Words: Mark Rose
Pics: SUP Monkey
My wife and I have travelled to Asia many times over the years. Every time we spoke to people in the East about Vietnam they all had the same thing to say – “it’s AMAZING”!
After a trip to Kuala Lumpur and eating in a recommended Vietnamese restaurant we thought if the food is this good, we have to go to Vietnam.
Since that meal we have been to Vietnam five times and it is a truly amazing place.
They have a wonderful country; very friendly people, fabulous food, so much rich history and SUPing, if you know where to look. The late Keith Floyd once said of Vietnam and its happy people, “Vietnam is like a smiling snake – step on its tail and it will bite you, stroke it and it will love you.”
As good as Vietnam is, we always find ourselves gravitating back towards the middle of the country just south of Danang, a little town called Hoi An which only a handful of years ago was a sleepy fishing village but, with its Unesco World Heritage status, is fast becoming very popular with tourists.
Staying just outside the town on Cua Dai beach at a wonderful Vietnamese hotel called The Victoria Hoi An Resort and Spa, we have had many great holidays. This April whilst sitting on the beach after windsurfing, I got thinking – there must be some SUPing going on around there, it’s the perfect place. After a quick google, up came SUPMonkey HoiAn. The next day I found myself waiting on the hotel steps at 6am looking for, as described in the email, “the old guy with the tattoos on the motor bike”. I described myself back as the old guy without the tattoos!
Bang on time Craig Ryan turned up and the adventure began as we whizzed off into the back roads of Hoi An to Craig’s house. Craig is a brilliant Australian guy who has decided to settle in Vietnam for a while to SUP and surf and runs www.supmonkey.net.
At the house SUPs were loaded onto a two wheel long sack barrow to be towed by the motor bike, or should I say by the pillion passenger (ME)! With my arms behind my back, holding onto the handles of the barrow, we chugged off into the Vietnamese countryside. After surviving my first ever motor bike ride, we pulled off the track by a small creek and unloaded the iSUPs into the glass calm water. I think the locals had used rolling pins to remove all the ripples from the water before we got there.
It was still only 6.30am, so nice and cool. I have since read on Craig’s web page that some people start at 4.30am; if you want you can experience the sunrise tour and insomnia!
To say what I saw en-route was brilliant is such an understatement. I have been very fortunate in my life to have a go at life’s little challenges and this was certainly up there with the best of them, real bucket list material.
From our small launching point we meandered around various tributaries, some very narrow and then larger ones to enter the main estuary which leads out to the sea. We paddled through a few tiny villages with bridges so low you needed to kneel down to get under. All the time Craig supplied amusing tales on what it is like to go native in Vietnam and what to look out for. An added bonus on the trip, Craig is always taking pictures on his Go Pro which he then sends out as a great souvenir of your trip.
The coffee stop was typically Craig and so Vietnamese – it certainly wasn’t Starbucks. We paddled up to a small, old, slightly derelict house, tied up the SUPs and were met by an old Vietnamese lady who spoke no English. I should say at this point that I am not a coffee drinker normally, and definitely not as the first drink of the day. I was thinking, I wonder where the water comes from for the coffee –we’re surrounded by canals, will it be well boiled? Craig then announced, “It’s iced coffee”. I did think, thank goodness I am up to date with my jabs!
Two coffees arrived in small, whiskey-type glasses, both containing about one inch of jet black coffee at the bottom with a huge piece of ice in each glass. After surviving the motor bike ride and paddling in unfamiliar waters, what harm could a little coffee do?
That iced coffee was the best coffee I have ever tasted in my life, I am already planning to go back to Vietnam to do that SUP tour again just to have the coffee!
Back on the SUPs, buzzing with life and stratospheric coffee, we set off for the main estuary where a gigantic new road bridge is currently under construction. As the bridge is not completed, the locals on their motor bikes queue every morning, like ants on little ramshackle piers, to take a boat ride over to the other side of the estuary.
SUPing past one of these piers, a man started shouting at us and beckoning us over. Craig explained he wanted a go at SUPing, so we turned around. Craig donated his SUP and paddle to the man who was fully clothed and ready for work. After a few basic instructions off I went with my new found SUP friend. As expected, the Vietnamese can turn their hand to anything and with no wobbles, no worrying. Our man had a free SUP lesson, then back to the pier to continue with his journey and we with ours.
After a second quick stop on a fishing beach for some water, we paddled out into the main estuary to SUP under the new road bridge. Craig advised that it was best to call out to the workers above to let them know were SUPing under the bridge. A few months earlier during construction they had a bit of a tidy up so concrete blocks, iron work, you name it came raining down into the river very close to Craig. I don’t think an inflatable SUP is any match for a concrete block dropped from 50 feet, but it would be interesting to see what bounced back up in the air – the rider or the concrete block?
Eventually all good things have to come to an end and we seemed to be back at the creek that we’d started from in no time at all. We had covered about 8km in just over two hours and, as promised, after dropping off the SUPs and barrow at Craig’s house, I was back at The Victoria Hotel just in time for a shower and late breakfast.
You can find Craig on his web site at www.supmonkey.net and he will try and show you the real side of Vietnam. His tour size maximum is eight, and if a group is larger than four people then he puts on a second guide. His sunrise beach tours are the most popular, ideal for beginners with a stop half way – and you get to see the sunrise over Cham Island.
River tours are also popular, plus you get an extra workout depending on the tides.
Craig has found a beautiful wilderness area outside Hoi An where you paddle on the river with the current and the motor bikes pick you up at the end. It’s worth avoiding November to January as it is the rainy season, although sometimes good for surfing.
It’s worth briefly mentioning Hoi An old town. It is changing, but you will not find any Starbucks, McDonalds and the usual globalisation. What you will find are no cars in the town – in the evening even motor bikes have to be switched off and pushed through the streets. If you go in early (6am) to avoid the crowds, you can still see a 13th century town waking up, warts and all.
Getting to Vietnam
Vietnam Airlines fly direct to Vietnam from the UK. Most other airlines will get you to either Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi. From both you can fly to Da Nang and then it’s a 25 minute taxi to Hoi An.
If you are feeling adventurous and do not want another flight then take a local train
all the way to Da Nang. The trains are like paddle boarding, they are an adventure… They are very basic, very cheap and very, very slow but leave and arrive on time about 12-17 hours later, depending on your route.
Read up on Vietnam before you go as it sets the flavour of the country. They have no animosity to anyone, even after what happened to them in the Vietnam War. The Americans dropped 7,850,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam, so Vietnam has approximately 25 million bomb craters, and still they could not be defeated.
In Hoi Chi Minh take a half day trip with Saigon Express to the Chi Chi Tunnels and discover how the Vietnamese went underground to survive the war and constant bombings. You can have a blast with an AK47, 10 rounds for $17(US) – not very PC, but sometimes it has to be done.
If you don’t like reading and you are still not sure if Vietnam is for you then there is always the BBC’s Top Gear Vietnam special in which Vietnam and its people made even the great Jeremy Clarkson lost for words. And that’s saying something.