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Vietnam

 

“Vietnam is a very special place to play golf,” Mark told me when I quizzed him about our prospective quarry.   “Many of the more popular golfing destinations have great resorts with a bunch of good golf courses, but there’s not an awful lot to do beyond playing each day. That means that you don’t really get an insight into local culture — the experience can end up feeling a little soulless.

“It is different in Vietnam. The courses are a bit more spread out, which means that you see more of the country, and it’s a place with such a fascinating history — a history that is both recent and familiar but also mysterious, as it was somewhat cut off from the rest of the world from 1975 to 1995. You would need to be crazy not to take the opportunity to take in some of the local culture. 

“Oh yeah, and the courses are phenomenal.”

Needless to say, he turned out to be right. Not only did our trip encompass golf courses that could hold their own with top-rank venues across the globe, we also got up close and personal with a unique culture, encountered unfailingly hospitable people and, most importantly, had an absolute blast.

We got our adventure underway in Hanoi. One of Asia’s great cities, Vietnam’s capital offers a unique blend of medieval chaos, colonial elegance and ultra-modern vibrancy. A visit to the Temple of Literature, a stately Confucian temple that dates back to 1070, provided us with a window into the city’s rich scholarly, literary traditions while potent cocktails by the peaceful waters of Ho Tay (West Lake), in the Intercontinental Hotel’s sleek bar, brought us back to the modern day with a pleasant jolt.

The following day we set out early to get our first glimpse of Vietnam’s golfing goodies at Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club. Located halfway between Hanoi and Halong City, the course is ideally situated for golfers travelling to or from the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, a karst-studded marine miracle that ranks as one of the natural wonders of the world.  The course itself is pretty special in its own right. Situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling forested hills, the fairways wind their way around an undulating landscape interspersed with trees, creeks and natural water hazards.

It was love at first sight for me, even in the early stages of the round when my radar was askew as Paris Hilton’s moral compass. Particular favourites included the 2nd, a testing par-4 with a daunting carry over water to a well-guarded elevated green, and the 13th, a picture-perfect short hole that gleaned my only birdie of the day. I was less successful at the 632-yard uphill 18th; by that time I was too giddy to feel the creeping exhaustion in my legs.

Thankfully, it was up to someone else to take the strain when we arrived back in Hanoi. In the city’s Old Quarter, cycle rickshaws have been plying these narrow streets for centuries. It was like stepping back in time as we passed leisurely by baskets of live frogs and outdoor butcheries at one of the many markets.

Vietnam’s ability to seamlessly switch from old to new was once again in evidence the following day at Van Tri Golf Club. Carved from rice paddies, the course is American in style and reminiscent of many in Florida — plentiful water hazards lining the heavily landscaped fairways. Ultra contemporary it may be, but the sight, just off several fairways, of farmers half-submerged in the paddies is a sight that could have been plucked from any of the previous 12 centuries. 

The layout itself is another cracker.  Holes such as the risk/reward par-5 9th and the closing dogleg 18th are as treacherous as they are classy, while the immaculate conditioning of the Paspalum playing surfaces are a credit to the greenkeeping staff.

With two smashing courses and a lot of culture under our belts, it was time to leave Hanoi and fly 600 kilometres south to the significantly less frenetic surrounds of China Beach.  The place where American soldiers took their R&R during the Vietnam War, China Beach is well on its way regaining its status as the country’s number one leisure destination. There’s a host of amazing resorts such as our digs, the beautiful Nam Hai, and two world-class golf courses, the Greg Norman-designed Danang Golf Club and its next-door neighbour, The Montgomerie Links, the work of European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie.

The beach is also conveniently situated between the transport hub of Danang and the picturesque heritage town of Hoi An, famous for its perfectly preserved architecture, vibrant culinary scene and a booming tailoring industry.  It was here that we spent our second golf-free afternoon, strolling the pretty streets and taking in a cookery class at The Red Bridge Restaurant, where our variable attempts at concocting Vietnamese classics such as fresh pork and shrimp spring rolls were rewarded with valedictory glasses of chilled sauvignon blanc.

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Replenished and refreshed by an evening in our own private villas at The Nam Hai, we hit Danang Golf Club in a mood of high anticipation. The course may only have opened in May of this year, but it has already garnered a host of rave reviews.  Built on sandy loam soil, the layout echoes the classic Scottish links, with a dash of the Carolina sand hills thrown in. The verdict: Every bit as enjoyable to play as the hype suggested.  With the nearby Marble Mountains providing an extra dramatic visual element on holes such as the 10th, a long par-5 which meanders between huge sand dunes, and the South China Sea looming as backdrop to the impossibly beautiful par-3 16th, the Great White Shark’s creation is never anything less than killer.

The same could also be said for Monty’s masterpiece.  Although it shares the same tract of land as its near neighbour, the Monty course is quite distinct with the Scot deploying his trademark design quirks of heavy bunkering, massive greens and rippled fairways.  It’s quite a test, that’s for sure, but there’s a lot to love about the course. The front nine opens and closes with two of the most testing holes. The 1st is a bunker-strewn par-5, which serves as a wake-up call to unengaged brains, while the 9th is a long par-4, which plays towards a giant green that slopes towards a lake on the right. My personal favourite, however, was the 17th, a cracking par-4 with a backdrop of spectacular jungle-covered mountains.

With north and central Vietnam in the bag, we headed straight from Monty Links to the airport to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still almost universally known.

The southern hub may be the biggest city in Vietnam, but it retains a romanticism that belies its unwieldy size. As we made our way from the airport to the famous Caravelle Hotel – a favourite of journalists covering the Vietnam War – the tree-lined boulevards were awash with young couples riding pillion on their motorbikes.

For them the night was still young. For us, another early start next day meant that a sampling of the city’s vibrant nightlife, culinary and entertainment scene would have to be postponed. The consolation was clear heads with which to plot our way around the testing Hill Course at Long Thanh.  Considered by many to be Saigon’s finest course, the layout offers plenty of character and has, in the shape of the short 4th with its choice of two greens, one of the most distinctive holes I’ve ever had the pleasure to play.

No golfing adventure in Vietnam is complete without a detour to the Southern Highlands and the former French hill station of Dalat, our final stop.  It was here where golf in this country began – on a course built for Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor, back in the 1920s.  The present layout bears little resemblance to the original, but it remains a course befitting any visiting dignitary. While I hardly come with those social credentials, I certainly loved the course.  The cool mountain air made for pleasant respite from the heat of Saigon; the bentgrass greens were as true as a kiss from a smitten sweetheart; and several of the pine-lined holes, especially the 6th and the 16th, became late additions to my Vietnam golfing hall of fame.

With the golfing action now complete, we settled back in the colonial splendour of our rooms at the venerable Dalat Palace Hotel. The next day we would fly back to Saigon and out of the country. That night, however, we would enjoy a seven-course meal in the hotel’s sumptuous French restaurant, Le Rabelais.  It seems that there’s always time for another epic in Vietnam.

Copyright KinzelReisen

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