Kitesurfing takes off in Mui Ne, Vietnam
A sleepy Vietnamese seaside village is taking off as kitesurfers flock to its shores, writesKit Gillet
For Mike Scribner, a suntanned and fast-talking American, the small landscaping business he has back home is simply a way to fund the four-month kitesurfing trips he takes to Vietnam every year.
For the past six years the 49-year-old has left the US as the cold weather kicks in and set up home in Mui Ne, a small Vietnamese beachside village. A decade ago Mui Ne was just a simple fishing village, but it is quickly becoming the Asian capital of one of the fastest-growing sports in the world: kitesurfing.
It's a clear day and more than 100 kites can be seen on the horizon, each with a small figure dangling below - a figure being pulled along at speed while bouncing along the surface of the water attached to a board.
With ideal weather, experienced kitesurfers off the coast at Mui Ne can pick up speed and launch themselves nine to 12 metres into the sky, staying in the air for more than 10 seconds before splashing back down onto the surface of the water. "Some guys just like to fly high," says Scribner with a smile, as he washes the sand off his kite.
Scribner is not alone in embracing the sport later in life, nor in allowing it to become an all-consuming passion.
"Back in 2009 I was laid off from my IT job, so decided to take some time off," says 47-year-old Briton, Sanjay Patel. "I was here for three months last year, and three already this year. Now I am planning to base myself in Mui Ne for several months a year and work remotely." The underlying message that his work day will now be dependent on the weather remains unsaid.
Kitesurfing, which has been described as combining windsurfing, surfing and paragliding into one extreme sport, only really took off in the late 1990s, as the technology was perfected and kitesurfing destinations began to materialise. The first competition was officially held in Maui, in Hawaii, in 1998.
The sport thrives on flat water - much like windsurfing - and strong, beach-directed winds, both of which Mui Ne has in abundance, as well as a laid-back lifestyle, cheap seafood and year-round sun.
"You can look down the beach on Christmas Day and see 200-plus kites in the sky," says Jeff Newell, a 41-year-old Briton who owns C2Sky, one of the more than 20 kitesurfing schools that now pepper the sandy beaches of Mui Ne.
The village of Mui Ne is, even today, little more than a cluster of beach huts and basic hotels on either side of a thin, straight road that eventually joins Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam with cities in the centre and north.
A four-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City and five from Nha Trang, a central Vietnamese city long known to tourists, the village used to be seen as a strategic beach stop on the long journey down the coast. Now visitors come expressly to spend time there.
Walk down the main street, with the tarmac awash with sand from the beach 30 metres away, and you will see almost everything the village has to offer: dozens of US$8-a-night guest houses along with a few plusher hotels. Shop signs advertise new and used boards and kites for sale, and an abundance of bars and restaurants offer barbecued seafood to be washed down with local beer or cheap rhum (a sweet rum) and cola.
The village retains much of its tranquil charm, and away from the main street, among the fishing vessels and in the sandy ravines to the west of town, it is easy to forget the mostly foreign beach-lovers and water sports enthusiasts who take over much of the Vietnamese village year round.
Since kitesurfing has only been around for the past 15 years, many see it as ideal for anyone looking for a new thrill where they will not always be eclipsed by younger riders who have been competing since they could stand. "It is not physically demanding and new riders, whatever their age, can be up and going within three days," C2Sky's Newell explains, cradling a beer one evening as the sun begins to set. "Because of the nature of the sport, we teach 11-year-old girls, 65-year-old men - everyone."
For beginners, the first hour is mostly spent on the beach learning to control the kite's movements. From hour two, students are taken into the water to get used to being dragged along on their board. By hour three, they are expected to get up, and from there, as one instructor says, "There is no turning back".
The sandy beaches and cool turquoise waters of Mui Ne bay stretch as far as the eye can see, but most of the kitesurfers and schools are clustered on the few kilometres adjacent to the guest houses and bars, the stretch where the conditions are most suited.
"To kitesurf properly, you need the right beach conditions, right wind speed and direction, and waves that are not too violent," says Matt Kwantes, 45, who came to work at Jibe's, the first school to offer kitesurfing lessons, in 2003, and never left. "When we started we spent a lot of time just driving along the coast checking out all the bays for the best spot."
Weather conditions are ideal in the early part of the year, but kitesurfing and windsurfing, another favourite sport in Mui Ne, are possible most of the year.
"I spent my first two years here non-stop," says Newell. "After that I had to leave to get a reality check."
The speed of life is slow here and, unlike in many beach resorts, nights in Mui Ne often break up early.
"Most kitesurfers, if they are serious, are in bed by 9pm, so they can get up early and be ready for the new day on the water," Newell says.
Over the past decade the number of people visiting Mui Ne to try their hand at the fledgling sport has grown, and it is likely to continue to do so.
Standing on the beach in the evening light, Newell has a relaxed smile on his face. "This is the fastest-growing extreme sport in the world, and Mui Ne is its hub in Asia," he says.