Playing Golf in Vietnam

More than three decades after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is still foremost in the U.S. psyche, influencing movies, literature and even the most recent presidential election, in which John Kerry’s war record was a major issue. But in Vietnam, the “American War” is all but forgotten.

With a young population—the median age of the country’s more than 80 million citizens is 26—Vietnam is looking ahead and is on the rise, with a booming economy and a peace-loving attitude that ranks it among the six safest travel destinations in the world. The number of international visitors rose 17 percent last year, drawn by a region rich in culture, history, food and activities.

Like any country racing to join the global economy, golf is a major component of Vietnam’s growth. It has a dozen good tracks and 30 more in the making—not to mention the upscale resorts, hotels and restaurants Americans expect overseas.

With the sea all along its eastern flank, fertile deltas sprawling across much of its interior and a mile-high mountain range running along the western border with Laos and Cambodia, the topography and climate are surprisingly diverse—as are the golf courses. The layouts range from Dalat Palace Golf Club, Vietnam’s first course, to Ocean Dunes Golf Club, a Nick Faldo design that sits along the South China Sea.

Most travelers’ point of entry is Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls Saigon. Golfers arriving in-country usually begin with Vietnam Golf & Country Club on the outskirts of Saigon, where all the expats and visiting businessmen play. Carved from a former cashew plantation, the 36-hole venue is relatively flat with aggressive bunkering protecting large, tiered greens. Our caddies pointed out a pond that began as a bomb crater, as well as a spot where someone had recently killed a cobra and taken it home for dinner. Snake is good for a backache, we were told. It is also a great incentive to stay out of the rough.

When I chipped in for a birdie on one hole, my caddie clapped lightly and trilled a laugh as soft as birdsong. My game gave her scant cause for celebration, but she remained hopeful as she earnestly proffered clubs and directed my putts. She spoke little English, but it didn’t matter. Golf is a universal language and she was good at it.

Female caddies are de rigueur in Vietnam and Cambodia, as they are in most of Asia. Our caddies were swathed head-to-toe in uniforms and cone-shaped hats to protect themselves from the sun. Tanned skin in this part of the world is the mark of a field hand.

Old & New Vietnam

Saigon is the “new” Vietnam, with a plethora of upscale hotels and restaurants, but history has clung to places like the elegant Caravelle Hotel, where American war correspondents once lived and watched artillery fire from the hotel’s rooftop Saigon Saigon Bar.

Although Vietnamese may be marching forward, there are backward glances—the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace and Cu Chi Tunnels. And the legacy of the French occupation is apparent in the architecture. Motorbikes are the vehicle of choice, used to carry everything from lumber to families of four.

Just as the cities are modernizing with luxury, Vietnam’s beaches are sprouting resorts such as the modern Novotel Ocean Dunes and Golf Resort in Phan Thiet, 120 miles from Saigon. The seaside resort’s Faldo layout is as windy as any Scottish links—gusts up to 60 miles per hour can sweep across dunes, deep bunkers and lotus ponds.

The Emperor’s Course
After the heat of the seashore, the mile-high former French hill town of Dalat offers a cool respite. At the heart of the “city of eternal spring” is the Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel, a 1920s Victorian edifice with large suites lit by chandeliers, even in the bathrooms. The hotel’s Le Rabelais restaurant, with its classic French menu and elegant atmosphere, would be a standout any place in the world.

At the behest of Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor, French architect Ernest Hebrard built the first nine holes of Dalat Palace Golf Club, the country’s first course, in 1922. The course was abandoned by the time of Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945, but the layout was revived in 1959—Billy Casper played the course as part of a tour of the country in 1966, several months before he won the U.S. Open. By the 1990s the track measured 7,009 yards, and it is perennially ranked as the top layout in Vietnam. Dalat Palace is a visual treat—challenging, with long carries over water and extreme changes in elevation.

A short flight from Saigon, the capital city of Hanoi is another cosmopolitan hub of the emerging Vietnam. Near the historic Hanoi Hilton Opera Hotel is the Press Club, a must for international travelers looking for a superb meal and good conversation. An hour’s drive east of the city is the Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club, the country’s newest golf venue. The first 18 makes the most of steep hills and valleys surrounding a large lake. Another 18, equally daunting, is opening this year, along with a five-star hotel.

We continued on by car to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we boarded the Emeraude, a replica of a 1910 luxury paddle wheeler, for a day and a half cruising among the bay’s monolithic islands and floating villages. The Emeraude is a hint of the “old” Vietnam, as is the sleepy city of Hue, with its walled and moated Citadel surrounding the massive Imperial City once occupied by emperors and royal families. Also unchanged is the village of Hoi An, which has become a hotspot for art, music, dining and nightlife. Along its cobblestone streets stand ancient buildings crafted by the Chinese, Japanese and Dutch. Hoi An is famous for its tailors, who can stitch together a custom-made suit or dress overnight.

Vietnam’s attractions and golf have come together in an itinerary incongruously called the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail. Incongruous as it may be, the trail is an indication of the new world order. For example, China is home to the world’s largest golf resort—the 12-course Mission Hills. It’s hard to imagine what Chairman Mao would have thought of that development, but one thing is certain: Communism just isn’t what it used to be.

Neither is Vietnam.