Julia Shaw appears to be just another tourist on Mui Ne's golden beach. Her open smile, lush blond hair and tan lines do nothing to belie your suspicions.
Sailing instructors train students in waters off the coast of Mui Ne
Until you find out she's the brains behind Mui Ne's first sailing school.
The Irish entrepreneur was born in Malaysia, grew up in England, and studied in Hong Kong. But she never imagined in her wildest dreams she would one day live in Vietnam.
Shaw, who studied botany at the University of Exeter in England, and later earned a Master in Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, now owns a sailing school in Mui Ne on Vietnam's lower central coast.
Shaw first traveled to Vietnam in 1993, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 2003 to help set up Wildlife at Risk, in partnership with the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department.
As co-founder of Wildlife at Risk, she played an integral role in setting up the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Center in September 2006. The center rehabilitates animals confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade for three to six months before releasing them back into the wild.
"We arranged workshops to train forest rangers to identify animals at risk and take care of them. Each species has different requirements so it is important to know how to treat them right," she said.
A scientist at heart, Shaw is fascinated by nature and loves talking about it.
"Plants are the best indicator of how healthy an ecosystem is. People can help plants as much as plants help people," she said.
"Con Dao is an ecosystem at risk," she said, referring to the islands off Vung Tau that are fast becoming a tourist mecca.
Shaw worked on Con Dao for two years and developed a deep insight into local life.
"One of the biggest problems in the area is overfishing. It is tough for fishermen to find other jobs if they haven't finished school. But they can learn new skills to work in water sports and tourism," she said.
In 2009, Shaw moved to Mui Ne as scientific advisor for a Wildlife at Risk project in Mui Ne.
"Vietnam has a long coast line. The constant wind in the high season (from October to April) makes it an ideal spot for sailing," Shaw said.
MANTA SAIL TRAINING CENTER
108 Huynh Thuc Khang Street, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet
Julia Shaw (3rd from right), an Irish scientist, wildlife expert who opened Mui Ne's first sailing school earlier this year.
Seeing the potential for sailing and other water sports in Mui Ne, Shaw returned to the UK last year to get professional certification.
She returned to open Manta, Mui Ne's first sailing school earlier this year. She dons the role of director as well as national sailing coach at the school.
"Anyone can learn sailing," Shaw said. "My mum taught me sailing when I was just five, so I think anyone can learn."
Manta has four other sailing instructors, including two locals.
22-year-old Nguyen Thoi Tung has been at Manta from the start.
"I used to work at a boat building shop earlier. The work was harder, and the hours longer. I earn more at Manta, and enjoy what teaching sailing skills," Tung said.
"The first three months of Manta were very difficult but now I love it. I"ˆtry to learn new sailing styles and develop some of my own. Now, I"ˆcan even go against the wind," he said.
29-year-old Meghan Oleany from Canada also teaches sailing at Manta.
"Mui Ne is known around the world for its great winds. This is one of the few places in this part of the world where one can sail all year round," she said.
Oleany is thrilled to be part of the first sailing school in Mui Ne."For me, it is just exciting to start something new, to grow with the country, and to live by the sea," she said.
Shaw believes sailing has a long way to go in Vietnam. There isn't much awareness among locals, and the sport isn't half as popular as in Europe and North America.
"Sailing in Mui Ne and in Vietnam in general is a few hundred years behind many other countries. This also means Vietnam can fast track with the lessons learned elsewhere"¦ and that's what we try to do at Manta," she said.
After years of working with wildlife and nature, Shaw is pleased to be living near the sea.
"It's a different backdrop, different smells, sounds, species and habitat issues to consider, and different types of people working with them. Both can have a significant human impact," she replied.
At Manta sailing school, a standard lesson for an individual costs US$50 per hour, which compares favorably with Europe, where the price is triple that amount.
Prices drop substantially for group bookings, with rates as low as $20 per person. Shaw reckons a beginner can sail alone after about 10 lessons.