(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)
For Saigoners (I am sorry HCMCers just does not seem the right word), with the only exception of Can Gio, which has far fewer attractions, Vung Tau is the nearest seaside resort. The town was established by the French, who knew it as Cap St Jacques. Largely owing to its oil-and-gas activities it also has its fair share of business visitors. Despite its name â€˜Petro House, a Boutique Business Hotelâ€™ is a fine choice of accommodation whether you are here for business or pleasure. The location is ideal, and, whilst specialising in Malaysian cuisine, it offers other excellent dining, with a wide choice of international dishes. Furthermore, the rooms are spacious and luxurious and there is a house entertainment facility for those who enjoy games of chance.
Getting there is part of the adventure. You could choose to go by road, which is cheaper. However, those who dislike travelling through the tedious endless suburbs with little to see but the back of a lorry and do not mind paying a little more should take to the waters of the Saigon River and avail themselves of the quick hydrofoil express. With three companies there are plenty of daily departures. The price one-way is VND200,000. They have given up the practice of charging foreigners more, but if you travel on weekends it is a little more expensive, VND250,000.
I sat back in a comfortable chair and did something most of us do not do every day although we may live so close to the river. I watched the fluvial life go by. All manner of vessels from small launches, fishing boats and barges to ocean-going merchant and luxury cruise ships ply this waterway. The land scenery is mainly mangrove swamp on both sides. The mangroves themselves sit on the muddy banks with their roots in view stretching down to the water. I wondered what monsters lurked inside this mysterious vegetation. Internet research reveals it is home among others to foxes, deer, boar, pythons, flying foxes, semi-wild crocodiles and, over on the Can Gio side, notorious bands of monkeys. In among the foliage is the indigo shrub â€“ something to dye for, I suppose.
What is called Front Beach, at Vung Tau.The ferry terminal is on the far left and Petro House in the distance beyond the park.
Photo: Le My
After an hour or so, to oneâ€™s great relief, the low-relief scenery is broken as the two mountains around which the city of Vung Tau is centred come into view. Mountains they seem to this Englishman and to a Swiss they would be hills. Soon we were docking at the Vung Tau maritime station, or ferry terminal.
Position, they say, is everything. Petro House, in Ward 1 (PhÆ°á»ng 1), is just a fifteen-minute walk or a flag-fall taxi ride from the dock. It is within a five-minute walk of a public swimming pool and tennis courts, the greyhound stadium and the Front Beach esplanade. More to the point for my Chief Procurement Officer, a.k.a. my wife, the Ward 1 one market is just across the street.
Another reason for coming to Vung Tau is to buy fresh fish and crabs. The latter were not in this market but my wife did buy a whole â€˜cÃ¡ bÃ³pâ€™ (pronounced â€˜burpâ€™). In English this is called cobia fish. It is absolutely delicious with its white flesh tasting of the crab upon which it mainly feeds. We had it cut up into steaks and put on ice in a polystyrene box. It served for four daysâ€™ of family meals and cost two-thirds of the price in HCMC. The saving on the fish was equivalent to the price of our boat tickets back to the city.
Petro House quite rightly calls itself a boutique hotel. It has 48 rooms, in four categories ranging from standard to executive. We had the pleasure of trying out the latter. This kind of room would suit a family, especially one with teenagers demanding a little separation from parents or vice-versa. It is really two rooms made into one with separate bathroom facilities and each part with its own widescreen television. There is a wide salon which would be good for entertaining business clients. There are also two balconies to sit out on at night and pipe-dream. They face the street, which is twentyfold quieter than in HCMC. The room was tastefully furnished with some of those pictures you can find in art galleries in downtown Saigon that depict street scenes of girls in flowing white ao dais and conical hats and people gliding by on bicycles. Ah, Vietnam without the reality of motor bikes â€“ so picturesque! The rack rate for a standard room is sixty dollars inclusive of taxes. Our room was $120. This included breakfast.
Another reason for making the short hop over from HCMC to Petro House is to try out the international cuisine at its Monaco Pub and Bistro. â€˜Pubâ€™ is not quite the right word, as it occupies a cordoned-off section of the lobby. Weather permitting, you can also dine outside on the ground-floor terrace. The chef is Malaysian, so the main draw is the dishes from his home country. The three main ethnic groups of Malaysia are represented. There are Indian curry dishes and the Cantonese Penang Char Kuey Teow (fried flat noodles) is given a twist with a version of it from Penang. But it was the Malay dishes I wanted to taste.
We ordered four widely different dishes: garlic bread in cheese (VND45,000 ), sweet and sour fish (VND84,000 ), nasi lemak with chicken rendang (VND89,000 ) and French onion soup (VND45,000 ). Oh what a joy to discover a hotel that has dispensed with tasteless beer in tins or bottles. Petro House quenches your thirst with Danish Carlsberg on draught. Vietnam in general is slow to catch on to the fact that most foreign beer-drinkers, at least, prefer beer fresh and on tap and that this is acceptable for a respectable hotel. Could Petro House be leading a revolution? At VND25,000 a glass I washed the food down with two of these.
The soup arrived first and at my wifeâ€™s end of the table. At first I thought a mistake had been made and they had brought tripe soup. On closer inspection what looked like tripe was in fact croutons unusually arranged in strips. Nevertheless it was very tasty and even my wife, who is not used to foreign food, thoroughly enjoyed it. Hot on its heels came the crunchy garlic bread. This was also delicious. But next came the find of the evening â€“ a Malay dish which is only available here at weekends. This is â€˜nasi lemakâ€™ with chicken rendang. The former is rice cooked in coconut oil. The latter, which I had had in Indonesia, is a very popular dish originating from a tribe of Sumatra and has many regional variations. Basically it is a paste made from coconut milk and spices, the main ones used being ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemon grass, shallots, and, noticeably, chillies. It was served with peanuts and â€˜ikan bilisâ€™, or whitebait, the tiny fry familiar to the Vietnamese as cÃ¡ cÆ¡m. I do not know if you are supposed to do this but I mixed everything on the plate together and it all went down the hatch like a treat. The last dish, the sweet and sour fish, took care of massaging our remaining taste buds. Culinarily speaking, we felt as if we had been all around Asia and France to boot.
Friday night is Barbecue Buffet night at Petro House, with the grilling done right on the terrace. I was not lucky enough to be there on a Friday, but it seems a bargain draw at just VND300,000 . This includes three glasses of the renowned draught beer. Seafood and meats dominate the table and, enough to haul in heaps of Aussies and Poms, there is also that most exotic of fare for Vietnam â€“ lamb.
For non-Vietnamese-passport-holders, another attraction of Petro House might be the e-gaming room with bar, on the ground floor. If the spin of the wheel and roll of dice in glitzy surroundings is what you seek then Petro House has it.
All too soon and it is time to be heading home. A little tale to illustrate how much attention the businessman can expect at Petro House. The evening before leaving I had asked the staff to book our ferry tickets back to HCMC. On checking out I was presented the actual tickets, complete with assigned seat numbers.
There you have it. If you are off to Vung Tau for a perfect and easy escape from the runaway train that HCMC has become, Petro House would be a great choice of place to stay. On business or to recharge your batteries, the location is perfect. It has spacious and comfortable rooms. The versatility and high standards of its cuisine means you can entertain and satisfy friends or business partners of widely different food preferences.