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Introducing Golf to Vietnam

With one stroke of a driver on August 7, 1993, Vice Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh rang in a new era of Vietnamese history: the age of golf. The event--staged at the then-new Kings' Island Golf Club, west of Hanoi--represented the first time a politburo official had actually struck a golf ball, and the change in the Hanoi government's posture toward the ancient game was a measure of just how serious Vietnam has become about luring capital from the developed and developing world of golf.

The spectacle of golf in Vietnam still evokes what Dr. Johnson said in another context about the dog that walks on its hind legs--the wonder is not that it's done well, but that it's done at all. Not many Vietnamese play the game, there being very little room for discretionary spending in a country where the annual per capita income still hovers around three hundred dollars. What little golf history Vietnam can claim is decidedly colonial (the French built the first course in Dalat in 1922). And playing there, though at least possible now, can still be a trial. Kings' Island is only twenty-eight miles outside Hanoi, for example, but the trip to it takes a good two hours, and it's so unnerving that it puts anyone's love of the game to the test. The Ho Tay Road, the main highway west from Hanoi, quickly turns into a dusty free-for-all of motorbikes, bicycles, oxcarts and pedestrians. The relatively few cars and trucks claim a single lane in the middle of the road and race toward each other in an unending game of chicken, each driver blinking his headlights, trying to force the opponent to be the first to swerve into roadside traffic, where the outcome may be messy. Since horns are constant, everyone tends to ignore them. The cyclists continue on their impassive way, their bikes heaped with baskets of mangoes, leeks, hens and firewood. In the fields to the side of the road, peasants, plowing, slip in the mud behind lunging water buffalo.

The jury is still out on how successful Vietnam's efforts to lure capital through golf will be, especially given Asia's recent economic swoon. But foreign firms have already built or remodeled eight courses--most of which are as beautiful and challenging as any in Asia--and thanks to upgrades in the highway system, visitors will soon have an easier time getting to them as well.

Most hopeful of all, the Vietnamese people seem to view golf less as a decadent pastime than as a symbol of their nation's progress. "Before I took the job, I wondered what people here would think about my past," says Giles Hamby, a former U.S. Army lieutenant stationed in Dalat who now serves as superintendent of Dalat Palace Golf Club. "I told them what I did here before, and they understand. They like to tease me that they won, and I like to say, no, that we left. We go back and forth, and it's o kay. The war was twenty years ago--it's time to get over it. Move on."

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