Da Nang, Vietnam's Surf City

Three years ago, Quentin Derrick was eating clams at a beach-side restaurant in Da Nang. As he gazed east at the South China Sea, he couldn't believe what was rolling in.

Derrick has lived in Vietnam for eight years and surfed a good part of the Vietnamese coastline. But he didn't think it compared — surfing-wise — with the coastlines of Spain, France, Scotland, Morocco, Indonesia or his native Australia.

He hadn't expected to find good waves in Da Nang, Vietnam's fourth-largest city, but the ones breaking off Non Nuoc Beach looked eminently carve-able. "I've got to do something about this," he said.

These days Derrick, 39, belongs to a loose crew of surfers who flock to Non Nuoc during the area's September-to-March surf season. Last year his wife, Tran Huynh Chau, opened Da Boys Surf Shop, Da Nang's first Western-style surfing emporium.

"Since I've been here I've seen a massive increase in the amount of surfing," Derrick said. "I imagine that more surfers will come because we have fairly decent waves, and they're pretty consistent."

Because of oceanic and climatic factors, Da Nang will never have the great waves that make Indonesia, Bali and Hawaii world-renowned surf meccas. But Da Nang's surf season is relatively long, surfers say, and the central Vietnamese city is a lovely place to chill.

Indeed, when my friend Ashley and I spent six days in Da Nang last November, we felt like hanging around for six more months.

We started our days at Non Nuoc Beach, which U.S. and Australian military personnel called China Beach during the Vietnam War. The skies were mostly sunny, and the water was chilly but tolerable. Upscale hotels were going up everywhere we looked, but the beach was never crowded.

Some Vietnam-based expats say Da Nang is a great place for beginning surfers. I'm skeptical. Non Nuoc has a "longshore drift" — a riptide that moves parallel to shore — which, according to Derrick, makes it dangerous for swimming. I survived, but persnickety currents sapped my energy as I tried to paddle toward surfable swells.

When I came ashore to rest, Ashley read me excerpts from her dog-eared copy of "Moby-Dick." I began to think of Non Nuoc's sloshing white water as a white whale I was trying to master.

The whale won handily, but who cared? On this particular surfing vacation, chilling was top priority.

Da Nang offers a delightful fusion of beachy and urban vibes. After surfing for an hour or so each morning, Ashley and I read books at sunny cafes until lunchtime. In the afternoons we browsed fish markets and chatted with locals.

One afternoon we stumbled upon a lively sidewalk party. The hosts invited us to sit down and promptly stuffed us with squid.

"Why did you come here?" they asked me in Vietnamese, refilling our beer glasses. "We don't see many foreigners in this neighborhood."

"To surf," I said.

"To what?"

Some Americans equate "surfing" and "Vietnam" with the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film "Apocalypse Now," in which Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) orders a napalm attack on the Vietnamese coastline so his soldiers can surf a point break. Told that the beach is guarded by "Charlie," military slang for the Viet Cong, Kilgore famously says, "Charlie don't surf!"

The scene is grotesque fantasy, but American and Australian troops did surf Non Nuoc and other Vietnamese beaches during the war. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, some soldiers offered daylight cease-fires to North Vietnamese soldiers in exchange for surfing privileges.