Good morning, Vietnam
"YOU'RE sheeting too much. You're sheeting too much!"
I'm in Mui Ne, Vietnam. I'm not hunched over a toilet with some crippling form of dysentery, though - the cries are from Darko, a burly windsurfing instructor with baked skin and loud voice thick with eastern European accent. He's trying to keep my girlfriend and I from falling into the South China Sea but in the process managing to be both scary and hilarious at the same time.
Earlier that week we had escaped Ho Chi Minh City, away from the millions of motorbikes, the hordes of salesmen toting racks of Roy Bons sunglasses and away from the brown-grey Saigon River to a small coastal fishing village five hours' drive away. Mui Ne is fast becoming a hub for wind water sports in South East Asia and attracts avid kite and windsurfers the world over, creating a new industry in a country not known for making the most of its ample coastline.
"Open. Ooooh-Paaan!" I'm on the girthy deck of a learner's windsurfer, dodging dead fish as I'm blown out to sea, before I tack and head back to shore to repeat. Darko stands in warm waist-deep water reminding me to open my sail to change direction.
"No! Don't do these! Why you do like these?!" Although his words may not be the gentle Kiwi encouragement I'm used to, I think his advice - to surrender to his command and lose myself in the process - is working.
Windsurfing was one thing, but the real goal had been to go kitesurfing. Once the bus had dropped us off earlier that week and we had unloaded our gear into the guest house - complete with thatched roof, hammocks and, and the beach 10m away, all for $10 each per night - we ventured towards the busy area of the beach. The afternoon breeze was blowing strong and dozens of huge kites darted through the air like a fistful of giant's confetti.
But any images of being one of the people on the end of a kite died with the wind, which uncharacteristically dropped to a few knots the next day and remained that way until we left.
Luckily we ran into Rob Kidnie, an Australian kitesurfing instructor who initially trained as an accountant. He has a company, Kite-n-Surf, which he runs from a hammock on the beach. This year Kidnie made headlines for manoeuvring a stand-up paddle board the length of the Mekong River to raise awareness about the often-rampant pollution in Vietnam.
Not content to let us languish on the beach, Kidnie got a small learner kite in the air and showed us the figure-eight loops crucial to keeping tension on the line, which keep a boardrider skimming over the waves. It took well-timed pulls on the handlebar to stop the nylon from slamming into the sand - "Left! Right! Like you're riding a bike . . . yeah that's it!"
Fortunately Mui Ne had plenty to offer even when wind was light. Another morning we got up early and drove motorbikes through the Mui Ne township to Hon Rom, the next bay over, which provides better surfing conditions. The small, clean waves combined with no wind to make perfect learning conditions.
That didn't mean I made the perfect teacher. I had gone to instruct my better half, who was having a bit of trouble paddling her 2.5m longboard through the breakers. Unfortunately my board smashed into her arm, then her head, so for the sake of the relationship I left her to it. Couples are advised to get lessons because the inevitable communication breakdown will lead to arguments, tears and, in this case, bruises.
If water sports prove too much strain, there are other natural attractions to keep warring couples preoccupied. One such wonder is the red sand dunes, a mini-desert covering kilometres, which help create the consistent on-shore wind that makes Mui Ne great for wind sports. We approached the dunes as a dawn sun split the clouds and lit up the sand into a deep burned terracotta. After hiking up the first dune to look inland, long shadows accentuated every wind-blown furrow on the heaped sand, giving an impression more of the Sahara than coastal Southeast Asia. In some places red dunes and blue sky was all we could see, as well as a large volume of litter tourists left behind, tainting what would otherwise be an otherworldly experience.
Mui Ne attracts either wind-sport fanatics or Russians. The latter have a history of holidaying in Mui Ne as friendly political ties means it's easy for them to get entry to the socialist republic. It's hard not to spot the Russian influence - hordes of rotund, balding men stroll the beach wearing only speedos and the mandatory gold chain. Flocks of young women fill the beachside restaurants, tottering on their platform jandals and ordering vodka from the Russian-language menus. Even the ATM has a Russian accent. However, Darko is no Russian. I'm pretty sure he's Croatian.
I successfully launch the sail and complete another loop. For once, Darko offers some praise. I guess I've managed to follow his advice - losing myself in the moment seems exactly what Mui Ne is made for.
Would you like fries with that blood, Sir?
For days I've been slurping pho and avoiding the seaside restaurants with their tanks of struggling eels, sharks and frogs.
The local delicacies don't look that appealing and I'm happy to keep my distance.
But that was to change - in a meal that would have looked at home in a satanic ritual.
A group of us decide to eat goat barbecue for dinner and after the sun falls, we drive, like a little sunburned bikie gang, to the restaurant. It's a local favourite, a big concrete-floored shed mostly open to the warm evening air with plastic seats and toilet paper serviettes.
Two flaming tubs are brought out and we copy the experts as they toss marinated goat strips over a flame and wrap them in sheets of rice paper with a handful of fresh herbs.
Just as things are winding down, Luan and Cee, the two local guys with us, start conspiring together in machine-gun Vietnamese.
"We have special dish for you," they say, and take off Luan's 1950s two-wheeler.
They return about 10 minutes later with two plastic bags - one filled with fresh mint and basil as well as a large, thick poppadum. The other contains a shallow bowl. Inside is some sort of grey meat swimming in a dark crimson sauce.
"What is it?"
"Duck blood!" Luan exclaims as his face is split by a wide grin.
He cracks off some of the poppadum, shovels a spoonful of the duck blood mix on to it, tops it with herbs and a squeeze of lime and it disappears into that grin.
"Makes you strong!" He gestures for me to do the same.
I scoop some of the blood on to a shard of poppadum, cram plenty of herbs into a fancy nacho and with a squeeze of lime, down it goes. Surprisingly, it's good! Through the lime hints of iodine come through, reminding me the mix was probably running through the veins of some unfortunate fowl hours earlier.
The rest of the westerners swallow their grimaces and one by one have their fill of the local delicacy. Luan, gaining momentum from the grimaces and laughter at the table, tells us how much he likes eating dog - "woof!"
I look at the bag. It's empty. I guess dog's for breakfast.
Vietnam's Top 5
Jim Cato-Symonds, manager of Flight Centre Ponsonby, has recently travelled to Vietnam and shares his top tips on places to go and things to do:
1. Hoi An is teeming with tailors so get some clothes custom made. Take a few of your favourite items or even a photo of what you want and they'll be replicated to perfection.
2. Head to the markets to eat the fragrant and fiery treats of Vietnam cheap.
3. When crossing the road, step out slowly, walk at a steady pace and watch the traffic flow around you - or follow a local. If you wait for a gap in the endless number of scooters you will be there all day.
4. Take to the ocean at Halong Bay for a couple of nights on a comfortable, converted trader junk. Huge limestone karsts rise out of the emerald waters as you drift past, relaxing with a drink in hand.
5. Head to the hills north of Hanoi. The hill tribes, terraced rice paddies and colonial-era hill stations provide beautiful scenery and experiences you will never forget.