It was more than 10 years ago that I last found myself standing at the back of a hydrofoil heading to Vung Tau. Water splashed in at a corner as the boat left the port, and it was hot and stuffy with more than 100 passengers inside. The smell of diesel and loud engine noises were everywhere, and standing at the back, the racket was even louder. But at least there was some fresh air and nice views along the river.
Hydrofoils are not a new concept in Vietnam. In January 1993, the first three second-hand hydrofoils — Meteor-class vessels, from Russia — arrived in Vung Tau. Operated by Proshipser Company, the daily service started from Ho Chi Minh City at 8am and returned from Vung Tau at 4pm, with three different classes of tickets for front, middle and rear compartments.
The Glorious Past
In 1995, Sembawang of Singapore formed a joint venture with Proshipser called Vina Express; two Meteor boats were refitted and named Vina Express 1 and 2, starting a new service with sailings in both directions every two hours. The three-tier price structure was simplified to two; one for foreigners (US$10) and one for Vietnamese (VND80,000).
In 1997, the Petro Express and Greenlines entered the market, importing second-hand hydrofoils and operating the same route. The service became more frequent with the first boats leaving either city at 6am. For years, if you could afford the fare, then in return for comfort and a journey that took 80 minutes, the hydrofoil was the best way to travel to and from Vung Tau.
It all went wrong in January 2014 when a hydrofoil caught fire on the Saigon River and the service stopped. The same month the new expressway from Ho Chi Minh City to Long Thanh was opened, cutting the road journey between Saigon and Vung Tau down to one hour 45 minutes. When one year later, the hydrofoil service restarted with a temporary licence, passenger numbers were down. On Dec. 31, 2016, with the temporary license expiring, the last Meteor hydrofoil service left Vung Tau at 4pm.
In response to licensing issues, Greenlines DP replaced its hydrofoils with catamarans in mid-2016, which allowed them to apply for and be awarded a new license. During Tet, Petro Pacific Express followed suit and now the service is up and running again, with one-way tickets between the two cities costing VND200,000.
Express Boat Era
With safety issues addressed, I decided to take the return trip to Vung Tau on the new hydrofoils.
Painted yellow, Petro Pacific Express’s boats look like a school bus. Inside, equipped with two rows of cushioned seats and air-conditioning adjustment sets installed above each pair of seats, the boat can only take 44 passengers. A wet napkin and a bottle of water were handed out. There were around 20 people on board including the staff and captain. Two Dutch tourists decided to leave their seats to search for the fresh air at the back when the hydrofoil started moving.
The boat went pretty fast. Water splashed in everywhere at the back, creating a bubbly wall blocking my view. Unable to stand still, I went back to my seat. I’m not sure whether it was because of the speed, the size of the boat or the waves, but it felt like being on a rollercoaster, bouncing up into the air then dropping back to the surface of the river. I began to feel sick. The two Dutch guys came back with their t-shirts soaked. After an hour and 30 minutes, we arrived at the Express Ship Harbour in Vung Tau.
With my head and guts still reeling from the experience, I decided to go back to Saigon with Greenlines. However, Greenlines’ catamarans are moored at Ho May, about 2km from the other harbour. Larger, with 50 seats set up in two rows of three, and equipped with an air-con system and two flat-screen TVs, the boat also had around 20 passengers. For some reason, this trip was flatter and more comfortable, not bouncing so much on the water. As with my ride to Vung Tau, the journey to Saigon took one hour and 30 minutes.
Bus or Boat?
With most people travelling between Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City by road, the arrival of the new speedboats has brought back some competition. Still, many Vietnamese prefer to travel by bus.
“Buses [to Vung Tau] are cheaper, from VND80,000 to VND100,000 per trip. And I find it safer than boats,” says Hue from Vung Tau. “Although I suffer from car sickness, I think it will be worse if I go by boat.”
But Cedric, a French tourist travelling around Southeast Asia for six months, whom I met on Petro’s speedboat, admits he prefers the boats.
“It’s more relaxing, not stuffy like buses. Plus, the scenery is just beautiful,” he says.