Familiar And Not So

Vung tau has its celebrated drawcards and others perhaps less celebrated.

By Don Wills. Photo: Dinh Hang, Lamson Stadium on May 06,2016 03:00 PM

Familiar And Not So

Photo: Dinh Hang

There’s one attraction in Vung Tau you’ll almost certainly know about already and one you’ve probably never heard of.

First, Vung Tau’s best known tourist attraction: The Statue of Christ the King. The statue sits atop Nho Mountain, aka Tao Phung Mountain but better known as Little Mountain. It isn’t a mountain; at 176 metres high it’s more of a hill. Guidebooks will tell you the mountain is alongside Ha Long Street, but Ha Long Street mysteriously changes its name to Thuy Van Street before it reaches the statue. Confused? There’s no need to be. All you need to do is look up at the skyline. The statue is clearly visible from anywhere on the eastern side of the Vung Tau peninsula.

Some 4,000 people a day trudge up the 847 steps to the base of the 32-metre high statue. Those with enough energy left climb the 133 steps inside the statue to reach the small viewing platforms under Christ’s armpits. The gruelling climb is worth the effort: the panoramic view takes in the sweeping coastline, ships large and small beyond it, and Vung Tau and its surrounds.

The gleaming white statue itself is made from granite encased in a concrete shell. Christ’s outstretched arms are 18.3 metres from fingertip to fingertip and his head is surrounded by a halo (which conveniently doubles as a lightning rod). At 32 metres tall it beats Rio’s more famous statue by two metres but it’s not the tallest in the world, as Bolivia sports a 34.2-metre tall statue of Jesus.

The building of Vung Tau’s Christ the King began in 1974 (prior to that the Vietnam Catholic Association planned to make it ten metres tall, but proponents of a loftier version prevailed). Construction was a long and drawn-out process. The foundations were designed to be six metres deep but at three metres the diggers encountered an impenetrable layer of concrete and steel. Upon investigation it was discovered that it was the roof of a fortified underground bunker system of seven rooms interconnected by tunnels, built by either the Japanese or the French. The excavations for the foundations then had to be extended through the bunker and a further six metres into firm ground. Building of the statue proper began, but was suspended in 1975 as the war drew closer to Vung Tau, then once again in 1980 when it was discovered the lightning rod system had mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Once the statue was completed there remained the daunting task of creating sculptures for the base, laying a stairway from the base of the mountain to the summit, planting flowers and trees around the stairway, and trimming acres of surrounding grass. Fifty salaried workers and countless volunteers set about the task. It wasn’t until 1993 that the mammoth project was finally completed and opened to the public.

Admission to the site of the statue is free and it’s open from 7am to 5pm. To enter the interior a dress code applies (no exposed knees or elbows). The rules of the pilgrimage site include no running, no loud voices, no unworthy or profane language, and no getting drunk and vomiting.

Next, and here’s something few visitors to Vung Tau have heard of before: greyhound racing. I visited this little-known attraction a couple of Saturday nights ago.

The eight racing greyhounds are led around the track three times by their owners and it’s decision time for the thousand or so punters gathered at Vung Tau’s Lam Son Stadium. There’s little to differentiate the dogs from one another. Some are black, some are tan, but apart from that they’re all just … well, dogs really. But there’s something about dog Number 6 that attracts my attention - is his tail just a tad longer than the others, does he hold it that much higher and prouder? I join the scrum at the betting counter and, last of the big spenders, plonk down 10,000 dong on Number 6.

Photo: Lam Son Stadium

 

Photo: Lam Son Stadium

 

Then it’s back to claim a spot at the trackside fence and await the roar announcing the start of Race 1. The starting pistol cracks and two artificial rabbits streak out from the starting gate with the greyhounds in hot pursuit. The eight dogs are bunched up at first, then gradually Numbers 2 and 6 inch ahead. The noise of the crowd swells to that rivalling a Beatles concert. One lap of the track and suddenly it’s all over - just 30 seconds after it began. But in those thirty seconds my 10,000 dong investment grew to 36,000 dong. Nice.

The Vietnam Sports Entertainment Services Company holds greyhound races at 7pm every Saturday evening in Lam Son Stadium, a converted football stadium at 15 Le Lai Street. It’s indeed the only greyhound racing venue in Southeast Asia. Since opening in 2000 it has hosted 1.4 million visitors. The venture is not without its critics though. The Asia for Animals Coalition (which includes the RSPCA) has denounced the races as ‘an inherently cruel and corrupt activity, in which dogs are regarded as mere objects to be used and abused in the name of entertainment.’ The Coalition’s ire notwithstanding, the greyhound races in Vung Tau are attended by around 4,500 people each Saturday night. It’s a family event with the entertainment factor overshadowing the gambling aspect of the evening. In addition to the excitement of the races, loud music blares from the speakers between races, food and drink vendors ply their wares, and bars and restaurants do a brisk trade.

Admission to the stadium is 30,000 dong for the common area that holds 1,500 spectators and 80,000 dong for the VIP area, seating 500. In each race eight dogs compete over 450 metres and at average speeds of 60 km/h the races last just over 30 seconds. There are eight to ten races each night. Spectators are provided with brochures to help them choose a winner: the dogs’ weights, strengths and weaknesses and past performances are detailed, along with betting instructions. You can choose straight winner bets, or Exacta and Trifecta options. The minimum bet is 10,000 dong.

Vung Tau’s racing greyhounds are raised on a 10 ha breeding farm in Ba Ria, 40 kilometres away. Over 200 dogs are looked after by 30 kennel attendants and their living conditions rival that of many a Vietnamese family. There’s a swimming pool, exercise yards, a massage centre, and a veterinary hospital and clinic, and on the menu is a diet of kangaroo meat, beef, and ground chicken necks. After six months of this pampered existence a dog is ready to be transported to Lam Son Stadium to compete in one of Southeast Asia’s most unique spectacles - greyhound racing at Vung Tau.

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