Vietnam - Chasing the Dragon in the South China Sea

Once it got light enough to see, the swell was a solid two meters, offshore peaks and absolutely no one surfing or on the beach.

Vietnam has a surfing history dating back to the early 1960’s and the American military presence during the Vietnam War. The Americans initially sent military advisors under the administration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to counsel the South Vietnamese government and later, deployed hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of dollars of airplanes and military equipment of all descriptions in South Vietnam until the end of the war in 1975. 

Traditional values, great seafood, chaotic traffic and a reverence for the late Ho Chi Minh are characteristic of modern Vietnam.

The conflict with the United States was only one of several episodes of war in the recent history of Vietnam, with many historical conflicts with China to the north and then in the early 1950’s with France, which occupied Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as the colony of French Indochina. 

Japanese professional surfer Masakazu Kono, surfing a long-period typhoon swell in the south China Sea.

Indochine Français existed from the 1860’s until the historic defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu. The French surrender ended the First Indochina War in 1954 and after a peace conference in Geneva, Cambodia and Laos became independent countries and Vietnam was divided into two countries, the communist north and the democratic south with the demilitarized zone or DMZ to divide the two sides.

Long-period groundswell with offshore southwest wind in the south China Sea.

The US intervened in 1961, as North Vietnam along with their allies, the National Liberation Front or “Viet Cong” guerillas, stepped up their military and political campaign against the government of South Vietnam to unify Vietnam under a communist government. 

Japanese professional surfer Masakazu Kono surfing at China Beach, Vietnam during a typhoon-generated swell event.

The US presence lasted until April 1975 and the dramatic Fall of Saigon, when the north and the south were united under a communist government. Unification and the end of the war led to a refugee crisis in which millions of South Vietnamese “boat people” fled in boats to neighboring countries to escape repercussions of collaborating with the Americans and living under communism.

The Monkey Mountains near Danang on the south China Sea.

The Vietnam war was a polarizing and traumatic event for the United States and spawned many introspective books and films, trying to understand how the most militarily powerful nation on earth could be beaten in Vietnam by men in pajamas with ideological convictions, AK-47 rifles and not much else.

Boarding a boat far a daytrip around the Money Mountains near Danang.

Some of the American military personnel stationed in Vietnam during the 14 years of American involvement were surfers and they were quick to see the wave-riding potential of Vietnam’s long, sandy coastline on the South China Sea. 

The Marble Mountains behind China Beach were an important clandestine base for the Viet Cong guerrillas during the war years.

Part of the US military presence was the establishment of Rest and Recreation facilities (R & R) for soldiers, where they could take a short vacation from the fighting at a secure facility. Perhaps the two most popular R & R facilities in Vietnam were at China Beach near Danang and also at Cam Ranh Bay further south, both of which had beautiful sandy beaches and waves in season, with longboards to ride them with.

Masakazu Kono, surfing at China Beach during a typhoon-generated swell in the south China Sea.

Soldiers from the different branches of service would check in for a week or two of R & R, where they would be entertained by the USO, eat, drink, surf, have sex and try to forget; at least temporarily, about the war they would be returning to soon.

Sam Bleakley, surfing at Cape Ke Ga with the French-built lighthouse.

While the US military facilities at China Beach and Cam Ranh Bay have long since been removed at both locations, they are popular tourism destinations today, with thousands of domestic and international visitors staying at modern hotels and visitor facilities.

Surfing on the coastline of Vietnam in the south China Sea.

Surfing visitors to Vietnam have a choice of two distinct seasons for waves and weather. The cooler and drier northeast monsoon from November to March or the hotter and wetter southwest monsoon from July to October, with April and May known for calm and nearly waveless conditions and very hot and dry weather.

Japanese professional longboarder Kenji Miyauchi , surfing at China Beach during a typhoon-generated swell in the south China Sea.

As all swell affecting the coastline of Vietnam originates in the South China Sea or the nearby Pacific Ocean, the country is not known for big waves and waves rarely exceed overhead unless a large typhoon is active within the South China Sea.

Misty morning in the calm waters of Halong Bay in North Vietnam.

The northeast monsoon is known for super-consistent windswell, but as a northeast wind is onshore for much of the coastline of Vietnam, the short-period windswell conditions are sloppy and clean waves are usually found only in the early morning, before the onshore wind starts. 

Masakazu Kono, surfing at China Beach in the south China Sea.

The southwest monsoon typhoon season can have ideal offshore southwest wind for weeks, but flat conditions. There is no longer-period groundswell unless there is an active typhoon in the South China Sea or passing the swell window of the Luzon Strait, between the top of Luzon in The Philippines and Taiwan, which can send a pulse of groundswell across the South China Sea to the coastline of Vietnam.

Flower seller cycling through the old city of Hanoi in North Vietnam.

