A business traveler's guide to the cultivation of the ancient game in the land of our former Communist enemy, now our avidly capitalistic trading partner.

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."

King's Island

If Patience Is A Virtue, Kings' Island is its shrine. Shortly after the front nine opened in 1993, the course flooded, leaving the back nine on the back burner until early 1997. And it won't be until later this year that a cars-only highway will transform the ride from Hanoi from a two-hour slog to a thirty-minute shot. No matter. The first and only course in the former North Vietnam has been worth the wait. Designed by Bob McFarland, Kings' Island spans two tree-covered islands and a major peninsula projecting into the center of Dong Mo Reservoir. A three-minute speedboat ride past the stunning Ba Vi mountain range puts you at the clubhouse--and in full view of the lush Red River Valley. The course has a number of hidden greens and at least twelve forced carries over water and swampy gorges. The front nine features a 572-yard double-dogleg par five, the seventh, which runs from an elevated tee to a sculpted fairway lined with sand and grass bunkers. The only OB on the course looms to the left, with water bordering the right. The back nine consists of three par threes, three par fours and three par fives. Most striking is the par-five thirteenth, where the tee shot must carry a gorge. The fourteenth tee is the highest spot on the course, with a view of the Ba Vi range and its apron of terraced tea plantations and rice paddies. Long hitters may want to try to reach the 502-yard seventeenth in two, but from the tee, a carry of 250 yards over water is needed. Those less daring can play to the right, requiring a far less ambitious carry. The entire left side of the fairway is bordered by water, and the small, contoured and well-bunkered green is cut into a rocky ridge--a tough par, not to mention birdie.

Par & Yardage: 72, 6,344
Phone: 84-4-826-0342
Fax: 84-4-826-0330
Contact: Edward Grant, manager, corporate affairs
Rentals: Clubs and shoes
Location: Twenty-eight miles west of Hanoi, thirty miles southwest of Noi Bai International Airport. Transportation can be arranged through Hanoi hotels or Kings' Island.

Dalat Palace Golf Club

Visitors Marvel At The Stunning French Colonial architecture and the stately Hotel Sofitel Dalat Palace in this small, central-highlands city. But for golfers, this says it all: the only bent-grass greens in Indochina. Located about five thousand feet above sea level, Dalat enjoys a cool climate that doesn't burn the sensitive bent--or wear out golfers. Opened in 1994, the Brett Stensen redesign plays hard and fast as it winds downhill to Xuan Huong Lake. You'll get major rolls on the tightly cut fairways, so on downhill tee shots, such as the four-hundred-yard-plus thirteenth and seventeenth holes, longer hitters should use irons or fairway woods to stay back from the water. The par-three fifth requires a carry of nearly 230 yards over water to reach the green. But the 547-yard par-five sixth is even more deadly: Water lines the entire left side, and OB menaces from the right, turning the hole into a battle of nerves. The beautiful 387-yard seventh calls for a tee shot to carry two lakes, though shorter hitters may play to the left of the water for a 180-yard uphill approach to the green. The deep pot-style bunkers along the right side of the 374-yard fifteenth fairway make accuracy a must.

Par & Yardage: 72, 7,009
Phone: 84-63-821-201
Fax: 84-63-824-325
Contact: Jeff Puchalski, general manager and director of golf, Dalat Palace and Ocean Dunes
Rentals: Clubs and shoes available
Location: In Dalat, 180 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City--a five-hour car ride, but just a fifty-minute flight from Tan San Nhut Airport, followed by a twenty-five-minute taxi to Dalat


Along The Wooded And Serene inlets of Cloudy River Lake, thirty-five miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, architect Ward Northrup laid out an attractive, playable course that opened in June 1997. The course's location at thebottom of a valley eliminates tricky winds off the water. Trouble is, the lack of a breeze also makes it feel hotter than normal. On Dong Nai's first five holes--including the 165-yard par-three third, its signature hole--the lake is in play, as it is on seven holes of the back nine. Among Dong Nai's best holes are the 395-yard tenth and the 535-yard eleventh (both of which call for approach shots to carry water), as well as the fifteenth, a 405-yard dogleg left with a green fronted by the lake.

