Two hours of a beautiful back-river and open ocean ride away from the hectic serpent Saigon, Vung Tau is seen mainly as a refuge from the city on weekends. Locals pile into mini-vans and hydrofoils and cram to the small seaside town downing oysters and Banh Kot in frenetic scenes. The beaches are not epic, the town is nothing special, but it has a certain vibe that is conducive with ex-pats and lazing around doing absolutely nothing.
I headed here for a week on my way to Con Dau, to hang with an old friend and escape the noise torrents of HCMC. Surpisingly enough, the food turned out to be fantastic.
Before you type "restaurants near me" on your smartphone, take a look through this list:
How to get there
Forego the simple option of jumping in a mini-van and hurtling down Vietnamese roads at 100, avoiding certain death by mere inches.... opt for the lovely (and pricier) hydrofoil that leaves from opposite The Majestic Hotel in HCMC multiple times a day.
Where to eat
Phô Minh Tam ($)
Enraptured in idle conversation with the receptionist whilst awaiting a SIM card delivery, I turned the subject towards Pho. "Any places in Vung Tau that you would highly recommend?". She didn't hesitate for a second: "Minh Tam, it's the best pho in Vung Tau! Local taste". Moments before leaving my room I had googled "Best Pho in Vung Tau" on a Vietnamese food site (not tripadvi-sore), and SNAP, Minh Tam had the highest ratings.
I walked into the small roadside shop, pointed at the bowl on the menu that I wanted, took my seat and smelled the divine broth wafting over while flies buzzed around in confusing patterns racing invisible prizes. First sip and I was a convert. Second sip, a religious nut. This was the bowl you hope to find everytime you enter a new shopfront or store. This exact bowl. Broth so clear, yet deep and unctuous in it's slimline perfection, noodles soft but textured, beef a little on the chewy side but lets not be negative. This is one of those bowls that would be served to you on your deathbed and you wouldn't even throw a glancing look towards impending death, you would shakily pour in as much broth as you could handle through your dentured mouth.
Only a handful of places on earth could come close to this. This is almost perfection
Banh Khot 14 ($)
Robert, my Norwegian-Vietnamese friend implored me to try this dish in Vung Tau. I delayed it not out of spite, but just because I was so busy gorging on lots of other amazing dishes, but finally on my last night I ventured in and ordered a plate of shrimp Banh Khot. Holy balls, this was really tasty. The crispiest pancakes with perfectly cooked shrimp all wrapped in betel leaf and lettuce, strings of green papaya and carrot, feathered in fresh herbs and then doused in Nuoc Cham peppered with chilli sauce. This was finger-licking goodness!
Kozak Restaurant ($$)
Having spoken before at my shock in finding a decent Phô place in a market in Odesa, Ukraine, this incident was just as bizarre. Having read on Culturetrip about a phenomenal Ukrainian place in the town, I had to explore further and try quench my borsht hankerings. Pulling up to this monstrous restaurant replete with a plaster cow outside and thatched roof on the inside, it reminded me of travelling extensively in Ukraine where all the best restaurants were the most ridiculously themed.
The borsht here was superb with a delicious garlic hit, the meat dumplings I dare say were better than any I had in Russia or Ukraine. Ridiculous as it sounds, if you are ever passing through Vung Tau, come and appease your appetite at this wonderful restaurant.
Bistro Nine ($$)
I hadn't had a club sandwich in a few years, so I decided to remedy that. Ploughing through the hot streets soaked in sweat and the damages of a lingering cold, I pulled up a chair, ordered and sipped heavily on my lemon soda.
This was the moistest, most tender chicken club I ever ate. Everything was perfect. The lettuce was crispy, the bacon was excellent, not too much mayo. Someone really knows what they're doing and it shows in the small attention to details. Highly recommended if you need a Western fix.
David's Pizza ($$)
Never one to shy away from a good pizza, this is the spot to come in Vung Tau. Excellent service, views of the ocean, great authentic pizza and a decent wine-list too.
Taj Grill Indian Restaurant ($$)
Vietnam has the knack of offering superb standards of Indian food, generally anywhere you go. I've had fantastic curries all the way from Hanoi to Phu Quoc. Taj Grill is no exception, the waiter is Indian, the chef is from Uttarakhand, and the flavours bring you back to punjab.
Highly recommended are the samosas to start with, the desi-chicken curry, the madras, the garlic naan, oh dammit.. just order it all.
Don Quijote ($$$)
Sometimes you push the boat out and order a duck breast with a sauce and some potatos. Well, today was one of those days. The restaurant itself was charming, the service was up there with the best in Vietnam, the owner friendly but not annoying.
Excellent food served in a nice atmosphere!
Where to Drink
Peace & Love
Generally decent music, surly bartenders, cocktails for 3 dollars and beers for 1. Not much else to complain about really. Definitely the only hip bar in town, but thankfully they don't take themselves too seriously. Watch out for the three dogs who come barking at anyone who walks in, they bark but don't bite. Also bring earplugs for the weekly American english teacher drinking night because they have no grasp of how loud they "talk" and shout "TEQUILAAAAA" every 4 seconds.
Mr Splash Bar
This INCREDIBLY friendly, charming little bar is just across the street from the beach in a small alleyway. Tucked away, the traffic sounds hardly permeate, the owner is attentive and very charming and they make some cheap cocktails to make you feel like you are really on holiday.
I was on a white month so I had soda with lime, but still enjoyed the bar... that's saying something.
OK. This one is a little strange. The owners are two young Russians who don't run the bar for a profit, but just "for fun". So there are rarely people there, which is perfect if you want to sip in silence and enjoy the breeze. The bar is also housed in a partial shed-shack looking thing that I think is actually charming.
They have ice-cold Russian Standard vodka in the freezer so go get a shot!
Beer nerds unite! This is your spot.
Yes it's a micro-brew place with CRAFT BEERS, so you can all get your knickers in a twist and pay through the ass for beer that gets nasty after one sip. I'll stick to my cheap piss, you guys spend a fortune and get a worse hangover to boot. All that being said, the bar is a good spot to sit out on the balcony and watch the sea in the distance. The added bonus of this place is that everything in Vung Tau (food-wise) closes around 10pm, and downstairs they have a pizza spot open until 01 usually. The only downside, the pizza is rather mediocre.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.