Taking the ferry boat between Saigon and Vung Tau is one of Vietnam’s most underrated journeys (despite also being one of its most obvious). It’s a fascinating voyage from downtown Saigon, along several rivers, and across open sea to Vung Tau. What it may lack in natural beauty (for some, not me) it more than makes up for in interest. Indeed, this journey is a more rewarding riverine experience than many Mekong Delta boat tours. What’s more, Vung Tau, especially during the week, is now a very attractive, affluent, and peaceful seaside getaway. Even after the opening on a new expressway and an upgraded highway between Saigon and Vung Tau, taking the boat is still far more enjoyable, comfortable, and scenic. Going by bus, taxi, or motorbike is simply a means to an end; going by boat is an experience. This is my full guide to the Saigon-Vung Tau Ferry Boat.
A new fleet of modern fast boats has replaced the old, characterful but unreliable, hydrofoils that used to ply the route (one of which famously caught fire on the river in January 2014). At around 2 hours, journey time is comparable to going by road, although ticket prices are roughly twice the cost of the bus ride (but it’s well worth the extra expense). On this page I’ve written a full guide to taking the ferry boat between Saigon and Vung Tau. I’ve organized this guide into several sections:
FERRY OPERATORS & CONTACTS:
There are currently two different companies operating fast boats between Saigon and Vung Tau: Greenlines (www.greenlines-dp.com; Tel: Saigon 098 800 9579; Vung Tau 098 690 8907) and Petro Pacific (www.taucaotoc.vn; Tel: 01222 69 69 68).
Both company’s websites are very clear, well-presented, and available in English and Vietnamese. Over the phone, staff are helpful but you may struggle to get clear information if you conduct the call purely in English (even though staff on the other end of the line do have some English, phone conversations are very difficult in a second language). Both companies have ticket offices at the boat piers in Saigon and Vung Tau. However, in my experience, Greenlines is far more efficient and reliable than Petro Pacific. Staff at the former are polite and organized while at the latter they seem to be stuck 10 years in the past when it comes to service and attitude, but maybe I just got them on a bad day/days. (Note: do not take any information on either company’s websites as gospel: sailing times and prices do change subject to weather, demand and other bits and pieces. So always double check the information before you leave, either over the phone or in person at the ticket offices at the piers).
SCHEDULES & SAILING TIMES:
With Greenlines it’s pretty simple and straightforward: there are five sailings every day (weekdays and weekends) in both directions:
SAIGON→VUNG TAU: 8.30am, 9.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm
VUNG TAU→SAIGON: 8.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm
With Petro Pacific, however, I’ve experienced cancelled services due to technical problems, and delays and alterations to the published schedules. Here’s their timetable, such as it is:
SAIGON→VUNG TAU: 8.00am, 10.00am, 12.30pm, 2.00pm
VUNG TAU→SAIGON: 10.30am, 12.00noon, 2.00pm, 4.00pm
The Greenline ferries I’ve been on have all left right on time; the Petro Pacific ones have either been delayed or cancelled. Although journey time is advertised as 90 minutes, my sailings have all been closer to 2 hours.
Note: sailing times for both ferry companies are liable to change without notice due to weather conditions. If the weather has been bad or particularly windy recently, check by phone or at the ticket offices to make sure your boat is scheduled to leave on time:
Greenlines: www.greenlines-dp.com; Tel: 098 800 9579 (Sagion); 098 690 8907 (Vung Tau)
Petro Pacific: www.taucaotoc.vn; Tel: 01222 69 69 68
TICKET PRICES & BOOKING:
Interestingly, prices are different for each of the ferry companies. Greenlines ticket prices are slightly more expensive than Petro Pacific (perhaps the lower prices for Petro Pacific fares are a kind of pre-emptive discount for their lower level of service and reliability). Ticket prices are as follows:
Adult: 250,000vnd (one way)
Adult over 62 years: 180,000vnd (one way)
Child 6-11 years old: 120,000vnd (one way)
Child under 6 years old: free
Adult: 200,000vnd (one way: Monday to Friday) | 250,000vnd (one way: weekends & holidays)
Child under 1.2m high: 100,000vnd (one way)
Child under 2 years old: free
Tickets can be booked online, by phone, or at the ticket kiosks at the ferry piers in Saigon and Vung Tau. It’s not really necessary to book in advance unless you are travelling on a weekend or public holiday (and maybe a Friday, too). However, it’s still a good idea to book your ticket a day before departure, especially if you have an appointment to keep. Passengers are required to be at the port 30 minutes before the boat is due to leave (and the boats do generally leave right on time, well, Greenlines boats do). Online bookings are fairly straight forward, although you may find it’s not possible to book a ticket this way on the same day as your departure. Booking tickets over the phone is fine as most operators speak enough English to conduct the call, however you may need some patience to do this. Booking tickets in person at the piers in the easiest and surest way to make your reservation. Here are the contact details for both ferry operators
Greenlines: www.greenlines-dp.com; Tel: 098 800 9579 (Sagion); 098 690 8907 (Vung Tau)
Petro Pacific: www.taucaotoc.vn; Tel: 01222 69 69 68
DEPARTURE & ARRIVAL PORTS:
The arrival and departure ports in Saigon and Vung Tau have changed since the days of the old hydrofoils:
SAIGON: All fast boats from both ferry operators (Greenlines and Petro Pacific) now leave from the Bến Nhà Rồng Port. Located just behind the distinctive pink building of the same name (which used to be the old French colonial customs house, but now houses the Ho Chi Minh Museum), Bến Nhà Rồng is in Saigon’s District 4, just over the Khanh Hoi Bridge from downtown District 1. Accessing the port from the road is a little confusing, but any taxi driver should know where to go. Once at the port, turn left along the harbourfront until you are in the shadow of the giant wooden walls of the Elisa floating restaurant. Here you’ll find the ticket kiosks for both Greenlines and Petro Pacific. There’s a decent cafe behind the kiosks where you can wait with a coffee before departure time. From the pier, the views upriver back towards District 1 are impressive.
