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Believe it or not: Post-war, pro-business Vietnam now looking to golf

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, an American golf pro was summoned to a police station on the other side of the world.

Viet Nam - overview
Chui Linh Star Golf and Country Club is about an hour and a half outside of Hanoi.
Viet Nam - overviewViet Nam - overviewViet Nam - overview

Jeff Puchalsi moved from Los Angeles some years ago to Dalat, in the south central highlands of Vietnam, and works at the superb Dalat Palace Hotel golf course. He's a big, easy-going man who looks a little like John Daly, without the Marlboro habit.

Now, he was in the city's police station. The Vietnamese police showed Puchalski a map of the area, in which Muslim neighborhoods were circled. Muslims are a small minority in this country of 80 million where the main religion is Buddhism. They have little contact with Muslims in foreign countries, but even so, the Vietnamese police wanted to assure Puchalski, in the frenzied aftermath of the terrorist strikes, that he was in no danger.

"They wanted me to know I was safe," Puchalsi said. "They wanted me to know that no one was going to harm me."

This news takes a while to sink in: Vietnamese police assuring an American that he is in no danger. That they are there to protect him.

It shows the awesome power of time and, not coincidentally, the awesome power of capitalism, or at least a Vietnamese version of it. Vietnam, which suffered heavily during what the Vietnamese call the American War, is still a communist country, but when it comes to economics, it has become as savvy as a corporate CEO.

Vietnam's economy could be called, without irony, the latest Asian tiger. It possesses Asia's second-fastest growing economy, trailing only China. The pace of its exports to the U.S. is escalating even faster that China's.

The American business presence is growing — though it still lags behind other countries — and salaries are rising dramatically. Business people there, including Americans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and others, are gaga over the country's impending entry into the World Trade Organization, which could happen as early as November.

All this came about when the country's leaders finally decided to abandon their failed, centrally-planned economy in favor of free trade and liberal economic policies. As a result, those scarred by the bitter war are returning, both Americans and Vietnamese.

Ken Symicek fought in the Vietnam conflict, and returned to the U.S. with a Vietnamese wife, Lien Huong Thi. The thought of returning to his wife's homeland never occurred to him until a few years ago. He and his wife are back now, living in the country where he's teaching English.

"I really had my doubts about coming back," Symicek said. "I didn't know if they'd throw rocks at me or what. But, I've never heard a bad word from anyone here."

Of course, capitalists have their games, the chief one being golf, and the Vietnamese know this well. So the game that was once banned as being an elitist pursuit is now being embraced.

Vietnam could by no means be called a hot spot for golf vacations. There are only around 10 golf courses in the whole country, with a couple more under construction, in the north.

But, there are some excellent courses among the handful that exist, designed by architects like Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino, and you could scarcely ask for a more exotic, fascinating locale, filled with history, both the recently tragic and the ancient.

Must plays

• The Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club is about an hour and a half drive from Hanoi, set in a valley ringed by green hills and dominated by a lake whose tendrils fan out and come into play on most of the interior holes.

Chi Linh is pretty much regarded as the best golf course in the northern part of Vietnam, which is kind 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 — are more than enough to keep you focused.

• A short walk from the Dalat Palace Hotel is the hotel's golf course, its history as bizarre as the city which it overlooks. It was originally built as a nine-holer in the 1920s as the personal playground for Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, making it one of the oldest golf courses in Asia.

The course has been left to nature several times in its history, until golf management company IMG eventually restored the layout in the early 1990s. The result is a beautiful, serene course that overlooks the historic city; almost every hole opens on to views of Dalat and surrounding mountains.

"You can't believe you're in Vietnam," said Puchalski, the pro and manager of the club, as well as Ocean Dunes in Phan Thiet. "You kind of get lost out here."

The best part is yet to come: the greens are made of bentgrass, the Cadillac of putting surfaces, and the only such greens in the country.

• Ocean Dunes in Phan Thiet is a "tropical links" course, according to designer Nick Faldo. It's indeed links-like, in that it follows the natural contours of the sand-covered dune bordering the East Sea. And the wind that comes seeping off the sea helps sculpt new angles every morning and afternoon.

It is a gorgeous course, beautifully manicured with the palms swaying in the sea breezes and the glassy water, filled with pink flowers floating on top, and with views of distant and ancient volcanic mountains.

The course is a cut above your typical resort course in difficulty — not that it's overly hard, but there's a ton of water. In fact, water comes into play on almost every hole in one way or another, and there are some subtle elevation changes that will get your attention.

The par-3 ninth hole has been voted as one of the "world's best 500 holes" by GOLF magazine. It's a narrow shoot through the trees to an elevated green and beyond it, a postcard view of the city and distant houses on the shore.

Solid seconds

They covered up the bomb craters at the Vietnam Golf and Country Club a few years ago and took away the signs explaining "Traces of war."

No more traces of war here at this exclusive private club, about 35 heart-stopping minutes from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. There are only un-bombed bunkers with the startling white sand trucked in from Cam Rahn Bay.

The two country club courses are very green, as you might expect in lush southeast Asia, and it has a tropical look, but not the kind that scares you off. Subtle red and yellow plantings offset the deep greens, and palms are scattered throughout, but the course manages to have a nice, airy feel to it.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • the courses

    eric lieu wrote on: Nov 16, 2006

    I have had the pleasure of playing at Dalat, Ocean Dunes, and Vietnam Golf and Country Club. I would say Dalat is my all time favorite. The scenery is awesome. On top of that, the weather is very cool. The other two golf courses are nice too but it can get pretty hot and humid.


  • golf in Vietnam

    Javier wrote on: Nov 1, 2006

    what makes golf in Vietnam special is that you could combine golf with family holidays and beach resort in relatively cheap price


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