Vung Tau isn’t the tired old oil town that you might think it is.
And its best years certainly aren’t behind it.
It’s just one of those towns you need to give a chance, like your teenage daughter’s new boyfriend or that new colleague at work whose first impressions suggest he’s a nonce.
Like the taste of nuoc mam, it grows on you.
Still, I’d always liked the town for its beachy vibes, interesting history, quirky Russia connection and its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City.
Vung Tau is just a couple of hours by car or ferry from Vietnam’s largest city.
Food can make or break a trip. If it’s shite, it can turn the most jovial of us into crabby, miserable sods
Sadly, however, I’d resigned myself to the fact this somewhat charming little town would remain to me a place just to lie by the pool during the day and sit at the bar at night – not a destination for eating.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, for sure, but food can make or break a trip. If it’s shite, it can turn the most jovial of us into crabby, miserable sods.
For yonks I asked around for the best local eats in Vung Tau, but no one could suggest anything other than Gành Hào 1 – you know, that seafood joint on the water north a bit up the road from Front Beach, where a small army of disheveled-looking parking attendants is needed at weekends just to manage the traffic going in and out of the place.
Good luck getting a seat and then coming back out again without the arse hanging out of your pants. It can be expensive.
But it’s an institution everyone will say, like Cục Gạch Quán is – or at least was – in Ho Chi Minh City, or these days, even Pizza 4Ps now located just about everywhere in Vietnam.
Other than Gành Hào 1, the next best suggestions were something Western or “that local joint just up from the corner on that street I’ve forgotten the name of that sells a selection of those dishes I forget the name of too but its bloody cheap and a good feed.”
Then one day it dawned on me to ask a close friend of mine, Jade, who was born in Vung Tau and had spent most of her life there. Duh (please be kind in the comments).
And hey presto!
She put me onto a winner straight away – a few, in fact.
On the snail trail
First up, she sent me to some of the best oc (snails) I’ve had in my life.
If not, they were at least the best oc I’ve ever had under a large tree on a corner of a T-intersection of two streets just up the road from Tommy’s Bar I can’t remember the names of without Googling.
There is, however, a landmark that can’t be missed no matter how many beers you’ve had at Tommy’s beforehand and how puffy your eyes are as a result.
This snail joint – we’ll call it Oc Khong Ten (snail no name) because like many of the best places to eat in Vung Tau, it doesn’t have a name – is at the base of a very large shady tree on one corner of the T-intersection.
But even better, the tree’s trunk is painted the kind of azure blue that every single one of Vietnam’s fishermen seem to paint their boats in, although, I’ll admit, I did snare a pic of one getting a fresh lick of green paint recently (see Insta pic above, so I’m exaggerating a bit).
They’re like the office workers of the sea, these fishermen – one wears a white shirt and black slacks with no socks, so everyone else does the same bloody thing.
It’s the same with boats it seems.
In addition, there’s a small Buddhist altar by the tree, which is something to look out for so you know you’ve found the right set of plastic chairs and tables on a section of footpath that can accommodate barely 10 or so hungry punters.
It’s also a reminder that if you don’t pay your bill, then karma will probably get you in the end some day.
I went for lunch.
And I recommend you get there early, better still, either call ahead somehow (don’t ask me for her number) or if you can, pop by the day before to let the lovely owner know you’re coming and to give her an estimated time of arrival.
When I visited, I got excited and ordered a variety of molluscs on four plates demonstrating my gluttonous tendencies and inability to make decisions for my own good.
Along with a beer, it set me back VND180,000 (approx. US$7.80).
It was that good, I went back the next day with my friend, Mr Dinh from Coco Homestay, and you can check out our experience in the video below.
Find Oc Khong Ten on the corner of Lê Ngọc Hân and Thủ Khoa Huân Streets
Everyone’s a DJ
Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be a DJ?
I would be one if I could, there’s just the small issue of talent.
But this next cook not only has an amazing talent for cooking arguably the best banh xeo in Vung Tau, she does it with a style that looks uncannily similar to how DJs spin their decks – well at least in my imagination.
Here, our banh xeo mixer cooks up traditional southern-style stuff, but somehow does it lighter, tastier and cooler than anybody else I’ve seen
Naturally, behind every talented woman is a tireless hard-working husband supporting her all the way.
He’s in charge of men’s stuff, that is, keeping out of the way of his wife and making sure the tables are cleared for the next batch of hungry campers.
This husband and wife combo works B2B (that’s club-speak for back-to-back, by the way) better than Hernan Cattaneo and Nick Warren – they’re that good.
True to form in Vung Tau, this place has no name so let’s call it Banh Xeo Khong Ten and just to forewarn you, you’ll have as much chance of snaring a spot here without a booking as a lost mobile phone on a Saigon street being turned into the local police station – none.
Book ahead, go early (opens at 5pm) so as not to miss out (or get scowled at).