VUNG TAU: Confusingly, Greenlines and Petro Pacific ferries dock at different ports in Vung Tau. Greenlines boats arrive at the Hồ Mây ferry pier, also known as Hòn Rù Rì harbour, or simply Bến Tàu Cao Tốc (fast boat pier). This port is at the northern end of Bãi Trước (Front Beach), beneath the green slopes of Núi Lớn (Big Mountain) and the grand, French colonial Governor General’s House (see map). Boats dock at the end of a long pier, which doubles as a restaurant and cafe. A handful of taxis meet the boats, or you can walk along the pleasant seafront road to the waterfront cafes and hotels. The Greenlines ticket kiosk is located at the port entrance, on Tran Phu Street. Petro Pacific boats arrive at Cảng Cầu Đá, which is the same port that the old hydrofoils used to dock at (see map). Located at the southern end of Front Beach, this port is well-served by taxis, cafes and fast food restaurants. Many of the harbour-view hotels, such as Leman Cap Resort, are within walking distance of here. There is a Petro Pacific ticket kiosk is at the entrance to the ferry port.
Unlike the old hydrofoils – which looked pretty worn and forlorn – the new fast boats used by Greenlines and Petro Pacific are modern, clean, and, on the surface at least, well-maintained. Greenlines vessels are painted blue and white; Petro Pacific ones are yellowey-orange. Both operators use similar, but not identical, crafts: Greenlines boats look very smart from the outside, but also rather tub-like and a bit stumpy, whereas Petro Pacific ones are lower, pointier and more aqua-dynamic in appearance. However, the general set up of the vessels, inside and out, is essentially the same.
Boats are boarded at the stern, where there is a good covered deck with a plastic bench (or at least ‘surfaces’ for sitting on), and also a clean western-style toilet. (If, like me, you love boat journeys, then you’ll probably find that you spend the entire voyage sitting out on this back deck, watching the shipping and scenery pass by).
However, inside things are just as good. A surprisingly wide, high-ceilinged, bright and clean cabin seats around 50 passengers. There are two columns of soft, coach-style seats with plenty of leg-room. The cabin is air-conditioned to a reasonable temperature (not freezing cold as on some ferries in Vietnam). The windows are very large so you can enjoy the passing scenery from your seat. There’s even WiFi available. But there are no refreshments, aside from a small complimentary bottle of water. Passengers are mostly foreign travellers, expats, and Vietnamese holidaymakers; staff are young and quite friendly.
On board ‘entertainment’ comes in the form of a TV which shows, depending on the whim of the captain, anything from terrible pop music to prank-style comedy to Vietnamese soap operas. But the volume is mercifully low (unlike the fast boats to Phu Quoc Island) so it doesn’t intrude into your headspace. It’s also good to bear in mind the reason for this entertainment: it’s not just to pass the time on a 90 minute journey, it’s also to offer a distraction from the waves, especially for Vietnamese passengers who commonly suffer from travel sickness.
Ever since one of the old hydrofoils caught fire on the river in 2014, forcing passengers to evacuate onto the muddy riverbank (which was the beginning of the end for those Soviet-era relics on this route), safety has been a major concern, both for passengers and ferry operators between Saigon and Vung Tau. In general, Vietnam has a pretty awful maritime safety record, but things are changing. Also, it should be pointed out that travelling between Saigon and Vung Tau by road is statistically far more dangerous that taking the boat. All Greenlines and Petro Pacific ferries have life vests under every passenger seat. During the voyage, two engineers are constantly opening up the hatches on the back deck to check the state of the engine. The barrier on the back deck is a little low and the latch to the boarding gate could easily come loose: don’t lean on it, and take extra care if you’re travelling with children. Seasickness shouldn’t be a problem for most people, because the majority of the voyage is on placid rivers, but the last 30 minutes crossing open sea can be quite bumpy.
