Just 15 years ago there was little talk of riding waves in Mui Ne as there is today. The small seaside community located little more than 20km from Phan Thiet on Vietnam’s southeast coast was more famous for its fish sauce and seafood than it was as a surfing destination.
Back then, the only break holidaymakers came searching for in Mui Ne was from the fast pace of Ho Chi Minh City 200km away; it certainly wasn’t for the surf breaks whipped up by the typhoons that form offshore in the East Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines each year throughout October and November.
But things are changing rapidly. Young Vietnamese locals are beginning to view the ocean differently from their fathers who fish the waters for a livelihood. One such local is Truong Ky Tai, 31, who has been surfing at his home break at nearby Ham Tien for almost 10 years. He has not only witnessed the growth in popularity of surfing around Mui Ne, but also the increase in the number of Vietnamese taking to the water with surfboards.
“Although we live right on the water,” says Tai, a powerfully built natural footer, “most people have never tried any watersports. Some people do a little bit of fishing, but that’s it.”
Understandably, the Vietnamese have been slow to take up watersports like surfing mostly for the expense, but also because many Vietnamese aren’t strong swimmers and have an aversion to going into water out of their depth. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of drowning deaths each year in the world.
However, as tourism has developed, it has brought with it foreign surfers. Most pass through and move on to destinations further along the coast, but some stay, like Adie Casket, 43, from the UK who has lived in Mui Ne for the past 15 years and manages the water sports activities at Jibes Beach Club, a venue that has been instrumental in building up the popularity of surfing and kiteboarding in Vietnam.
People like Adie bring with them skills and equipment. Most of what the local Vietnamese surfers use has been left behind by other surfers, or donated by people with an interest in building up the sport. There are few pro-surf shops in Vietnam trading in new and used surf gear.
“These guys don’t come from wealthy backgrounds,” explains Adie. “They need a lucky break like Tai got when Jibes opened. Not only did he gain employment here as a beach assistant, he was given access to the equipment that Jibes owner, Pascal Lefebvre, provided.”
Indeed, Pascal, 50, from France, who has been living in Vietnam for more than 20 years, is widely recognised for bringing watersports to the area. In 2011, he was instrumental in bringing a round of the windsurfing world series to Mui Ne and is currently working on attracting sponsorship so that more international events can be held to help further develop the watersports culture here.
Pascal is also the driving force behind the annual surfing competition at Full Moon Village at Suoi Nuoc Beach 20km further up the coast, which is in its seventh year and is about to be held again this coming November. Events like this help expose the local and broader Vietnamese communities to surfing. The contest, which includes both men’s and women’s short and long board divisions, has attracted participants from around the world.
“It’s helping Vietnam. It’s putting Mui Ne on the surfing map,” says Tai, who says he doesn’t know who pro-surfer Kelly Slater is, nor the legendary big wave breaks of Jaws, Pipeline and Teahupoo. “The waves have always been here, it’s just that the culture hasn’t. This competition helps that.”
During the quieter times of the year, from June to November, Tai surfs the swells in front of Jibes that push through from the southwest. When the surf’s up, Adie and Pascal turn a blind eye to Tai’s work commitments and encourage him to hit the surf as often as possible.
“We want Tai and our other employees to go out and surf whenever they can because we want them to improve and become ambassadors for the sport in Vietnam,” says Adie.
Come November each year, a change in direction of the wind brings swells from the opposite direction making Suoi Nuoc Beach and a new break a little further along from Mui Ne the locals have dubbed Little Buddha, the best places to catch waves.
In a twist of irony, Little Buddha — so named after a small Buddhist shrine nearby — has emerged recently as the best wave in Mui Ne after a new condo development attempted to claim the beach in front of it and constructed a rock wall to prevent people from using it. However, Mother Nature did what she does best and built up a bank beneath the water creating what Adie describes as “a beautiful left hander.”
“Everybody rides the hell out of it now, so the developers have screwed it up for themselves,” says Adie with a grin from ear to ear.
While Little Buddha has been a victory for local surfers, the story highlights the impact that tourism development can have on fragile marine environments, none more so than the plight of keeping Vietnamese beaches clean. Tai and the team at Jibes have recognised this and have implemented measures to play their part. They only use products without toxins, such as surf wax made from natural ingredients, and they lend their support to the local Keep Mui Ne Clean group that runs regular clean-up days.
“A lot of locals don’t think too much about the environment when they visit the beach,” says Tai. “But as surfers, we’ve developed a keener sense of environmental awareness because as soon as the water is polluted, we’re the first ones to know about it.”
At its future surf contests, the team at Jibes hopes to include activities that raise awareness of the importance of protecting coastal environments. No one is more eager to do this than Tai, who is married with a young family and wants his children to experience what it’s like to surf.
“I remember the happiness, the adrenalin rush, my beating heart,” says Tai of the thrill of catching a wave for the first time. “Surfing offers an escape from my daily routine and the pressures I have at home sometimes. After an hour out on the water, things are just that little bit better afterwards.”
PHOTOS BY MATT COWAN AND PASCAL LEFEBVRE