Good Morning, golf Vietnam wakes up to the rich man’s sport (Part 2)

Editor: In this part Paul Sochaczewski visits several exceptional Vietnamese golf clubs.

Long Thanh Golf Club

Long Thanh

Long Thanh mixes the kitsch of an Asian theme park with meticulous horticulture and maintenance to create a very special complex with two 18-hole courses.
The Hill Course, designed by the California-based Golf-Plan, was a pleasure to play even if my golf wasn’t too good that day. It’s beautiful and natural, with numerous ravines and tricky doglegs to clear – and then there’s the fourth hole.
For this par-three, the golfer stands on the tee and sees two greens to choose from, across two different ravines. One is 164 yards out and some 50 yards down, making for one of those dramatic elevated tees that golfers adore, while the other is 206 yards out and about level with the tee. Two greens is peculiar enough, but what makes this hole even more unusual is that its amphitheatre-like layout is enhanced by a simulated Great Wall of China in gray concrete blocks. The Lego-like ring of crenellated turrets seems either charming or horribly out of place – take your pick. Nguyen Huu Thanh, Long Thanh’s director of golf operations, says the feature was the brainchild of the owner, Le Van Kiem, and his wife, Madam Tan Cam Nhung.

The Lake Course is flatter and has a distinctive East Asian feel. Korean-style pagodas serve as refreshment stands, while rest stops have marble benches and beaded curtains, as if Suzie Wong will come along with a cold towel. It’s painstakingly maintained, even sculpted: Shrubbery takes the form of giant teapots, dragons and ox-carts. In the water hazard are small boats filled with flowers.
Pham Thanh Minh, Long Thanh’s deputy general manager, is proud of the course’s man-over-nature approach. When I hit a wayward drive onto the rough, he pointed out that my ball was still sitting up nicely on the grass. “Our rough is better than most courses’ fairways,” he said proudly.
Two courses are just beginning – there are plans for a complex that will include six 18-hole courses, 6,000 villas and a 500-room five-star hotel. Not to mention a highway to downtown Ho Chi Minh City so golfers can avoid one of the ugliest 90-minute drives in Asia.

Vietnam Golf and Country Club

District 9, Ho Chi Minh City

As a neighbor to the heavily manicured, pumped-up Long Thanh, the two forest-lined 18-hole courses of Vietnam Golf and Country Club stand out as natural – even a bit unkempt. The East Course, one of the rare Asian layouts designed by golfing legend Lee Trevino, is challenging but not a killer – except for the undulating greens, which twist like a Vietnamese dragon. Mr. Trevino, a famous money player, is said to appreciate the give-and-take of match play, and few putts on these roller-coaster greens are “gimmes.” The par-four 11th hole is particularly enjoyable, offering the choice of golfing left or right around a pond to reach the green – which, of course, slopes severely.

About 55% of the members are Korean expats, but Blair Cornthwaite, Vietnam Golf’s New Zealand-born general manager, says that last year half the individual memberships sold (at $37,000 each) were to Vietnamese golfers, enriched by strong land prices and a rising stock market.

Dong Nai Golf Resort

Bochang

Just over an hour north of Ho Chi Minh City, this attractive 27-hole course winds through some rich forest and meanders around Cloud River Lake. If you give it a try, I would suggest a weekday. On the Sunday morning I played it was über-crowded, and I spent four hours and 40 minutes to get through just 16 holes. (Slow play is one reason I avoid weekend golf in Asia.)

The other problem on the morning I played was the smell of the lake, the product of the dead fish that could be seen floating near the shore. Dong Nai’s marketing director, Huanh Chao-Yuan, attributed the die-off to fishermen’s practice of dumping commercially unsuitable fish back in the lake after catching them.

