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Chi Linh Star golf course is, in fact, a star in northern Vietnam

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HANOI, Vietnam — The Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club is about a 90-minute drive from Hanoi, set in a valley ringed by dark green hills and dominated by a lake whose tendrils fan out and come into play on most of the interior holes.

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Chi Linh Star is set in a valley ringed by green hills.
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Chi Linh is pretty much regarded as the best golf course in the northern part of Vietnam, which is sort of a back-handed compliment considering the country isn't exactly overflowing with golf courses.

Still, even if it were, Chi Linh would have to be right up there. It's a beautiful course, with a succession of holes that you will remember later that night when you're drinking Hanoi beer and eating ca loc nuong trui (grilled fish), or even when you're on the plane back home.

The course plays up and down the valley, and sometimes climbs the hills, so that some of the fairways have the kind of slope usually reserved for skiing. It's a very open course, which is good because the layout — including the elevation, water, blind landing areas, forced carries and other hazards — is more than enough to keep you focused.

The course was designed by an Australian firm called Independent Golf Course Services, with most of the work by an Aussie named Ray Lobb. IGCS has designed courses in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and China, though this is its first project in Vietnam.

Still, with all those international credentials, the course has the feel of a particular American architect.

"This feels like a Jack Nicklaus course," said Scott Resch, a U.S. journalist visiting the country.

True enough, there are the wide-open fairways, giving you multiple routes to the green — a classic Nicklaus trait. The bunkering also has a Nicklaus feel.

The verdict

Chi Linh was probably the best of the Vietnam golf courses I sampled. The combination of the elevation, challenge and sheer beauty of the surroundings make it a must-play if you're looking for golf in northern Vietnam.

There are no bland holes on this course. You start off on No. 1, with a downhill tee shot and up to an elevated green set in an ampitheater. No. 2 features another uphill approach over a rock-studded creek, and it just gets better from there.

The third hole has a severely sloping left-to-right fairway, but even that is an easier driving hole than the next, which requires a draw around a jutting hill to a blind landing area.

The par-5 holes are a ton of fun, like the 578-yard fifth hole, with great views from the tee box. The hole wraps around a lake to the left, but if you play it too safe to the right, your view of the green will be obscured by a hill that slopes into the fairway.

No. 14 is a reachable par 4, but requires about a 290-yard carry over the ravine fronting the green. It's one of several excellent risk-reward holes. Both fairways and greens are in excellent shape.

The course has quite a few members and also attracts tourists from the surrounding tourist areas, mainly Japanese and Koreans.

Green fees range from $70-$90 with carts an extra $20, and a caddy fee of $15, in addition to the tip. Don't fret about the tip: the caddies are well worth it.

The club is adding another 18 holes — the first six of the new course opened in August — and the new course will have even better views of the surrounding countryside.

Plans also call for a five-star hotel and 300 villas. The modern clubhouse, which has a panoramic view of he course and country, is also getting a makeover.

Stay and play

The Hanoi Hilton — not to be confused with the infamous prison used to house prisoners of war during the Vietnam war — is in the heart of Hanoi's French Quarter — not to be confused with New Orleans.

It's close to the Hanoi Opera and the Press Club and most other city attractions and businesses, like the Temple of Literature. The hotel has 269 rooms, with high-speed Internet access, meeting rooms and a lounge with a great view of the opera house. It also has a handy home country direct dialing feature.

Getting there

From the United States, United Airlines, flies non-stop daily to Hong Kong from San Francisco (13.5 hours) and Chicago (15.5 hours), and then on to Ho Chi Minh City (2.5 hours). Currently, there are no non-stop flights from the U.S. to Vietnam by any airline.

After Vietnam and the United States signed an Air Treaty Agreement in 2003, United Airlines became the first (and remains the only) U.S.-branded carrier to touch down on Vietnamese soil, with an inaugural flight from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 9, 2004.

In April 2007, United will add three additional flights per week to its Ho Chi Minh City-San Francisco route. United currently operates 10 non-stop flights per week between Chicago and Hong Kong. In addition to Ho Chi Minh City, United flies to 12 other destinations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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