Da Nang, Vietnam’s Surf City


Three years ago, Quentin Derrick was eating clams at a beach-side restaurant in Da Nang. As he gazed east at the South China Sea, he couldn’t believe what was rolling in.

Derrick has lived in Vietnam for eight years and surfed a good part of the Vietnamese coastline. But he didn’t think it compared — surfing-wise — with the coastlines of Spain, France, Scotland, Morocco, Indonesia or his native Australia.

He hadn’t expected to find good waves in Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city, but the ones breaking off Non Nuoc Beach looked eminently carve-able. “I’ve got to do something about this,” he said.

These days Derrick, 39, belongs to a loose crew of surfers who flock to Non Nuoc during the area’s September-to-March surf season. Last year his wife, Tran Huynh Chau, opened Da Boys Surf Shop, Da Nang’s first Western-style surfing emporium.

“Since I’ve been here I’ve seen a massive increase in the amount of surfing,” Derrick said. “I imagine that more surfers will come because we have fairly decent waves, and they’re pretty consistent.”

Because of oceanic and climatic factors, Da Nang will never have the great waves that make Indonesia, Bali and Hawaii world-renowned surf meccas. But Da Nang’s surf season is relatively long, surfers say, and the central Vietnamese city is a lovely place to chill.

Indeed, when my friend Ashley and I spent six days in Da Nang last November, we felt like hanging around for six more months.

We started our days at Non Nuoc Beach, which U.S. and Australian military personnel called China Beach during the Vietnam War. The skies were mostly sunny, and the water was chilly but tolerable. Upscale hotels were going up everywhere we looked, but the beach was never crowded.

Some Vietnam-based expats say Da Nang is a great place for beginning surfers. I’m skeptical. Non Nuoc has a “longshore drift” — a riptide that moves parallel to shore — which, according to Derrick, makes it dangerous for swimming. I survived, but persnickety currents sapped my energy as I tried to paddle toward surfable swells.

When I came ashore to rest, Ashley read me excerpts from her dog-eared copy of “Moby-Dick.” I began to think of Non Nuoc’s sloshing white water as a white whale I was trying to master.

The whale won handily, but who cared? On this particular surfing vacation, chilling was top priority.

Da Nang offers a delightful fusion of beachy and urban vibes. After surfing for an hour or so each morning, Ashley and I read books at sunny cafes until lunchtime. In the afternoons we browsed fish markets and chatted with locals.

One afternoon we stumbled upon a lively sidewalk party. The hosts invited us to sit down and promptly stuffed us with squid.

“Why did you come here?” they asked me in Vietnamese, refilling our beer glasses. “We don’t see many foreigners in this neighborhood.”

“To surf,” I said.

“To what?”

Some Americans equate “surfing” and “Vietnam” with the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film “Apocalypse Now,” in which Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) orders a napalm attack on the Vietnamese coastline so his soldiers can surf a point break. Told that the beach is guarded by “Charlie,” military slang for the Viet Cong, Kilgore famously says, “Charlie don’t surf!”

The scene is grotesque fantasy, but American and Australian troops did surf Non Nuoc and other Vietnamese beaches during the war. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, some soldiers offered daylight cease-fires to North Vietnamese soldiers in exchange for surfing privileges.

Surfing soldiers are long gone from this area, but Le Thi Tam, a Vietnamese woman who owns the eclectic Tam’s Pub & Surf Shop, still sings their praises. As a teenager, she told us, she sold Americans Coca-Cola near the Da Nang air base, using the money she earned to put her brothers through school.

Americans treated her so well during the war, Tam says, that she’s been friends with them ever since. Now the Da Nang native takes U.S. veterans to former battle sites and helps them reconnect with Vietnamese friends and ex-lovers. She’ll also rent them surfboards or motorbikes for $5 a day.

Many tourists skip Da Nang on their way to nearby Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital, or Hoi An Ancient Town, a 15th century trading port turned UNESCO World Heritage site. But Tam insists her hometown is worth a visit.

“Some foreigners don’t want to visit Da Nang because they think there’s nothing to see, but others think its beaches are very nice,” Tam said one afternoon over cheeseburgers. “More and more people are coming here because they want to surf.”

To wit: A few months after we visited Da Nang, Tam moved her surf shop closer to the beach.

Derrick, the Australian surfer who moved to Da Nang in 2008, is promoting surfing among young Vietnamese through the nascent Da Nang Beach Surf Life Saving Club. But for now, the city’s surfing community largely consists of amphibious expats.

One local couple, Gunnar Moeller and Ngo Thi Thom, have converted their home into a long-term (and unadvertised) guesthouse. They don’t usually host short-term travelers but they happened to have a vacancy when we met them, so they rented us a room and two surfboards. Their guesthouse — Hafen, German for “haven” — is so close to Non Nuoc Beach that we walked to and fro barefoot.

Moeller, 38, told me he likes Da Nang because it is much cheaper than Spain’s Canary Islands, where he found it hard to surf regularly and pay rent.

It’s clear that he surfs a lot here. Standing on Non Nuoc Beach one morning, I watched the sandy-haired German ride waves as if they were horizontal escalators.

Da Nang’s surfing conditions aren’t perfect, Moeller told me afterward, and its waves tend to fade by lunchtime. “But at least there aren’t a lot of people here,” he said.

The only people around were some Vietnamese guys tossing a volleyball. It seemed remarkable that such a cheap, quirky and peaceful place was not teeming with backpackers.

My face was sunburned and I felt like napping, but Moeller, whose face was bronzed, was eyeing the sea. If the breaks returned after lunch, he said, he would probably surf them again.