Tee Time In Vietnam Much has changed since the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon, including attitudes about golf

March 31, 2003

The shot was solidly struck and fairway bound, but I was
unprepared for the reaction from my caddie. "Long ball!" she
yelled, clapping her hands with palms and fingers aligned, as if
she'd been in prayer during the downswing. Her lovely eyes
widened above her sun veil as the ball came to rest about 260
yards away, triggering more applause, this time from all four
caddies. "Good shot! Big hit!" The women gushed with such
enthusiasm that at first I wondered if I was the butt of some
joke. Such doubts about the adequacy of my game soon vanished.
Long ball! I thought, puffing out my chest as the 21-year-old Thy
(pronounced Tie) took my driver and slipped it back into the bag. I
felt every inch da man.

So began my five days of golf in Vietnam, a country that I had
previously associated with war, protests and a national sense of
regret--not country clubs. But the world, including Vietnam, has
changed radically since the last U.S. soldiers withdrew from
Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, and relations between the
two countries have been cordial since the end of the U.S. trade
embargo in 1994. American tourists--and dollars--are now welcomed
without reserve throughout Vietnam, where an astonishing 65% of
the 78 million people are under 25 and have no personal memory of
the "American War."

"The Vietnamese do not live in the past," says Gene Gregory, an
American who has lived in Vietnam at various times since 1950 and
is the general director of Pacific HealthCare Vietnam. "They're a
very pragmatic people, and they expect and want to have friendly
relations with the U.S. Vietnam today is where Thailand was 25
years ago: ready to take off. Golf is symbolic of what's
happening in the rest of the country. The game is no longer seen
as an elitist pursuit. Ten years ago, even seven years ago, that
would have been unimaginable."

Until the 1990s golf was perceived by Vietnam's Communist
government as a social evil. A decade or so ago that began to
change as a result of a regional meeting of Asia's finance
ministers. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that the Vietnamese
delegate came down to the lobby one morning and found it
deserted. Inquiring where everyone had gone, he was told that the
other ministers had left to play golf. When he asked why he
hadn't been invited, he was told, "Because you don't play."

The minister returned home and, feeling he had lost face, began
taking golf lessons. The pragmatic Communist government started
licensing foreign companies to come in and build courses. In 1992
there was a single nine-hole course in Vietnam, in Dalat. The
course had been built in 1922 for Vietnam's last emperor, Bao
Dai. By 1997 there were seven clubs featuring eight 18-hole
courses designed by the likes of Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino.
That's where the number stands today, but there are four courses
under construction and at least eight others that are licensed
and in the design phase.

"The Communist Party realized that if Vietnam was going to catch
up with the rest of Asia economically, it had to attract Asian
money, expertise and technology," Gregory says. "The Koreans,
Taiwanese and Japanese like to play golf, and you couldn't get
their executives to work in a country that didn't have golf.
That's what's behind the growth of the game in Vietnam. Not
tourism."

Even if tourism isn't driving the golf boom in Vietnam, golfing
tourists are the beneficiaries. All seven clubs are open to the
public, and four are within an hour's drive of Ho Chi Minh City.
(Hanoi has one course, and the other two, Dalat and Ocean
Dunes--the two best courses in the country--are at resorts.)
Greens fees, which include caddies, are around $80 on weekdays
and $100 on weekends, and it's easy to have the concierge at your
hotel call ahead for a tee time. If a golf package is what you're
after, there are a number of travel agencies and websites that
can help put an itinerary together.

The website I stumbled upon was vietnamgolftours.com, run by
"Saigon" Tom Kramer, a former Seattle Mariners season-ticket
holder who fell in love with Vietnam after a business trip in
1998, sold his video production company and moved to Ho Chi Minh
City two years ago. "I liked the warm weather, the people, the
energy and the fun," Saigon Tom said as we played the
Trevino-designed East course of Vietnam Golf and Country Club,
the only 36-hole club in the country. "I got the bug."

The club was carved out of a cashew farm. It has good layouts and
boasts all the amenities--locker room, driving range, pro shop,
bar and restaurant, and grass-roofed halfway house that serves
exotic tropical drinks. The most unusual feature is that the
course is set beside a military base, so the constant pop-pop-pop
of target practice could be heard throughout the round. Until
recently the West course displayed small signs in some of the
grass bunkers noting that they were bomb craters. TRACES OF
WARTIME, the signs read.

Vietnam Golf and Country Club is a walking-only facility, and the
caddies, who use pull carts, are female, pretty and young. Glenn
Cassells, an Australian who worked for two years as head pro at
the nearby Song Be Country Club, explained why. "A caddie makes
$150 to $200 a month, which is good money here," he said. "It's
more than an office administrator makes. If 10 jobs open up, 200
girls apply. Eighty-five percent of my customers are men. You'd
be a fool not to hire good-looking ones."

Don't misunderstand. There's absolutely no hanky-panky. You
hardly even see any skin. In Vietnamese society, a fair
complexion is treasured--a tan is the sign of a peasant who works
in the fields--so the caddies wear long-billed caps or rice hats,
and at the first sign of the sun they hastily pull on gloves and
cover their faces with towels or veils. But they are quick with a
smile and use what few English words they know to exhort you to
make a "good par!" or a "nice birdie!" At the end of a round a
tip of 50,000 dong ($3.50) will bring a smile that makes you feel
like a multimillionaire.