Ocean Dunes Golf Club

Phan Thiet

Designed by the English golfer Nick Faldo, Ocean Dunes was one of Vietnam’s first modern courses when it opened in 1994, about the same time as the Vietnam Golf and County Club course.
Phan Thiet has another distinction in golf history: It’s where a U.S. infantry officer by the name of Earl Woods befriended Vietnamese officer Vuong Dang Phong during the war. Col. Woods later honored his Vietnamese comrade by giving his own son Eldrick the nickname Col. Phong was known by: Tiger.
Ocean Dunes is one of the few true resort courses in Vietnam – you can roll out of bed and be playing golf in a couple of minutes. It’s a pleasant track whose 18 holes include several on the seaside, but it’s showing a bit of wear. Danao International Holdings and its majority shareholder IndoChina Land plan to invest $100 million to renovate and expand the Phan Thiet properties, according to Jeff Puchalski, Danao’s vice president. The improvements will include returfing the course, building a new clubhouse, villas and commercial center, and upgrading the existing four-star Novotel hotel into a five-star property.

In Binh Thuan province, which includes Phan Thiet and Mui Ne (see SeaLinks, right), developers have received licenses for nine new courses.
Phan Thiet is an unpleasant and dangerous four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, but a planned highway would reduce the journey to perhaps 2 ½ hours, and construction is expected to begin soon on an airport to serve the region.

Dalat Palace Golf Club

Dalat

This 18-hole course seems to be everyone’s favorite in Vietnam, praised for its intelligent layout, good maintenance and laid-back atmosphere – and I would add the climate to the list. It’s a pleasure to be in cool Dalat, altitude 1,500 meters, and I imagine if I actually lived in polluted and bustling Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi I would be even happier to retreat to this hill station, as the French did in colonial days.
Dalat played an important role in Vietnam’s golf history. According to Jim Sullivan, an expert on the history of golf in Vietnam, French architect Ernest Hébrard, who laid out the hill resort for the French in 1922, allotted space on Doi Cu Hill for what would be the country’s first golf course. (Mr. Hébrard also redesigned the Greek city of Thessaloniki after it was swept by fire in 1917.)

Among those encouraging the plan were Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, but by the time of his abdication in 1945 the course had been abandoned. And by the late 1950s, Mr. Sullivan says, it was so overgrown that in attempting to revive it, local doctor and avid golfer Dao Huy Hach “had to rely on aerial photos to pick out the putting surfaces.”
Even during the Vietnam War years some intrepid golfers continued to play. There were only two courses open – Go Vap in Saigon and Dalat – but championships were held. “In fact, the reigning Vietnam champion is the son of the 1967 champion,” says Mr. Sullivan, managing director of Mandarin Media and one of the men who coined the phrase “Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail.”
During the war Dalat even hosted American golfer Billy Casper. In the country on a U.S. State Department tour, he played a round on the course, which was then a rough track with greens made of oiled sand.
Dalat is in considerably better shape now, and is being further improved with new irrigation and drainage systems. That’s all for the better, though I worry about the plans for a new clubhouse. The current pale-yellow Tudor-style building, so small the pro shop and restaurant share a room, is part of course’s charm.
Lam Dong province, which includes Dalat, is another area of Vietnam that’s on the verge of a golf boom, with three new golf-course projects licensed and three others under consideration.

Make par, not war

Some coming courses that could raise the game in Vietnam:

SeaLinks Golf and Country Club

Mui Ne

Ten kilometers north of Ocean Dunes, SeaLinks leads the bravado stakes with billboards promising “the most challenging links-style golf course in Asia.” Or, in the words of its designer, Ron Fream, “intentionally tough by design and with sadistic intent.”
“They can put ‘the bastard who created SeaLinks’ on my cremation urn,” he adds.
I toured the 18-hole course, whose first nine holes are slated to open midyear, with the director of golf, Simon Tinkler. The course is set on hills overlooking the ocean, giving 16 of the 18 holes sea views. From the elevated tee of the 474-yard, par-four seventh hole I looked at a narrow, undulating fairway with trees on the left and a sharp out-of-bounds cliff on the right. Assuming a good tee shot, not at all a sure thing, the second shot would have to carry the raving to a green sitting on a narrow peninsula. And so it goes – elevated tees, fairways that appear ridiculously tight and bumpy, forced carries over water and cliffs. And lest we forget, a screaming wind – the Phan Thiet/Mui Ne area is a leading destination for serious wind-surfers and kite-boarders. No doubt the pro shop will do a fine business in selling “previously owned” balls.
Web: www.sealinksvietnam.com

