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Ocean Dunes in Phan Thiet, Vietnam: Tee it up with Buddha

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PHAN THIET, Vietnam — If you happen to slice it hard off the third hole at Ocean Dunes in this lovely, seaside resort town, you may find yourself lighting incense and honoring nine generations of a particular Vietnamese family.

Ocean Dunes Golf Course
Ocean Dunes is a gorgeous course, beautifully manicured with the palms swaying and views of distant volcanic mountains.
Ocean Dunes Golf CourseOcean Dunes Golf CourseOcean view at Ocean Dunes

If you don't have that much time to spare, better keep it left.

Ocean Dunes may be the only golf course in the world with an active family temple located on its grounds. Forget American politicians' babble, this is serious family values.

There is also a huge, reclining Buddha overlooking Phan Thiet on the East Sea, about a three-hour drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. And there's also a Vietnamese tomb, on the course itself, and Buddhist tee markers, so those who think of golf with a religious fervor will find company here.

It isn't a bad place to have those kind of reflections. The town itself is a classic, Vietnamese fishing village, with boats of every size and color filling the harbor. The people are known for being friendly in a nation of friendly people — they'd better be with the Big Buddha looking down on them like that for 2,000 years.

The course itself is a "tropical links" course, according to designer Nick Faldo. It is 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.

Of course, it isn't a true links course, what with the pines decorating the slightly rolling terrain, and all the exotic, non-Scottish fauna, including cactus and the sounds of Buddhist chanting and Sunday church bells.

But, 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 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 course overall is in excellent condition and the greens in particular are in pristine shape, rolling very true. Ocean Dunes has some challenging multi-tiered greens that are a joy to putt.

The verdict

Good courses have memorable holes and Ocean Dunes has more than its share. The No. 9 par 3 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.

You start off with one of the toughest par 4s, a long hole with water all down the left, and No. 4 is only 299 yards, drivable, but there's a marsh to be carried. Go for it like the man-beast you think you are, or lay up like the lady-woman you really are.

No. 7 plays as the toughest on the course, a 432-yard, par-4 dogleg left around water. The big bunker on the right squeezes the landing area considerably; this is a tough driving hole.

Ocean Dunes has two excellent closing holes. Stay left in the fairway on No. 17 or face a blind shot into the green behind hills and a bunker, and the green falls off sharply.

No. 18 has a downhill tee shot, with a pink-flowered pond to the right and more water left. A smattering of palms to the left near the water gives the hole a classic, tropical, seaside feel.

The course is not killer-long — 6,723 yards from the back — and can be played from there even by mid-handicappers, but when the wind is howling, you might want to consider moving up to the middle or forward tees.

Stay and play

The Novotel Coralia Ocean Dunes and Golf Resort is just outside Phan Thiet, the closest beach resort to Ho Chi Minh City, an area that has become one of the more popular spots for city dwellers wanting to get out of the city.

The resort is a beautiful spot right on the East Sea, the rooms combining traditional Vietnamese architecture with modern luxuries — dark wood floors and walls shined to a high gloss. You'll think you're living a life of privileged colonialism, with the sea right outside your picture windows. In fact, this may be the most aesthetically pleasing room I can remember staying in, with the wood and rock showers.

The resort has 123 rooms and suites, all with private balconies with ocean or golf course views. You feel a little guilty after you've just taken the train past hard-working peasants in the rice fields, but what would luxury be without a little guilt?

The rooms also have Internet access, satellite TV and a bar and kitchen. The resort has a private beach about a kilometer long, lighted tennis courts, a fitness center with spa, massage rooms and two big swimming pools. There is a restaurant and bar and water sports like windsurfing jets-skiing and ocean kayaks

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.

Fast fact

Tiger Woods' late father served in Phan Thiet, during his second tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

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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