Gliding on Waves
On a rainy Sunday in December, Tran Thanh Viet paddled off the coast of My Khe Beach in Vietnam’s coastal city of Da Nang. A 21-year-old surf instructor from the fishing town of Mui Ne, located some 13 hours south by bus, he now found himself in the championship heat of the inaugural Da Nang Open alongside expats from South Africa, Australia, and Russia.
The event was the first in a competition series organized by the newly founded Da Nang Boardriders Club and held in partnership with the city government’s ecotourism department to advance the up-and-coming surf community. Locals and foreigners came together from across the country to compete throughout the weekend, with spectators gathered along the shore and cheering as they excitedly watched lướt sóng, loosely translated to “gliding on waves.”
“This was a big step,” says Kusan Watah, who owns a surf shop in Da Nang and served as a judge at the competition. The French-Vietnamese surfer moved to the city in 2016 and since then has taken on the role of mentoring local riders, teaching them essential skills both in and out of the water, like how to repair dings and read the forecast. “When I got here, I realized there are waves, but there were no locals surfing them. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole community to build here.’”
Ask any surfer what they know about the waves in Vietnam and chances are you’ll hear an Apocalypse Now reference. Beyond that, the country remains relatively uncharted territory to the global surf community, despite having 2,030 miles of craggy coastline that gets hit with swells rolling in across the South China Sea, known locally as the East Sea, from September to May each year.
As it turns out, Hollywood’s portrayal of soldiers surfing during the Vietnam War was largely accurate. In fact, the China Beach Surf Club was founded by American GIs in Da Nang and offered a popular R&R activity. After the war ended, though, the sport all but disappeared until the mid-2000s when expats began trickling in with their surfboards in tow.
In coastal locales like Da Nang, Mui Ne, and Nha Trang, they found surprisingly good, if not consistent, waves all to themselves, while those willing to search in more remote areas were rewarded with dreamy point and reef breaks that leave nothing to be desired when conditions are right. But without access to equipment and instruction, the sport essentially remained out of reach to the local population. Over the last few years, however, a new wave of young, Vietnamese riders has begun to emerge and carve out their place in the lineup.
Now late morning, the steep, glassy faces that were in abundance off My Khe Beach just a few hours ago had given way to messy, chest-high waves as a growing onshore wind picked up. The notoriously fickle beach break was living up to its reputation, but Viet was undaunted as he jockeyed for position.
Taking the first wave of the heat, he dropped into a mushy right-hander and leaned through a bottom turn before working his way up the face and spraying water off the lip with a frontside snap that would set the tone. For the remainder of the heat, he was relentless, putting together fast, technical rides and capping it all off with a roundhouse cutback that propelled him to the top of the podium.
“This new generation is learning so fast,” says Kusan, who was among a crowd that greeted Viet at the shore and hoisted him on their shoulders. “And now that the Boardriders Club is in place, I think it will just keep on growing.”
Spreading the Stoke
Things have come a long way since Kusan arrived on a plane from Bali seven years ago to search for waves in his ancestral homeland. He had just spent the previous six months completely immersed in Indonesia’s surf culture, sharing waves with locals of all ages, spending time with shapers to learn their craft, and observing thriving surf schools that catered to tourists. Now in Da Nang, he couldn’t help but feel excited and overwhelmed by the idea of helping to build something similar here.
The simplest way to start, he decided, was to try convincing friends to paddle out with him and hope that they got hooked. “At the beginning, the only boards we had were the short boards I brought, so it was hard for them,” Kusan recalls. “And in December it can get cold, but we only had one wetsuit that we would all share. One of us would take the board and the wetsuit and the rest of us would sit on the beach waiting for our turn.
Until recently, though, expanding the local community proved a challenge. Aside from a committed few who wholly embraced the sport, momentum was slow going even as surf schools catering to tourists started popping up along the beach. “It didn’t really grow much during the first three or four years,” recalls Kusan. “But just this year, it’s started to explode.
While he attributes this growth to enthusiastic new community members spreading their stoke, it has also noticeably coincided with the opening of his shop, LST Surf. Complete with a skate bowl, bar, and workshop for ding repairs, it’s quickly become the de facto gathering spot for local riders.
“It’s a business and we have to remember that, but it’s also a community space,” says Rhys Emlet, a surfer from Oregon who co-owns LST Surf with Kusan. In addition to making custom boards and giving lessons, it’s a place for local surfers to hang out, he explains. “People can come chill, eat dinner, make friends, and we all surf together.”
But like any break that starts to see increased popularity, surfing in Da Nang has had its growing pains. Even while the waves remain uncrowded compared to other places, Rhys says he couldn’t help but notice different posses starting to take shape in the water, largely a result of language and cultural barriers amongst surfers from different countries. Seeing this, he co-founded the Da Nang Boardriders Club with Brad Roode, an expat surfer from South Africa.
“Our biggest short-term goal with the club, and it’s been very successful so far, is to bring all the different groups together so there’s more friendliness and enjoyment between the larger surf community as a whole,” says Rhys. “In the future, we want to come up with as many activities as we can as a club and offer free classes to kids, swimming lessons, and that type of stuff.”
The two are also hopeful that the club can be a way of introducing Vietnamese riders to competitive surfing. “We are currently in the process of setting up a national surfing organization that could see Vietnam’s first national champion and, maybe one day, a ticket onto the world stage or the Olympics,” shares Brad.
By all measures, the competition held by the Da Nang Boardriders Club in December was the first step to achieving exactly that. With the community gathered from across the country and local media outlets turning up to cover the event, it generated a unique environment for surfers to experience while offering a glimpse of what the sport’s future can be in Vietnam.
Shaped by the Ocean
In the town of Mui Ne, located a few hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Pham Duy Tuan has been spreading his passion for surfing for over a decade. A Mui Ne native, he worked as a fisherman with his father before fulfilling his required military service and after that got a job at a kiteboarding school.
Shortly after he started working at the kiteboarding school, Tuan was introduced to surfing and was instantly hooked. A few years later, in 2012, he took the risk of venturing out on his own to open Mui Ne Local Surf School.
“I started very small with just a few boards and some knowledge,” says Tuan. “I had to learn how to teach and, slowly, I saved money and would travel around Asia to surf and see how it is in other places and bring that knowledge back here.”
In addition to giving lessons and introducing the sport to locals, Tuan and his girlfriend Lorina Duic, who works as a manager at the school, are also helping to make outsiders aware of Vietnam’s waves. “We started working with a travel company that brings people from Australia and America to surf in Vietnam,” says Lorina. “More people are coming here just for surfing, which is amazing.”
Locally, Tuan says the sport is growing rapidly in Mui Ne, where Vietnamese surfers now have a strong presence at breaks that were empty not long ago. “There are a lot of Vietnamese who really love surfing now,” he shares. “We give a lot of lessons to beginner and intermediate surfers who come every weekend from Ho Chi Minh City.”
As the sport grows in Mui Ne, the couple is doing what they can to make sure it has a positive impact on the community, including giving free lessons to local kids and leading by example as ocean stewards. “Every day, people here are more educated about protecting the ocean,” says Tuan. “We try to clean the beach every day where we surf. People see that and they value what we do. I think it’s a good thing for other people to see.”
Asked about the role that the ocean has played in his life, Tuan is quick to reply. “The ocean is who I am,” he says. “It’s shaped my life from the beginning.”
Written by: Wesley Grover
Photos by: Lorina Duic
April 24, 2023