MANILA, Philippines — There is no escaping the towering Christ the Redeemer with both arms outstretched as it rests on a gigantic ridge.
No, it’s not the iconic Cristo Redentor of Rio de Janeiro, but the Christ the Redeemer statue perched on a soaring seacliff at Mount Tao Phùng in the city of Vung Tau.
Though partially blocked from public view by surrounding lush vegetation, it stands at 32 meters tall, even higher than Rio’s 30-meter icon.
The impressive concrete figure – which welcomes all visitors, for lack of a better term, with its outstretched arms – gazes across the East Sea’s crowning peninsula, situated some 90 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.
As construction is on-going, a temporary pathway of a bit over a thousand stone steps may be trod for a little less than an hour to reach a large platform.
The wide base is a gilded interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and nearby stands a replica of “The Pieta” by Michelangelo.
According to our knowledgeable and amiable tour guide Trinh Hoang Hanh Nguyen, or Wen as we called him, the surprisingly hollow interior hosts a shop with religious items. A spiral staircase with some hundred levels leads to the statue’s neck.
“This connects to the arms, which are balconies that can accommodate up to six persons at a time to enjoy the breathtaking view of the mountains, the city and ultimately the sea,” he continues.
Historically, this has been a significant busy port with a continuous stream of oil tankers. The constant shipping activities have likewise influenced its name Vung Tau, which translates to “anchorage.”
Today, the city still plays a role in Vietnam’s offshore oil industry – often considered as the crude oil extraction center of the country – and, in fact, dominates the locale’s economy.
In recent years, it has successfully transformed into a trendy weekend escape mainly for its convenient proximity from Ho Chi Minh City, frequented by locals and foreigners primarily for the bright sun, the clear sea and the fine sand.
We headed to the Vung Tau Lighthouse on Small Mount. This porcelain-white watchtower initially burned kerosene in its lamps, projected beacon light as far as 65 kilometers away and is equipped with telescopes to track ships at sea.
Four mounted 10-meter-long French colonial cannons of cast iron and steel were utilized as defense from enemy naval attacks in olden times and today stand proudly as sentry.
The Emperor Bao Dai’s rather modest Summer Palace sits on a hill in Da Lat City, dubbed as the City of Love, a must, must see for couples on honeymoon. Built in the 1930s, the art deco styled summer getaway right in the middle of a pine forest was designed both as a place of work and relaxation.
It was eventually used as the monarch’s residence during the end of the French colonization era as Bao Dai, the 13th and last ruling member of Vietnam’s royal family, was forced into exile.
The ground floor reception area for guests is adorned with mementos of hunting – the emperor’s hobby – such as animal horns on the walls, while guns were on display.
Several royal memorabilia were likewise preserved in the pocket museum, to include a 1:1 scale bust of Bao Dai, a golden miniature sculpture of his father Khai Dinh and an image of Angkor Wat, a gift from King Sihanouk of Cambodia.
For its novelty in true-to-life aristocratic milieu, do not miss the playroom, where you can don costumes of royal garb, while one may sit on a fake throne for photo-ops.
Of particular interest was an exhibit of salvaged relics and artifacts from a shipwreck of a destructive typhoon which eventually washed up on the shores of Hon Cau. The collection of porcelain, pottery, stone, earthen and bronze ware, all with never-seen-before patterns and motifs, date back to the reign of Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty of China of the 17th to 18th Century.
The second floor was dedicated to the living quarters of Emperor Bao Dai and his family – obviously identifiable by their very own quirks and preferences. The son’s room was washed in luxury yellow, the Queen’s space was more feminine highlighted by the presence of several mirrors and lace beddings, while the king’s quarters boasted of a balcony where he could gaze out onto the starry night sky.
A short walk to the nearby overgrown garden revealed a hidden bomb shelter, possibly constructed for security of its valued and revered residents.
Our midday meal was at Ganh Hao, a popular suggestion from more-than-happy customers on previous trips. An open-air restaurant by the sea with several aquariums of fresh fish and other seafood, it was a rustic, dampa-type establishment filled with discerning locals who all looked like returning regulars.
On the terrace, we savored a degustation of what they had to offer: lobsters, prawns, crabs, mantis shrimps, fish to name a few, with some options for preparation – but ultimately, cooked the way we desired.
Our itinerary brought us to the Duc Me Bai Dau, a hidden sanctuary far and away from the tourist spots. Immediately of note was the huge statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus, overlooking a sprawling Catholic complex which boasted of well-constructed walkways amidst blooms and blossoms, dotted by other statues such as one of Saint Peter.
The new cathedral by a hill, built on the site of an old place of worship, regularly attracts pilgrims. My personal favorite spot was the centuries old and utterly quaint Sacred Sacrament Chapel – now relocated to its present quiet, cool location – still visited by a devoted, talk-to-no-one lady, who for many years pays daily homage at the adoration.
Our final stop was less of an immersion, and more of a lesson, as Wen pointed out Hon Ba, a curious little island which can only be accessed by boat during high tide, or on foot during the low tide. But our timing was off. We were reminded of the at-times isolated Mont Saint Michél in Northern France, which when the seas subside reveals a highway accessible by cars.
We soon learned the charming island is home to a mysterious Mieu Ba Temple with several images of deities, faithfully venerated by sailors and fishermen alike.
On our return to Ho Chi Minh City, we contemplated a revisit, just so we could visit Hon Ba – either by boat or by foot.