnam’s top beach locations and these days it’s home to a growing contingent of Australian expats who are seeking an affordable beach town but still want the benefits that a large city provides.
“A friend convinced me to return to Vung Tau in 2011 and I was bowled over by the difference,” says Rod. “Vietnam is thriving and Vung Tau in particular has changed for the better. They have a real thing about trees and gardens and the subtropical weather is perfect for creating and maintaining lush, green spaces.”
The welcoming attitude of the locals is one of the things that makes the city special for Rod. “The atmosphere is great,” he says. “I wake up every morning and think ‘another day in paradise.’ My love for the beautiful Vietnamese people grows by the day. The locals know me now. When I head out on my daily walk, grandmothers wave and smile and encourage their grandkids to do the same. These beautiful kids now greet me with enthusiastic hellos and high fives! It puts a smile on my face every time.”
Vung Tau is an easy 90-minute drive from the centre of Saigon. For less than $9 you can settle into the plush leather seats of a luxury WiFi-equipped VIP bus and be transported along a brand new highway to the city centre. Alternatively, a new hydrofoil zooms up the Saigon River in around an hour-and-a-half to two hours and costs around $15.
Arriving from Saigon, one of the first things you’ll notice is the mile upon mile of lush green foliage flourishing on the six-metre wide nature strip that leads into town. There are many well-tended parks and gardens dotted around the city and one of the major attractions here are the two beaches.
Signs of progress are everywhere, with new resorts and apartment blocks popping up like mushrooms. The city has modern shopping centres, cinemas and plenty of quality restaurants and bars. Vung Tau is also home to Vietnam’s very first Links-style golf course, a big draw for expats and affluent locals alike.
Despite the pace of change, Vung Tau retains a laidback vibe. The friendly smiles of old women wearing traditional Non-Las (conical woven hats) as they ply their wares at the local market remind visitors that, fancy hotels and restaurants aside, you are still well and truly immersed in a foreign culture.
Of course, one of the biggest attractions for retirees and sea changers in Vung Tau is the low cost of living. You can rent a comfortable, fully furnished two-bedroom apartment with ocean views for less than $400—including WiFi and Pay TV—and kick back in any number of bars with a cold beer for just $1.
Like most other parts of Vietnam, street food stalls line the footpaths cooking up a storm and you could easily spend less than $10 a day on food. Small local restaurants dish up some of the best seafood in the country. “I love the local food,” says Rod. “But if you’re not in the mood for Pho (a noodle soup made with beef broth, rice noodles, fresh herbs and meat) or Banh Mi (a baguette filled with meat, pickled vegetables and chilli), the bars and restaurants all have great international menus at very reasonable prices. You can eat anything you want.”
With so much on offer, the word is slowly getting out about Vung Tau. “Over the last few months we’ve had a nice trickle of Aussie visitors,” says Rod. “Once we show them around and point out the highlights of the area, they quite often start to think about coming back and living here.”