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Dalat Palace: Golf in the heart of the surreal Vietnam highlands

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

DALAT, Vietnam — High in the south central region of Vietnam, where the morning fog coils like snakes around the green mountains, sits the great nation of Switzerland.

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The Dalat Palace golf course was built originally as the personal course for the last Vietnamese emperor.
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The Vietnamese have named this area Dalat. That may be true technically, but make no mistake: this is Switzerland. Or some other northern alpine European paradise.

Arriving abruptly in Dalat, after driving narrow, pock-marked roads that climb imperceptibly through the endless, dusty villages, is more than a shock to the system; it's a challenge to perception.

It isn't just the geography, or the fact you go from the leaden air of the lowlands to an atmosphere dry as French champagne. The essential nature of the land is transformed, turned upside down, if you will.

The French built this city at the height of their power in Indonesia, when they wanted to show off — and nobody shows off like the French. Now, the French are long gone, officially anyway, and the city is abuzz with Vietnamese on motor scooters careening around the wide boulevards and past buildings right out of France's colonial past.

At the center of the city is the Dalat Palace Hotel, which begs adjectives like opulent, grand and decadent. This is where French aristocrats and diplomats planned their ill-conceived power strategies and the French social elite came to get away from the great unwashed.

And a short walk from the hotel is the hotel's Tres Magnifique 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 emperor abdicated in 1945 and the course was left to nature and weeds. A Vietnamese dentist named Dao Huy Hach painstakingly restored it 15 years later.

"There was a caddy from the original course who helped us to find it again," Dr. Hach said in a written history of the course. "The most difficult part was seeing the greens. We had to use aerial photos from the National Geography Institution."

The course was a long way from its current condition — in fact, the greens were made of a mixture of sand and motor oil — not exactly adhering to USGA specs.

The course was abandoned again in 1975 when the Communists took over the country and golf was essentially outlawed as an elitist sport, although club manager Jeff Puchalski pointed out Ho Chi Minh was never on record as opposing the game.

In any case, it sat neglected through the early 1990s when golf management company IMG eventually restored the layout. The result of this long history of neglect and restoration is a beautiful, serene course that overlooks the historic city; almost every hole opens on to views of Dalat and surrounding mountains.

It's a fairly surreal experience, mixed with the fun of playing a terrific golf course in the Vietnam highlands, with dramatic elevation changes and fairways that twist, bend and slope with the mountainous terrain.

"You can't believe you're in Vietnam," Puchalski said. "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.

The verdict

The Dalat Palace golf course is a must-play, if you're in the area or even in the country. Make a point to visit this area if you're in Vietnam: it's quite an experience.

Green fees are in the $60-$80 range and the best packages are in connection with the hotel.

Stay and play

As previously mentioned, the Dalat Palace Hotel is a throwback to France's glory days in Indochina and one of the country's most historically and culturally important buildings.

It was built in 1922 as the centerpiece of the city of Dalat, itself built by the French from the ground up. Dalat and the hotel boomed between the 1920s and 1940s, but the operation then closed in 1945 during the Japanese occupation.

It's undergone a multi-million renovation and it's easy to picture French aristocrats, Vietnamese leaders and even its Japanese occupiers indulging themselves in its luxury. Everything about the place is large in scale, except for the number of rooms: 38 rooms and five suites.

There are more than 2,000 pieces of art, many of them paintings by European masters, painstakingly copied by Vietnamese artists. The oversized rooms are done in period architecture, including original brass telephone handsets, cast-iron bathtubs and handmade carpets.

The view from the hotel of the city is beautiful, the hotel being on a hill — a "hill station," the French called this type of building — and surrounded by a park at the edge of the Xuan Huong Lake.

They've added most of the modern amenities as well, including the Le Rabelais piano bar serving find French food, meeting rooms for up to 300 people, tennis courts and 24-hour room service.

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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