Interest in kitesurfing soars in sun-bathed Phan Rang

By Dennis Khng   November 3, 2019 | 02:00 am PT
Interest in kitesurfing soars in sun-bathed Phan Rang
A man kitesurfs in Phan Rang, central Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Phi Kite Center.
Most people would associate the small coastal town of Phan Rang with scenic beaches, a gorgeous coastline and sweet grapes.

But increasingly, more are beginning to link it with kitesurfing, a relatively new sport that is fast catching on.

The town and its vicinity in south central Vietnam are actually the windiest and sunniest part of the country, creating an arid, almost desert-like landscape, complete with cacti and parched earth. It is not too far from tourist hotspot Mui Ne, which has a similar climate and is a long-established kitesurfing destination.

It was from Mui Ne that the first adventurous kitesurfers ventured up about 10 years ago.

Phan Rang kitesurfing pioneer and national surfing athlete Phi Hoang was one of the intrepid ones who explored the area 10 years ago.

Hoang had been working for a water sports company for a few years in Mui Ne, his hometown, teaching people how to kitesurf.

"In 2009, I decided to explore Phan Rang for two weeks on a motorbike to see if it was a good place for kitesurfing. I loved the strong winds, how it was so sunny, the clear water and the beautiful nature," he said.

"I checked out the tides and area around My Hoa Bay and found it an ideal place for kitesurfing."

My Hoa Bay is about 30 minutes or 16km northeast of downtown Phan Rang and comprises a broad, elongated lagoon with shallow waters and winds reaching up to 35 knots (65 kph) during the high season, which lasts roughly from November to March.

A few months after his initial sojourn, Hoang brought a bunch of friends from Mui Ne to Phan Rang to kitesurf. He was looking forward to it and all the elements seemed to be aligned: "The sun was out, the weather was warm, the winds were very strong but there was no water."

He became frantic.

"I was worried and quickly asked the nearby villagers. They told me about the tides and even lent me a book on it. They said ‘Don’t worry, the tide will come in again’ and so we waited for about two hours. It came back; I was so relieved, and we had a great time kitesurfing after that."

After that initial, memorable experience, he decided to organize kitesurfing tour groups from Mui Ne to Phan Rang and would lead four to five big groups every season.

They would stay in the city and bring their own equipment from Mui Ne. His customers loved the tour, but many asked him to set up a permanent base in the Phan Rang area.

With such regular feedback, he seriously considered it and in 2014 decided to take the plunge, buying a 3,000-sqm plot of land in My Hoa Bay and setting up the Phi Kite School, the first of its kind there. The rest as they say is history.

From an initial small hut just to shelter students in September, he had to quickly expand it within two months. From 25-30 daily memberships over the four-five month high season in 2014-15, the numbers doubled in 2016 and again in 2017 as he built accommodation on the premises.

He currently has 18 rooms, a new restaurant and bar, and business is booming, Hoang said.

Phi Hoang.

Phi Hoang.

The growing Phan Rang kitesurfing scene also got Son Huy and his friend, Englishman Jef Newell, a veteran kitesurfing manager with nine years' experience in Mui Ne, hooked.

While helping his family run their Anh Duong Hotel in the city, he once saw some Korean guests kitesurfing at the main Binh Son beach.

They were doing all sorts of stunts. "I thought it was cool and wanted to learn. They were kind enough to teach me, and I really enjoyed it and thought ‘This is such a great sport!’"

He soon became quite an expert and was meeting a lot of people through it. That made him consider setting up a kitesurfing school.

In February 2016 the Kiteboard Tour Asia (KTA2016), a professional freestyle kitesurfing competition, organized an event in Phan Rang.

It came as a big boost to the local kitesurfing scene, and caused many people, including Son and Jef, to take notice.

The next year Huy decided to set up a school and worked with Jef to launch it. As part of the initial launch, they organized a ‘Big Air’ competition in February 2017.

Jef said: "When you do an event like the KTA 2016, it's more difficult to attract people to join because of the competitiveness of it. We wanted to make ours more of a fun event and charged just VDN100,000 to participate."

Son said they wanted to just have a competition based on how high the kitesurfers could jump. The highest level was about 24m.

The event was a success, boosting awareness of the sport and the center. Now the Phan Rang Kite Center is one of four schools offering lessons and equipment in town.

Their center also has accommodation and a restaurant. "We are already fully booked during the Christmas season and we expect Tet (Lunar New Year) to be busy too," Jef said.

The duo are juggling expansion plans to double the number of rooms for rent and Son expects guest numbers to double this high season.

They currently have 10 rooms. On a good day during the high season, when the weather and tide conditions are good, they usually get around 100 kitesurfers.

Most of their customers are foreigners, from countries like Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Korea, and Russia. A small number are Vietnamese from larger cities like Ho Chi Minh City.

This is also the general profile of Phan Rang kitesurfers.

At the Phan Rang Kite Center, they get skilled kitesurfers who bring their own equipment and are looking for membership, newbies seeking lessons and people who are experienced and want to rent equipment.

Things are looking up for the kite schools and their outlook is certainly upbeat.

"I hope and think this sports business will grow more," Hoang said.

"Every year I see more customers coming and kitesurfing is growing in popularity in many countries. I’m happy to see more kitesurfing schools and think there’s room for growth in Phan Rang.

"As we see more development, there will be more jobs."

These sentiments are shared by Jef and Son. With the sport rapidly growing and being fun and social, they say it gives their Phan Rang colleagues a chance to do another kind of work, learn English and meet people from all over the world.

In addition, the sport is environmentally-friendly and can be seen as part of a growing global trend in eco-tourism. Phan Rang’s bountiful, scenic nature certainly complements that.

Other larger factors have also come into play.

With the expansion in 2017 of Cam Ranh Airport, located about an hour away, and the growth in the number of international flights, the number of foreign customers has increased and is set to grow.

The Ninh Thuan Province government is also intent on promoting tourism in the province and has been supportive of kitesurfing development.

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