It was the Americans who brought the first surfboard to Da Nang. US troops drafted at the city’s air base during the Vietnam War would work the shoreline in pairs – one on lookout, the other carving waves.
That was the first time Le Li Tham, owner of the fabled Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop, lay eyes on a surfboard. She was in her early teens, making a humble living peddling cans of Coca Cola to the soldiery. The troops would return decades later; older, greyer and no longer clad in defence force regalia. Tam still happily takes their patronage in her quaint and homely burger store.
But it was another American, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who endowed Tam with the decks she would rent to Da Nang’s itinerant population. Buffett made off with Tam’s lone-standing display model – her only deck at the time – to carve waves at nearby Hoi An. At 9am the morning after Tam hastily tracked him down, a bus pulled up outside her unassuming beachside shopfront. Buffett twice serenaded her, so Tam gifted the stranger with a facet of the wartime memorabilia that still line the crowded walls of her cluttered eatery. Later that week there was another surprise at her door: four surfboards, two pink, two blue, sent express from Hong Kong.
That collection has grown, and fills a wall mount in Tam’s pub, which splits its revenue between delectable burgers and surfboard rentals. Tam’s reputation, too, has burgeoned – conspicuously so, for a sexagenarian who’s never used the Internet – but she has the same meagre going rate of AU$5 for a day’s board rental. There’s no deposit, either. Her business is virtually hinged upon the goodwill of her international clientele.
“It’s not for money. It’s just for fun,” she beams, before saying the words that round out most of her speech.
“I’m very happy.”
The Internet is rife with other rumours about how surfboards later wound up on Da Nang’s My Khe Beach. One proffers that a dozen-odd boards were seized by locals after being abandoned in the wake of an ill-fated surf competition. “But when I arrived here ten years ago, there was neither board nor surfers,” says Gunnar Moeller, a stalwart of Da Nang’s loose-knit surfing community.
Even today, few locals know how to surf. Local decks are a rare find, so most are imported from Thailand or abroad. The city’s coastal locale in Vietnam’s midpoint made it a high target for wartime invasion and, more recently, tourism, but the surf is also consistently temperamental. “The thing in Da Nang is that conditions change very fast,” says Gunnar. “It can be perfect in the morning but half an hour later, the wind comes on.”
On the afternoon I drop by My Khe Beach, the swell is disappointingly tame. Gunnar says a group of Japanese surfers tend to turn up on Da Nang’s coast a year. Apart from that, he says the surf isn’t worth a trip in itself. Prime conditions come in short windows.
“So if you live here, you can still find a wave each day.”
Gunnar finds his wave most days. When crewmate Quentin Derrick rings to ask Gunnar his afternoon plans, his instinctive response is “riding the waves.” That might not be the case, but there’s no denying the vibrancy of Da Nang’s growing beach culture. More and more throngs of tourists are turning up to surf, even if only because of Da Nang’s accessible location.
Quentin grew up surfing Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula. His burly stature and white-collar work wear doesn’t exactly evoke swelling shorelines, but he can effortlessly rattle off a dozen or so intercontinental coasts he’s carved. Like the rest of the crew, he’s tight-lipped on the Da Nang’s neatest surfing haunts, lest word gets out among visitors.
These days, he’s also director of studies at Da Nang’s English Language Institute, a job that accommodates his budding Vietnamese tongue and puts him in good tow with bilingual locals. They smile and wave at the windows of his silver Mitsubishi Triton. Coffee is on them.
He shows me around coastal Da Nang while on break from a busy day at the ELI. Even at 4pm, My Khe Beach’s straw huts and shores are already patronised by droves of tourists and locals alike. Only a handful set foot in the ocean.
“We actually get consistent four feet plus waves for three months, four months of the year,” he says.
“But along the banks, often it’s very straight. So it’s very hard to get out – it’s quick rides. Often.”
Lifeguards man the shores in stilted chairs, but drowning deaths are still notorious throughout much of South-East Asia. In Vietnam, the daily statistic often runs into the thirties – upwards of 11,000 a year – under a government that hasn’t introduced mandatory training for children.
Quentin has fronted several efforts to pair the bourgeoning surf culture with swimming lessons. He’s implemented an annual nippers program for young learners, as well as importing Australian surf lifesavers for year-long placements. We take the scenic route back to the ELI, listening to the coastal vibes of Brant Bjork (which he likes for sounding simultaneously like Daft Punk and hallmark Australian rock), and ruminates plans for his next big project: a surf life saving facility dedicated to My Khe Beach.
The institute would require involvement from Surf Life Saving Australia and other international committees, but Quentin believes it’s within reach. He’s got beachfront land set aside for the project, but at the moment it’s going through what he furtively describes as ‘red tape’.
It’s not hard to see why. It’s just ten years since Da Nang was a dirt road village; only eight since the birth of the English Language Institute, Da Nang’s first high-rise. These days Da Nang is a place in the clutches of exponential development. Hyatt resorts and high-rise towers next to vacant dirt lots. By day it’s hard to escape the sound of pneumatic drills. By night, the skyline is flecked with neon.
“This will all be different the next time you see it,” Quentin says.
Each year on the first Wednesday in September, Quentin’s crew take the tongue-in-cheek moniker, Da Boys, and invoke the Surf God Huey to deliver some seriously gnarly waves. There’s a secret handshake. The Da Boys wear Hawaiian shirts and wigs, spike vodkas with a Ferrero Rocher, and watch the 1978 Malibu surf film Big Wednesday. It’s a motley pastiche of culture tantamount to the growing, intercontinental surf culture on one of South East Asia’s least likely shorelines.
Each year, it works.