In the storied history of golf travel, I'm here to lay good odds that no golfer has ever traveled from golf course to golf course like Steve McQueen did in the movie, "The Great Escape."
And yet here I was, careening through the mountains of central Vietnam, having left Phan Thiet's Ocean Dunes Golf Club on the coast en route to the Dalat Palace Golf Club in a motorcycle sidecar. Just like Steve, when he miraculously jumped that fence to escape those Nazi thugs.
We didn't jump any fences, but we did traverse some pretty rough ground, the old Russian-made Urals bouncing over rutted roads that climbed through small, dusty villages and gingerly picking their way over a narrow suspension bridge above a roaring, mud-brown stream.
Everywhere we went, people stared. Speeding through mountain villages where ethnic Vietnamese pulled their lives from the high, ragged land, people came out of their houses to laugh and wave.
Once, a naked child — I believe he was a Hmong, one of the 54 ethnic groups in the country — mock-charged our group. During the few times we stopped, Vietnamese shyly and not so shyly came close to look at the vintage motorcycle sidecars.
The history of the odd, powerful machines is as interesting as the wild ride itself.
The official Russian version is that they secretly bought some German-made BMW R-71s in Sweden through Swedish intermediaries before the outbreak of World War II. Joseph Stalin wanted motorcycles for his officers and he wanted the best.
Russian engineers in Moscow made molds and dies to make their own engines and gear boxes and everything else was reverse-engineered. Incidentally, one of the original BMWs is on display at a Russian museum.
Also, Harley-Davidson copied the BMW design and delivered about 1,000 Harley-Davidson XA (Experimental Army) motorcycles to the U.S. Army during World War II.
The more likely story, according to a history of the motorcycles, is that the BMW factory gave the Russians the construction drawings and casting molds when the two countries agreed to trade technology before they started trying to exterminate each other.
In any case, nearly 10,000 Urals — the Russian version — were ultimately delivered to the front for reconnaissance detachments and mobile troops.
The Vietnamese started to get Russian trucks in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, as well as bikes and sidecars for the army. The army decided to get rid of them in the late '90s, which is how a Frenchman named Gilles Poggi came to own one, then two, and finally a fleet of 11.
Poggi is the general manager of the Princess d'Annam Resort and Spa in Phan Thiet, and he started riding the Urals 10 years ago in Hanoi with a couple of friends. Now, he and his group travel to places like Dalat, the Mui Ne sand dunes, Cham Towers and the longest recumbent Buddha at Ta Cu. The resort offers such tours to the adventurous.
"It's like you are sitting in a chair, not like sitting on a motorbike," Poggi said. "You have a 300 degree view from a sidecar, which you don't have on the motorbike."
Dalat is normally an overnight trip from Phan Thiet, but we made it in the better part of a day, with a couple of brief stopovers, once at a resort along the way and once at a huge reservoir high in the mountains, where we ate fois gras under tents overlooking the big lake. Something McQueen never did.
Beware, traversing the high, rugged Vietnamese countryside may not be for everybody, especially the faint of heart. Traffic is almost always congested in the country, though the route we took this day had stretches of some very empty and rugged terrain, which the motorcycles handled with ease.
Also, if you go during the rainy season, there's a good chance you'll get pelted with monsoon-like weather, obscuring your vision and drenching you. Our drivers, mostly Vietnamese, never slowed down. It can be an experience as hair-raising as it is exhilarating.
The four-stroke, air-cooled bikes have 650 cc engines and look like vintage BMWs with sidecars.
"These bikes, they are very powerful," Poggi said. "You can go in the woods, in the forest, in the mud. In Mui Ne, we drove many times on the beach."
By the way, the motorcycle that McQueen drove in the movie was actually a British Triumph painted to look like a BMW. And he never swung a golf club. It was still as cool as you can get.
April 5, 2007
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