Par & Yardage: 72, 6,830
Phone: 84-61-866-140
Fax: 84-61-866-128
Contact: Michael Wang, vice manager, marketing
Rentals: Clubs and shoes available
Location: Trang Bom Town, thirty-five miles north and at least an hour by car from central Ho Chi Minh City

Ocean Dunes

Before Larry Hillblom Came Along, westernization had scarcely touched the fishing village of Phan Thiet, on the South China Sea. It was Hillblom, one of the founders of DHL Air Express, who envisioned building a golf course among the area's sand dunes. Hillblom died in 1995, a year before the course finally opened and his vision was vindicated. A Nick Faldo design, Ocean Dunes has a distinct links look: fairway mounding that occasionally obstructs views to the green, raised putting surfaces that fall sharply into chipping areas. The course plays much longer than it is because the Bermuda fairways eliminate much of the bounce-and-roll so common to U.K. courses. The best hole is the 148-yard ninth, a par three with an elevated green guarded by dunes and trees to the right and a grassy mound to the left. The tee shot has to thread through a slot to reach the target, much of which is hidden from view. Between the palms behind the twelfth green, you can see the South China Sea, a site that often includes Vietnamese fishing boats bobbing in the surf. Though the course is open and flat, its routing has a natural flow, and each hole opens up unique challenges. A Buddhist temple lies to the right of the third green, and a Vietnamese tomb sits behind the eighteenth tee. The large clubhouse, complete with a sauna, a large spa and steam rooms, opened last March. The four-star hotel, with tennis courts and two swimming pools, is scheduled to open in April.

Par & Yardage: 72, 6,723
Phone: 84-62-823-366
Fax: 84-62-821-511
Contact: Jeff Puchalski, general manager and director of golf, Ocean Dunes and Dalat Palace
Rentals: Clubs and shoes available
Location: One Ton Duc Thang in Phan Thiet. By car, about three hours east of Ho Chi Minh City on Highway 1

Song Be

Opened In 1994, Song Be (pronounced "song bay") may not be the most beautiful course in Vietnam, but it certainly is one of the toughest. Designed by Peter Dalkeith Scott, Song Be measures about 7,000 mostly flat yards. Balls tend to die on the common Bermuda fairways, so all your distance is in the air. And the lack of contouring makes distances to targets difficult to ascertain. Although many of the par fours and fives have a monotonous feel, the 455-yard tenth is a gem: a hard dogleg left requiring a tee shot between two lakes and an approach to a moderate-size green. A two-tiered driving range is open, butthe clubhouse is unfinished.

Par & Yardage: 72, 7,002
Phone: 84-65-855-802
Fax: 84-65-855-804
Contact: Jay Fuss, head professional
Rentals: Clubs and shoes available
Location: Along Highway 13 opposite the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park, thirty-five minutes north of downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam Golf & Country Club

A Thirty-Minute Drive From Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Golf & Country Club offers two courses: the East course, designed by Lee Trevino, which opened in September 1997; and the West, a Cheng King Shih design, which opened two years earlier. The two couldn't differ more. Unlike the narrow, densely wooded West course, the East course's site had most of its cashew trees scraped off, leaving an expansive but challenging layout. The greens on the East course feature humps, slopes and lots of sweeping breaks; the flat greens on the West course challenge you to distinguish where the fairway ends and the putting surface begins. Water comes into play on eleven holes on the West course, eight on the East. Oddly, on many of the West's par fours and fives, a lone tree stands at the desired landing spot, making you wonder why the Taiwanese paper company that constructed the course didn't just add to its harvest. Plans call for another clubhouse, a water park and at least two hundred villas by late 2002.

Par & Yardage: 72, 6,946 (East course); 72, 7,107 (West course)
Phone: 84-8-825-2951
Fax: 84-8-733-0102
Contact: Ted Johns, general manager
Rentals: Clubs and shoes available
Location: Northeast of central Ho Chi Minh City, in the Thu Duc district, a thirty-minute drive along Highway 1