The Vietnamese beach town of Mui Ne is one of the best places in Southeast Asia to take up the sports of kite surfing and paragliding.
“It’s a lot like drugs,” said Nick, the globetrotting Frenchman. “You can get addicted really easily.”
I had no reason to doubt him. My friend Bill in North America would echo these words. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that both of these gentlemen are junkies.
Oh, not on substances, for heaven’s sake. They get high in a different way. They may uncap an occasional beer or uncork a smooth Bordeaux, but it’s their obsession with the wind that carries them through the heavens beneath a synthetic fabric wing.
Nick and Bill are aficionados of the sports of kite surfing (or kite boarding), a nautical ballet if ever there was one, and even more so, its close cousin paragliding, which they also can enjoy on land … or even snow.
You’re most likely to encounter Bill, who has visited Vietnam but who lives in western Canada, sailing beneath his maple-leaf emblem off the heady cliffs atop Grouse Mountain, near Vancouver. The season doesn’t matter. Nick, who like me makes his home in Ho Chi Minh City, pursues his passion by the sea.
The Sailing Club
In Vietnam, there may be no better place to learn and practice kite surfing and paragliding than the sands of Mui Né, 225 kilometers (140 miles) east of HCMC.
Carving a gentle crescent, the south-facing beach at Mui Né extends for more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) along the South China Sea (here known as the East Sea). The main coastal road, Du’ong Nguyen Dinh Chieu, is home to a couple of dozen resorts, most of them low-rise properties with lush gardens stretching from the highway to the beach. Cheap guest houses and a surprisingly international choice of budget restaurants gather on the inland side of Nguyen Dinh Chieu.
Numerous schools teach kite surfing. They have hung their shingles above the beach sands, especially in the area known as Ham Tien, near the west end of the strip. This is said to be the area with the best winds, especially between October and April.
I met Nick at the Sailing Club Resort after a crab Benedict breakfast at Sandals, the resort’s lovely seaside restaurant. The Frenchman was furling his colorful “wing” when I approached and asked some questions about his sport.
He had not been kiteboarding, he asserted — indeed, he had no board. The surfer I photographed the evening before had been on a foilboard, with a hydrofoil that extends a meter below the board to provide loft. He wore a harness and held a control bar, with about 20 meters (65 feet) of lines attached to an inflatable “power kite.”
Nick was enjoying what Bill and I would call paragliding. Like a kite surfer, he looks for steady regular winds, not gusts, and he controls the lightweight, free-flying wing by means of suspension lines that extend from his harness. Beyond that, it’s all aerodynamics. He can stay aloft for hours, wearing only beach clothes, a fanny pack and a helmet, and easily cover the kilometers from one end of Mui Né beach to the other.
Paragliding is notably different from parasailing (a person is towed behind a boat with little or no control over the chute) and hang gliding (the pilot is harnessed into an aluminum frame covered with sailcloth, a far more intrepid adventure).
Nick said he especially likes kiting over Mui Né’s white sand dunes, about 24 km (15 miles) east of the main beach strip. With a short run down a sandy hill to catch extra wind, he can climb several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape for spectacular views.
Indeed, after the beach itself, the dunes are the #1 attraction in Mui Né. As a native of America’s Pacific Northwest, I’ve been jaded by the expansive Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, but Vietnam’s white dunes (in reality a pale yellow in color) are impressive in their own right.
I only saw these dunes as I rode through on a bus from Phan Rang. But I could see some of the local concessions that Lonely Planet warns tourists about — dune buggies, quad bikes and plastic sleds. I did not observe any evidence of ostrich riding, but apparently that is an activity as well.
Much nearer to central Mui Né are the so-called “red dunes,” whose ochre color is more like Moab and less like the Sahara. They are dissected by a small stream that is fed by pretty Fairy Spring; a trail through rock formations begins not far from the original Mui Né fishing village.
Everyone, of course, has a different experience when they travel. I’m the guy with champagne tastes and a beer budget, so I tend to cover both ends of the spectrum.
I do a lot of walking. And because Mui Né is laid out in a single long strip, it’s a great place for people like me, as well as for joggers. I easily logged a couple of kilometers in either direction from my guest house, and I noticed numerous runners — all of them Westerners — on the sidewalks. There’s little concern for dodging traffic here, unlike in the big Vietnamese cities.
The main cho, or public market, is in the village itself. I didn’t make it that far. But my walks took me past other interesting locations. I enjoyed my visit to the Chùa Phu’óc Thiên pagoda, ornate but tasteful, with lovely gardens and a whimsical statue of a laughing Buddha in its courtyard. The Bo Ke seafood stalls offered a tantalizing selection of critters of all kinds, including some I swear I’d never seen before.
In a tourist town, the street signs, especially those on restaurants, tell a story about where tourists come from. In Mui Né, there were as many signs in Russian as in English. European Russians may seek sun in the Mediterranean, but Asian Russians — those from Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk and other large cities — are drawn to Vietnam, in part I’m sure because of a shared political philosophy. Indeed, the large coastal city of Nha Trang, as far north of Mui Né as HCMC is west, may have a larger Russian population than even Hanoi.
But I didn’t eat at any of those, although the Ararat Armenian restaurant may well get my attention on my next visit to the beach. This time, I dined at the Sailing Club’s Sandals restaurant, at the SaiGon MuiNe Resort (grilled grouper), and at the Villa Aria Mui Ne (a seafood platter), all with tables overlooking the sands as the sun went down.
Later in the evening, I visited the Filipino staff at El Latino, a Mexican restaurant that took no offense when I directed the bar staff in how to make a proper margarita. And I wound up at Joe’s Café, a local institution where two live bands perform nightly. It was an entertaining stop, but the bearded Irishman who led a band that tried to funk-ify Marvin Gaye sent me scurrying back to my lodging.
That would be the NoStress Guest House, a garden spot if there ever was one. Set on a hillside a couple of hundred meters above the main drag, its dozen-or-so guest rooms share a unique vista of green — as in tropical plants large and small, accented by ceramic tchotchkes and a fringe of pink bougainvillea. At US$10 a night, the private room was simple and spacious. It would have been lovely, were it not for the roosters that began crowing at 4 in the morning, and the neighborhood dogs that soon joined the chorus.
I returned to the beach at the Sailing Club on my final morning and thought about my previous meeting with Nick, the adventurous Frenchman.
“It’s easy to learn,” he said of paragliding. “And it doesn’t really take a lot of strength.”
I told him that my only previous experience at the sport was a tandem descent through the clouds at Jackson, Wyoming, in the shadow of the Grand Teton mountains.
“Then I definitely think you should do it!” he exclaimed.
I’ll be back in Mui Né. And now I have another reason.