Montgomerie Links Vietnam

Danang

The new course generating the most buzz by far is Montgomerie Links, which is near some of the most emotionally charged places in the country. The 30-kilometer-long China Beach, initially a major Vietcong redoubt, became a rest-and-recuperation site for American GIs. It’s also not far from the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe, where the American 11th Brigade massacred hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in 1968. And now, 40 years later, the area is to be home to a major new 18-hole links-style course designed by Scottish golfing star Colin Montgomerie, likely opening early next year. The Vietnamese are nothing if not pragmatic.
There’s also a history of golf in the area, sort of. Soldiers near Danang are said to have created a small course in 1969, using C-ration cans as cups and red sand for greens.
Today some of the best-known luxury-hotel groups, including Raffles, Banyan Tree, Kor and Hyatt, are developing resorts in the region.
Indochina Capital has invested some $45 million for the Montgomerie Links course and 50 residential villas, part of its $500 million investment in golf and resorts in Vietnam, according to Indochina Capital CEO Peter Ryder.
84-510-943-888
Web: www.montgomerielinks.com

Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Golf Resort

Located on the main highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, this 18-hole transfrontier course will have nine holes in each country. The par-five 18th hole will be truly international – golfers will have the amusement of teeing off in Vietnam and hitting a second shot over water to a Cambodian fairway. The hole will end with an island green that has the international border running through it.

The 400-room hotel will also straddle the border, though the accompanying casino will be located entirely inCambodia. Course construction is slated to start this year.

Trip planner

Long Thanh, Vietnam Golf and Dong Nai can be easily scheduled as day trips out of Ho Chi Minh City. Places to stay include the Carabelle Hotel, one of several iconic Vietnam-war hotels that have been refurbished to an international standard. They would hardly be recognizable to the war correspondents who once filled them, though that doesn’t stop hotels – and watering holes – from publicizing their war-era credentials and mystique.
84-8-823-4999
Web: www.caravellehotel.com

Ocean Dunes is a tedious 2 1/2 –hour drive away, too far for a day trip. A far more relaxing option is to stay at Phan Thiet. Hotels include the somewhat run-down but comfortable Novotel Ocean Dunes and Golf Resort.
84-62-822-393
Web: www.novotel.com

The charming town of Dalat, a three-hour drive from Phan Thiet (or, more conveniently, a half-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City), offers many hotel options. The luxurious colonial-era Sofitel Dalat Palace has a golf package that includes greens fees.
84-63-825-444
Web: www.sofitel.com

Several travel agents offer packages that might prove the most hassle-free (and economical) way to play an array of courses. A selection:

Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail
www.hochiminhgolftrail.com

Luxury Travel Vietnam
www.luxurytravelvietnam.com

Vietnam Golf Tours
www.vietnamgolftours.com

AIP Golf
www.vietnamgolf.vn

Here’s how to contact the courses directly.

Long Thanh Golf Club
84-613-512-512
Web: www.longthanhgolfresort.com.vn

Vietnam Golf and Country Club
84-8-280-0124
Web: www.vietnamgolfcc.com

Dong Nai Golf Resort
84-61-386-6288

Dalat Palace Golf Club
84-63-821-201
Web: www.vietnamgolfresorts.com

(c) Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, Reprinted with permission.  Be sure to read Paul Sochaczewski’s new book The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen (Editions Didier Millet 2008), and can be ordered at: Amazon.com

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