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The Evolution of Surfing in Vietnam

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Editorial Note: This was originally published on Global Perspectives, which takes a look at life from the perspective of a clueless digital nomad.


When you think of Southeast Asian surf destinations, Vietnam is probably one of the last countries that comes to mind.


But over the last half century, Vietnam has developed a unique surf culture that boasts some of the region’s sickest waves. 


Photo: Da Nang Boardriders Club


Bloody Beginnings


The story of how surfing arrived in Vietnam is part of what makes the culture here so unique.


Flash back to the late 60s during the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) in an American R&R outpost situated in a coastal city called Da Nang.


Thousands of American GIs were fed up fighting a war that they largely wanted no part in. They were looking for some much-needed relaxation - naturally, they headed to the beach. 


China Beach R&R Center. Photo: Tam Le


If you’re unaware, Vietnam is home to over 3,000 kilometers of coastline along the South China Sea, or the East Sea if you’re a local.


During Central Vietnam’s rainy season (September - May), large swells come in from the southeast, resulting in fast waves that can reach up to 3.5 meters on a good day.


The outpost only had six surfboards when Larry Martin arrived in 1968. He recalls the boards being rented out to anyone, resulting in soldiers from Iowa, for example, nearly drowning.


“So I said, look, let’s form a club. We’ll check people out to see if they can really surf, and if they can, we’ll issue them cards”, Martin commented.

Hence, the China Beach Surf Club was born. 


This became a much-needed touch of home for many soldiers, most of whom were suffering from the terrors of war.


Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to completely escape the war, as Martin remembers being shot at while out on the water: “In the distance we could see there were rockets coming in, hitting the Marine base. That didn’t bother us, but then all of a sudden, the water started breaking up around us. It was machine gun fire from somebody on shore. We paddled out about 500 yards, and just stayed there. We didn’t come in until dark.” 

Even with extreme scenarios like that, the surf was healing for most and was one of the only ways that soldiers could forget what was going on around them.


After the war ended, however, the Americans left and the locals, who were largely without access to equipment and instructors, were unable to continue the surfing tradition. 


Tam’s Surf Revival


Tam’s Pub, circa 2000. Photo: Tam Le

 

Surfing pretty much completely disappeared from Vietnam for the next few decades, until a lady by the name of Tam helped bring it back to Da Nang over 20 years ago.


Tam is a legend both locally and, in the US, as she was practically raised by American soldiers during the war.


Among many other American traditions, these soldiers are the ones who introduced her to surfing at a very young age. 


After the war ended, Tam endured years of suffering and hardship under the strict communist regime. Nevertheless, she persevered, as she was eventually able to save up enough money to open a bar and restaurant.


Naturally, she decided to serve burgers and BBQ - just the way her American brothers taught her. 


Tam operates a tour in US Army Jeeps that runs throughout Central Vietnam. Photo: Tam Le


If you’re unaware, many American soldiers who were lucky enough to survive the war return to Vietnam in their elder years to experience the country from a new perspective.


In typical ‘Murican fashion, these soldiers turned tourists longed for a taste of home while they were here. As fate would have it, they ended up back at Tam’s Pub, eating the same food she fed them decades prior.


As they began sharing stories, many of them began to recognize Tam, as she was the famed Viet girl who knew how to surf. 


One of Tam’s most famous customers was Jimmy Buffet (left). He liked Tam so much he ended up shipping her four surfboards from Hong Kong (right). Photo: Tam Le


Tam’s customers began asking where they could find a surfboard in town, but as was already mentioned, surfing no longer existed in Vietnam.


Tam, being the businesswoman she is, decided she would again fill the unserved market and start renting surfboards to the tourists. And thus, surfing was back in Vietnam.


Establishing a Community


Even though there were surfers, there was not a cohesive surf community in Da Nang until LST SURF was opened in 2017.


This is the place that provided a much needed home for the local surf community.


According to co-founder Rhys Emlet, “LST SURF is at the center of this growing community. It surely is not the whole community, but LST offers a space for local surfers and visitors to enjoy Da Nang and its beaches.” 

To say the surf community is growing rapidly would be an understatement — not only in Da Nang, but also in other towns like Mui Ne and Nha Trang. With the founding of the Da Nang Boardriders Club and support from the local government, Da Nang is well on its way to establishing itself as a surf destination. 


Photo: Da Nang Boardriders Club


Today, I was privileged enough to be able to attend the second annual Da Nang Invitational - the first contest of the three part Da Nang Surf Series.


In the words of the competition’s emcee, Johnny Kongo, “the idea [of the surf series] is to bring surfing to Vietnam and create a solid community.”


The event, hosted by the Da Nang Boardriders Club in collaboration with a number of local businesses, was a perfect representation of the surf community here.


Between the competitors and fans, there was a healthy mix of locals and expats who came together in the name of good waves and good times.


Jorge Sangachi gets aerial in the final heat of the 2023 Da Nang Invitational. Photo: Da Nang Boardriders Club


The contest is growing, too. In its second iteration, the 2023 Da Nang Invitational featured over 50 competitors from all around the world, including a new kids division.


The competition started off slow, with small glassy waves leaving a lot to be desired for competitors and fans.


As the day progressed however, the sea began to cooperate, and a serious swell started to roll through.


By the end of the day, surfers were seeing consistent 1.5 to 2 meter waves - and they took full advantage of the surf gods’ blessing.


Jorge Sangachi, hailing from Ecuador, and Sony Tri, a Viet from Mui Ne, went head-to-head in the final heat exchanging high energy rides that featured technical maneuvers and combos that most surfers dream of putting together.


Much to the appeal of the locals, Sony took home first and rode off into the night on the shoulders of his fellow competitors.


Sony Tri wins big. Photo: Da Nang Boardriders Club


From the American soldiers who introduced it, to being the home of a fast-growing surf competition, surfing has come a long way in Vietnam. As more locals and expats alike continue to grow the sport in Vietnam, it seems clear that this time, surfing is here to stay.

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