When this particular combination of offshore southwest wind and longer-period groundswell occurs, the waves and surfing conditions can be very good indeed in the Danang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau areas with few people surfing at all.

BayBay Niu at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. The Museum is the most popular visitor attraction in the former Saigon, with exhibitions of US, French, Chinese and Australian equipment from the war periods. It was formerly known as the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression Against the Brave People of Vietnam".

We started our quest for waves in Vietnam in the Danang area, as there was a choice of places to stay and the China Beach area was one of the only places we had heard of where people had surfed before in all of Vietnam.

From Taiwan, the Republic of China, longboarder BayBay Niu, surfing in the south China Sea.

It proved to be a good idea as we found accommodations at an old (very old) hotel from the French colonial period in the My Khe area, quite run down but not crowded. It was historic and very atmospheric, with a very helpful staff that had been working there for decades and spoke Vietnamese, English, French, Russian and Japanese.

Sunrise over the south China Sea with a fishing boat at My Khe beach.

There was a collection of seafood restaurants for dinner across the road, built on pilings over the sand. These restaurants were famous for their cold “33” domestic Pilsner beer and fresh seafood, with some of the restaurants having been in business for decades with loyal domestic and international customers immortalized in framed black and white prints on the walls.

Vietnamese beach culture dates from the sea-bathing and beach-going habits of the French during the colonial period.

The China Beach area has been a holiday destination for decades and offers an interesting selection of accommodation choices, spanning the different eras of foreign influence in Vietnam.

BayBay Niu and Sam Bleakley, surfing at Cape Ke Ga in Vietnam.

There are a few old places from the French colonial period, more recent concrete Brutalist structures for the proletariat from the period of Soviet influence after 1975 and newer luxury places aimed at Chinese and Japanese visitors from the early 2000’s to the present.

Longboarder Kenji Miyauchi, surfing a long-period groundswell at China Beach on the south China Sea.

As China Beach is a vast expanse of sand, it is never crowded with surfers. Swell generally diminishes when moving north, towards My Khe beach as the wave shadow of the Monkey Mountains starts to have an effect.

Moving south to Non Nuoc beach is the opposite, there is more swell as there is no shadowing in this area until further south with the offshore Cu Lao Cham islands, near the old Chinese trading port and modern tourist magnet of Hoi An.

Vietnam receives swell from the south China Sea in season, with a series of left points in the Vung Tau area.

As the China Beach area is all sand-bottom beachbreak, the waves can vary widely in quality from perfect peaks and long walls under offshore southwest wind conditions to sloppy waves under the more common onshore northeast wind.

BayBay Niu and Sam Bleakley, relaxing after three hours surfing an empty left point in the Vung Tau area.

When we arrived in the Danang area, the surf was stone flat. The wind was offshore from the southwest but there was not a ripple of swell, the South China Sea looked literally like a lake. The accommodation was nice and the seafood restaurants were great for dinner, but we were not on vacation, we were here to surf.

UK, longboarder Sam Bleakley, surfing in the south China Sea in Vietnam.

We had a hard time convincing our two professional surfers from Japan that, according to the forecast charts, there would be waves in a few days from a major typhoon moving slowly north and past the Luzon Strait, the gap between the top of Luzon Island in The Philippines and the bottom of Taiwan, with long-period groundswell coming in across the South China Sea.

Japanese professional surfer Masakazu Kono, surfing in the south China Sea in Vietnam.

That is exactly what happened, as the next day we started to see a few forerunner sets of less than half a meter in the late afternoon, little shorebreak waves with an offshore southwest wind whereas previously there had been nothing at all. 

From the Republic of China Taiwan, longboarder BayBay Niu surfing in the south China Sea in Vietnam.

The long-period swell energy was starting to hit the coast of Vietnam and we went to sleep early, knowing that tomorrow there would be much more energy arriving from the distant typhoon and if the wind stayed offshore, we would have ideal conditions for surfing.

Sam Bleakley, surfing short-period windswell in the south China Sea in Vietnam.

We got up at sunrise the next morning and after a quick breakfast of French roast coffee and baguettes with marmalade l’orange, we were on the coast road before sunrise. We went to a location a few kilometers south of My Khe, in the Non Nuoc area for more swell exposure and once it got light enough to see, it was a solid two meters, offshore peaks and absolutely no one surfing or on the beach.

The "Basket Boats" of Vietnam are a common sight, made of woven bamboo strips coated with tar or resin.

The swell continued for the next three days, peaking at two meters and slowly declining as the typhoon moved north and out of the swell window. The wind stayed offshore southwest day and night, until the swell had declined to completely flat again. We surfed a number of locations in the China Beach area and did not see a single other surfer for the entire swell.

The coastline of Vietnam on the south China Sea.


Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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