Lastly, these new boats are fast. Not 30 seconds after maneuvering out of port, the main engines power up and the boat ploughs its course, dodging all the other sluggish vessels on the river, churning up a silver-brown wake of river water and water hyacinths behind it.
The tubby, tug-like Greenlines vessel casts off from Nhà Rồng pier, the same pier that Ho Chi Minh set sail from in 1911, as a cook aboard a French ship, not to return to Vietnam for another 30 years, in very different circumstances. The gleaming high-rises of Saigon’s District 1 tower above the water as the boat drifts onto the swell of the wide Saigon River.
The city’s major waterway is a constant presence if you live in Saigon, but when you are actually on it, as opposed to just looking at it, it’s a totally different experience. Saigon appears serene; without the noise, heat, congestion, and pollution that blights it on street level: from the river, this is a calm, controlled, and even beautiful, city. The old ferry between District 1 and 2 used to provide a similar experience, but since that went out of service with the opening of the Thu Thiem Tunnel in 2011, the fast boat to Vung Tau is one of the few ways to see the city from the water.
Very soon after departure, the main engines kick in, the bow lifts up, and the speed picks up. The boats are seriously fast, and if you sit out on the back deck (which I tend to do for the duration of the voyage) you’ll be sprayed intermittently by cooling showers of river water.
The Saigon skyline recedes, very quickly, into the distance; disappearing around a bend, reappearing on the horizon, then fading out of sight again as the boat moves through a chicane of meanders. These bends make the journey immediately disorienting: Saigon landmarks, such at the Lotus Building (the Bitexco Tower) keep popping up to the east then to the west; behind the boat then in front of it, then disappearing altogether. It’s impossible to get your bearings.
Sailing downriver, the skyscrapers of downtown give way to the sprawling, apartment-filled suburbs, and the Saigon docks which line the riverbanks for many kilometres. It’s fascinating to watch as the boat dodges all the different kinds of shipping: slipping between the bows of giant container vessels and freight ships, tugs and barges, fishing boats and canoes, tankers and warships.
After passing beneath the soaring blade of concrete that is the Phu My Bridge, the boat veers right and joins the wider waters of the Dong Nai River. Continuing southwards into the Soai Rap River, the banks expand ever further apart, until they must span at least a couple of kilometres. Container ships are more numerous here but they’re made to appear small on the mighty, muddy river.
With Saigon now out of sight, industry takes over. Warehouses, factories, oil depots, cement plants, coal, gas, wood, metal: the brawny industrial arm of the southern hub and all of the boats that supply it. It’s an utterly compelling sequence, so much so that you won’t want to sit down, go inside, or take your eyes off it for one minute for fear of missing something.
At the confluence of the Soai Rap and Long Tau rivers, an enormous new bridge is under construction. The fast boat continues straight ahead, due south on the Long Tau River. From here, greenery begins to colonize the riverbanks: concrete becomes a rare sight, small wooden fishing boats cast their nets into the wide waters, and the sky looms large over the flat expanse of boggy, delta land.
In order to avoid a detour on the Long Tau River, the fast boat takes a shortcut through a narrow channel lined with mangrove. This is a tight waterway, not big enough for larger ships. The banks are close together and the distinctive splayed roots of the mangrove trees are clearly visible. Suddenly, after all the urbanity and industrial activity of the first half of the journey, it’s now easy to imagine yourself sitting on the back of the boat in Apocalypse Now as it winds its way into the jungle, ever closer to Colonel Kurtz. The scenery is exotic and atmospheric. However, I’m not sure how environmentally sound it is. Mangrove are supposed to be one of the major lifelines for Vietnam if it is to avoid sinking into the ocean in the future. Their roots help anchor the land, which, in these swampy, delta regions, is nothing more than mud and silt. The waves from the wake of the fast boats surely can’t do any good to the stability of the mangrove trees.
After rejoining the meandering arm of the Long Tau River, the Phu My Hills rise to the northeast. The water is brackish here: the colour changes, becomes lighter; the surface becomes ruffled as the wind picks up, and the banks are wider apart. The boat is nearing the mouth of the river.
Out onto the open sea, rainy season clouds mushroom above the waiting container ships, threatening Vung Tau with a storm. The sea is rough and, for the first time, you can feel the vessel rising and falling with the swell. The air is clearer, saltier; the sky is bigger, the light sharper, the humidity lower – it’s hard not to get excited as you approach the rocky promontory under which the white structures of Vung Tau glint in the sun.
Through the increasing amounts of spray on the back deck, Vung Tau’s skyline comes into view: high-rise hotels along the seafront, red-roofed villas crawling up the hillside. It looks like an island in the East Sea, surrounded by boats of all shapes and sizes, including oil rigs, which have played their part in making this province one of the wealthiest in the country.
It’s an exhilarating journey, but when the boat docks below Big Mountain and the engines are cut, all that remains is the searing tropical heat and the sound of the sea lapping the concrete pier. It’s time to make your way along the seafront road for a coffee or settle into one of Vung Tau’s harbour-view hotels, like Leman Cap Resort, for a relaxing mini-break.