Find Banh Xeo Khong Ten at 124a Lý Tự Trọng Street
The Hip-Pop Banh Tieu Ladies
From a DJ to “hip-pop” ladies, you must be thinking I’m bonkers by now.
Well, you’d be right.
But you’d also be bonkers if you missed out on trying these tasty little snacks from the ladies at this other “no name” joint not far from our banh xeo lady.
Here at this nondescript looking shophouse right by a narrow alley in the centre of town that you would never know existed unless you were told about it, the lady who started the business has been popping out banh tieu for nigh on a quarter of a century at a rate on average of 700-plus per day at a cost of VND5,000 a pop!
So what’s banh tieu?
Loosely translated, they’re pepper buns – small doughy deep-fried balls that puff up with hot air when dropped into a boiling hot wok of oil
They’re made with flour, water, sometimes yeast or baking powder then just before they’re lobbed into the oily abyss, they’re lightly rolled in some black pepper.
Inside them, there’s typically a small amount of sweet bean paste helping to form a joyful combination of sweet and savoury, making them the perfect snack to tide you over till dinner at a tricky hour of the day when many other joints aren’t open.
The ladies here are famous and have featured on all the major mainstream and social media foodie channels.
But that has come at a price for we mere mortals.
Don’t rock up unannounced and expect to get a bag of goodies in your hot little hands when they open up at 3pm-ish each day. There’s usually a line-up of people who have preordered (smart) and there’s a constant flow of customers coming and going until everything’s sold out. You’ll be ignored.
Oh, that’s another thing. Places like this shut up shop once they’re sold out – simple as that.
Now that I’ve said all this, I’ll let you in on a little secret.
I did get lucky the couple of times I showed up unannounced, but I had to smile my arse off and pretend that I was some kind of international YouTube sensation who actually had some followers.
Bring your grovelling A-game if you decide to risk it. These ladies take no prisoners and they can smell weakness at the drop of a banh tieu in piping hot oil.
Tell them what you want, pay and then get the hell out of their way until you’re called, otherwise you may just be forced to leave empty handed, and that would be a crying shame.
The Banh Tieu Ladies open from around 3pm daily and you can find them at 43 Đồ Chiểu Street
Banh what? Banh Khot!
Just about every province in Vietnam can lay claim to its own dish or at least its own version of popular dishes.
Different versions of banh khot can be found all over the country, but it’s widely regarded – in the south at least – that Vung Tau is its home.
Done right, banh khot are crispy little deep-fried heavenly discs made from rice flour and coconut milk batter topped with shrimp (tom) or squid (muc), shallots, shrimp powder, fresh herbs and wrapped in lettuce and mustard leaves then dunked in a tasty concoction of fish sauce (nuoc mam), chili and shredded green papaya.
It’s typically eaten for breakfast, but it’s not uncommon to see them available at other times of the day.
In Vung Tau, everyone has their favourite go-to place, but on a recent trip there, I was recommended this lovely mum and pop shop in a quiet residential street not far from Front Beach by motorcycle.
It’s run by a lovely couple out of the ground floor of their house.
Early each morning they set up on the footpath and fry these babies up until they’re all gone.
And invariably, they sell out mid-morning.
I found out the hard way when I arrived one morning around 9am to discover they were already packing up for the day.
What makes this place great is that everything is so fresh. Their banh khot are crispy and not as oily as others around town I’ve eaten.
On top of that, a plate will set you back just VND30,000 (approx. US$1.30).
Find this little gem with friendly service at 137 Mạc Đĩnh Chi Street
Come to me Be Be!
Our last but not least “no name” venue in Vung Tau is building a fine reputation for their specialty – bun be be (pronounced bear bear).
Bun, of course, is a kind of noodles and be be is best described as a mantis shrimp. Imagine a lobster or a freshwater crayfish but without its body.
Yeah, good luck with that.
Anyway, it’s quite a rare dish that I’d never heard of until Mr Dinh introduced it to me on another recent trip to Vung Tau.
In addition to the be be, you’ll find some squid, shrimp, a super tasty fish cake and ground crab, which is then served with a large plate of fresh herbs to add as you go.
Its flavour is savoury, but its saltiness can be toned down by adding a squeeze or two of lime.
And if you like your food spicy, just add chili to taste.
There are two noodle varieties available here – a red rice noodle from Hanoi that looks and tastes a lot like fettuccine, and the southern style white rice noodle that looks similar to a hu tieu noodle.
But perhaps the highlight is the owner’s special red and green chili sauce to dip into as you eat.
I considered snaffling a sample and starting up my own chili sauce briefly until I reminded myself I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Expect to pay between VND40,000 to VND50,000 (approx. US$2.15) for a great alternative to the usual stuff you might have for breakfast.
Find “be be” at 42 Đường Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh Street
Words, videos, audio & photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
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