It’s easy to forget where you are on Vietnam’s Golf Coast. With a grand selection of new golf courses chiselled out from surrounding rainforest, and with green grass fairways running right onto sandy white beaches and into sparkling blue water, I could well be in Florida, or Southern California.
But then a voice blares from a cackling loudspeaker. A group leader ‘encourages’ workers in a nearby state-run community farm and the sound of it echoes for miles. And as I stroll down some fairways I see remnants of the country’s 60 years at war (the bunkers around here, believe me, are not just of the sand variety).
Golfers from the First World have led a charge into many areas of Southeast Asia, arriving in ever-increasing numbers at courses throughout Thailand, Bali, Malaysia and China. Course designers – many of whom rank among the biggest names in the game – stumbled over themselves to build the fanciest courses, in the most startling locations, outdoing each other in a contest which has bordered, at times, on farcical. But Vietnam never bothered joining the race.
The Vietnamese government never saw the point. Golf is, after all, a sport that perhaps best epitomises the decadence of leisure activities in the capitalist western world. What, really, could be further from its communist ideals? In favour of jobs growth, that attitude has changed.
Tell your buddies you’re travelling to Vietnam to play golf and they’ll probably give you a funny look, but therein lies one of the biggest attractions of golfing in Vietnam. Right now you still have the chance to play some of Asia’s best new courses in a country where few golfers go. But you’d better get there quick. The International Association of Golf Travel Operators named Vietnam the “Undiscovered Golf Destination Of The Year” in 2012. But that’s sure changing fast.
There are now more than 40 championship courses in Vietnam; many of them complete resorts with accommodation and restaurants as impressive as the greens themselves. Meanwhile, there are about 25 more courses in development and the government has shared plans for an additional 80 by 2020.
Some of the best new courses can be found in a region helpfully dubbed the ‘Golf Coast’, on Vietnam’s central coastline. It’s the ideal access point for Australian golfers to start their golfing holiday – four of Asia’s top championship courses are here.
I land in Danang and am amazed by its transformation since I was last here seven years ago. Once a backwater used by travellers as nothing much but a thoroughfare on their way to the World Heritage Listed historic fishing village of Hoi An, 30 kilometres south, Danang is now one of Vietnam’s most sophisticated tourist centres. Fancy cafes and bars run along the Han riverfront, and five-star resorts are nestled among the high-tide mark of a strip of coastline Forbes magazine ranks as one of the world’s most attractive.
The caddies at Danang Golf Club
It’s a convenient location for golfers who’d prefer not to travel far between courses, but that’s not to say there isn’t still plenty to see beyond the green. I travel an hour north of the city to my favourite course, the Sir Nick Faldo-designed Laguna Lang Co. The road takes me past old fishing towns where I stop at floating restaurants on waterways while fishing boats bob beside me, and locals use wooden fish traps to supply our lunch. Water buffalos still till the soils round here. Yet the resort is as sophisticated as any you’ll find in Asia. The course takes golfers into the foothills of a coastal mountain range, while at times I’m also playing right beside the beach.
While the Golf Coast is home to the biggest investment in Vietnam’s golfing future, there are many options elsewhere. I fly less than an hour to Hanoi where there are 10 world-class championship courses just outside the city’s fringe. The most stunning is the 36-hole Sky Lake Resort & Golf Club where I play in among karst rock outcrops that stick out of the surrounding farmland at sheer right angles. There are tee-offs here that make me hit across gaping chasms where rivers flow right beneath, and yet, within 45 minutes I’m in the Vietnamese capital with all its French colonial charm and modern convenience.
Further south, Ho Chi Minh City is also home to many new world-class championship courses, with more set to open by 2018. Further still, the best new course in the country – and in Southeast Asia – lies two hours south and was only opened to the public in 2015. It’s a thrilling ride from the city along narrow roads that dissect thousands of hectares of paddy fields. Greg Norman designed The Bluffs at Ho Tram Strip, and it’s one hell of a test. On most holes I’d just as soon stand at the tee-box and stare at the views than try to play the obstacle course Norman created. But with the sharp rise and fall on each hole and stunning views over the surrounding coastline, there’s no prettier course in Southeast Asia. The air’s thick with dragonflies and there are lizards in the bunker longer than my clubs – and forget about looking for your ball should you dare to hit it left or right of the fairway. But at the end of play, if you haven’t lost all the balls in your bag, you should feel proud of yourself for finishing golf’s greatest new challenge.
What I like best is that there’s still a feeling of adventure when playing golf in Vietnam. Courses aren’t teeming with the Australians and Americans who are still predominantly teeing off in Bali and Thailand. And so, for now, there’s still the chance to feel like you’ve discovered Vietnam for yourself, and the courses are yours alone to conquer.