HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — 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 Vietnamese, a genuinely friendly and curious people, are very open about the war. But the subject could be a little touchy, seeing that unexploded ordnance continues to be a problem for this scarred country that has fought so many wars in its proud history.
In any case, the country club doesn't need tourist attractions to lure golfers; the east and west golf courses here host around 80,000 rounds a year. It's the country's only real private club, though it's a Vietnamese private club that is played by many Asian tourists.
The two golf courses couldn't be more different.
"Chalk and cheese," said general manager and superintendent Blair Cornthwaite, a New Zealander who's been in the country a couple of years. "The east course is very generous off the tee and challenging around the greens. The west is tighter and older, with a lot of mature trees lining the fairways. The greens are big and flat."
New Zealanders are known to be prone to understatement, and it's more than true that the greens at the east are challenging. They're small and undulating, some with ridges and spines running through them, together with some fairly dramatic slope. You can read the undulation correctly, but if your speed is off, it's hello and goodbye.
"You can hit 18 greens and be lucky to walk off with an 80," Cornthwaite said.
The 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.
Lee Trevino designed the east course — the newer of the two — and the west was laid out by a Thai architect.
"He must have been a tree-hugger because he left one in every fairway," Cornthwaite said.
The East is fairly flat and straightforward with not too many doglegs, though there is some mild elevation change and the fairways have good movement. The TifDwarf greens were a tad soggy and had just been aerated, but were otherwise in good shape considering the country's harsh rainy season.
The Vietnam Golf and Country Club's east course is 6,922 yards from the tips, and will play much longer in soggy conditions. It's a very pleasant course, with non-penal rough. You'll have to work to lose golf balls here.
The routing is varied, and there is water, some of it sneaky and hidden, but mostly this is a course where you can see everything in front of you.
The Caravelle Hotel is a great place to stay in Saigon. A cab ride to the country club won't cost you more than 10 bucks.
The Caravelle is as nice as any similarly priced hotel in the United States or Europe, on historic Lam Son Square, just across from the opera house and in the heart of always hustling Saigon, which this part of Ho Chi Minh City is still known as.
But the real bonus here is its history. This is where Vietnam war correspondents would get sloshed on the rooftop, while watching air strikes across the Saigon River.
And almost every American of a certain age remembers those impossibly dramatic shots of the 1975 evacuations when the city fell to the Communists; you can see that spot from most of the room windows, a penthouse apartment where the helicopters whisked the lucky ones away to new lives.
The hotel has more than 300 guest rooms and a casino. It has a ballroom, a boardroom, spa and fitness center
The Caravelle has a couple of restaurants, Asian Reflections and the Port Orient, which serves a breakfast buffet, and the rooftop Saigon Bar has bar food.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to a multitude of great restaurants, though if it's top-notch Vietnamese food you're after, Hanoi may serve you better.
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.
United recently added 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.
April 26, 2007
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