Later we sampled Vietnam's nightlife. Heady does not begin to
describe the sights and sounds of Ho Chi Minh City after dark.
Street vendors, beggars, tourists, hookers, bicyclists, outdoor
barbecuers and legless veterans clog the sidewalks. Motorbikes,
some carrying up to four people, cruise the streets. It isn't
unusual to see a three-year-old balancing precariously on the
handlebars. Crossing the street is an adventure. Spotting me
nervously poised on the curb as dozens of vehicles zoomed past, a
10-year-old girl hawking postcards chided, "What you waiting for,
Joe? You chicken? Follow me." She stepped unhesitatingly into the
traffic, which parted around her without slowing. She beckoned me
to follow. There were four motorbikes between us at the time.
"Don't run, Joe. It confuse them. Walk slow," she advised. It
worked. I later learned, alarmingly, that there are 30 fatalities
a day on the roads of Vietnam.

Saigon Tom and I had a drink at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel,
overlooking Ho Chi Minh Square, where CIA agents and journalists
used to hang out during the war. We had a delicious, inexpensive
meal at an open-air restaurant, where diners could inspect
various pots of simmering fish dishes and stews, and point to the
ones they wanted. We went to Club Blue, a huge, crowded, pulsing
discotheque, where among the snappily dressed Vietnamese
teenagers we ran into an American I'll call Bill--a golfer, as it
happened--who looked like a self-styled Austin Powers-era
swinger. Now in his 50s, he has lived in Vietnam for four years
and had a girl on each arm. "All my moves that went out of style
in the States 10 years ago are brand-new here," he said. "I
haven't dated a girl over 20 in three years. They think I'm
Richard Gere. I'll be taken home in a box."

We closed the night with a Guinness at Sheridan's Irish House,
where a six-piece Vietnamese band featuring pennywhistle,
accordion, banjo and fiddle serenaded patrons with Irish
ballads--a cross-cultural treat that had to be experienced to be
believed. It was, in sum, a rich, aromatic night.

Over the next three days we played Song Be Country Club and Dong
Nai Resort, both good courses within 45 minutes of Ho Chi Minh
City, and headed up the coast to Ocean Dunes Golf Club, a
links-style Faldo design in the city of Phan Thiet, three hours
away. Ocean Dunes is one of the few seaside courses in Asia, and
its signature 9th hole, a 148-yard par-3, has been named one of
Golf Magazine's top 500 holes in the world. We were there in late
August, when it's hot and rainy, and were one of only two groups
on the course. "Our high season is the end of October through
April," said Frederic Lemoine-Romain, who runs the 122-room
luxury hotel at Ocean Dunes, which is managed by Accor Group. "We
get very few Americans here and no veteran groups. Most of my
guests are Japanese and Korean."

Our final stop was Dalat, the crown jewel of Vietnamese golf, a
four-hour drive from Phan Thiet into the Central Highlands.
Dalat, a honeymoon destination known as the City of Eternal
Spring because of its cool, crisp weather, is 5,000 feet above
sea level, and the drive is as breathtaking as it is terrifying.
Fortunately, Saigon Tom had hired a driver, Mr. Anh, who somehow
avoided killing anyone en route. Autos shared the precipitous
road with a dizzying array of bicycles, pedestrians, cattle,
buses, chickens, motorbikes, toddlers and donkey-drawn carts. Anh
didn't believe in braking. Approaching a logjam of living
obstacles, he'd lean on his horn and expect the melange to
magically part. Somehow it did. After a quarter of an hour I
couldn't watch.

The luxurious Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel, originally built in
1922 during French colonial rule, is one of three five-star
hotels in the country. It was lavishly renovated in the early
1990s by California businessman Larry Hillblom, cofounder of DHL
Worldwide Express, who died in a plane crash off Saipan in 1995,
10 days after the hotel reopened. Described as a billionaire who
reputedly insisted on sleeping only with certified virgins,
Hillblom was thought to have left no heirs. After his death,
however, eight Asian women came forward and claimed he had sired
their children. DNA tests determined that four of the eight
children in question--two from the Philippines, one from Vietnam
and one from Palau--were, in fact, his offspring, and each
received an inheritance of about $50 million.

Hillblom's golf legacy is the Dalat Palace Golf Club, which he
expanded to 18 holes and is world-class on every level. Because
of its climate Dalat is the only course in Vietnam with bentgrass
greens, and because of its remote location it gets only 6,000
rounds of play a year. Beautifully maintained, with stunning
vistas and a challenging 7,009-yard, par-72 layout, Dalat is
worth the effort to get there.

It is also worth the effort to schlepp your clubs on the trip.
(Rental clubs, while available, are third rate.) Don't go
expecting Pebble Beach or Augusta National. Go with eyes open and
senses alert, and be prepared for a glimpse into a rapidly
evolving culture of manifest warmth, energy and optimism. You
won't forget your "good shots!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. WORKING WOMEN Among Vietnam Golf and Country Club's amenities are caddies of the fairer sex. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. LOCAL CUSTOM Recycled balls are sold at Song Be, and a temple abuts the course at Ocean Dunes. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. SKIN DEEP Golfers are made to feel welcome all over Vietnam, especially by the caddies, who cover up to avoid a tan. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. ON TRACK Song Be, like all the other courses in Vietnam, is played primarily by Asians. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. LABOR INTENSIVE The grounds crew at Ocean Dunes grooms the course by hand.

Vietnam, says Gregory, is "ready to take off. Golf is symbolic of
what's happening in the rest of the country."

"All my moves that went out of style in the States 10 years ago
are brand-new here," says Bill, a 50-ish American.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)