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Seeds of Change

James Sullivan

I first saw the Dalat Palace Golf Club in 1994, when my newlywed Vietnamese wife and I cycled past a long string of peasants in conical hats, planting grass by hand. “For what?” my wife asked the foreman, who stood on the other side of bamboo fencing. “For this,” the man told her. And then he took a swing.

“Baseball?” I asked, turning to Thuy. He had swung as if at a fastball.

“No, that other game,” she said, not yet conversant in the panoply of American pastimes.

I looked over the flanks of Doi Cu Hill, where we had stopped to view a place where Thuy had picnicked on holiday as a girl. Suddenly, the ponderosa-lined greenswards were telltale, as were the bunkers of golden sand and the clubhouse, the latter all but smothered by a riotous stand of violet bougainvillea.

The golf course that stretched before us had been sketched into the city of Dalat’s master plan by a French architect in 1922. Construction did not begin until a decade later, when the last emperor of Vietnam developed a yen for the game. The course was abandoned after World War II, resuscitated by a physician in the late 1950s, and abandoned again in 1975.

 

When my wife and I discovered it in 1994, the course, like Vietnam itself, was on the verge of a spectacular comeback. Today, the golf club’s comeback is complete, and the nation’s renaissance is in full swing. Vietnam—after decades of being more of a war, more of a state-of-mind—is a country once again. Its economy has grown faster in recent years than that of any other nations except for China and Equatorial Guinea. Intel is building a $300 million plant not far from the center of Ho Chi Minh City (which is still commonly known as Saigon), and investors and the media have dubbed Vietnam as China’s version of China, as an alternative to expansion in the Middle Kingdom, as a land of “enormous potential” and “untapped opportunities.”

These same giddy prognostications were making the rounds in the early 1990s, but at that time they were bombast. Today, however, Vietnam is preparing to join the World Trade Organization, and investors are buying into the country as never before. Real estate prices in Saigon and Hanoi—despite Vietnam’s official per capita income of less than $1,000 annually—rival those of New York and Paris. (Thai Airways recently moved its Saigon office because rent at that location was more expensive than rent at its Parisian office.)

The extent of the country’s transformation becomes clear to me as I set out on the first day of a golf vacation that will take me to Phan Thiet, Hanoi, Saigon, and back to Dalat. On the 150-mile stretch of Highway 1A between Saigon and Phan Thiet, I encounter something I have never seen before in Vietnam: a big-box retailer. And not just one big box, but three: the Metro, the Coop, and the Big C. Inside the Metro, clerks in neon yellow lab coats deposit money capsules in suction tubes. Euro techno-pop blares from the store’s sound system, while forklifts maneuver through canyons of warehoused products—televisions and air conditioners, mattresses and furnishings, Legos and toy robots.

The presence of these mega-retailers should come as no surprise to me. Before my driver picked me up in Saigon, I had found all of my favorite single malts at the Caravelle Hotel’s rooftop bar. We steered out of the city in a black Ford Escape with leather seats and a plasma-screen DVD player that folded out of the dashboard. And yet, flashes of another era remained. Our driver played the Carpenters, albeit from a CD. En route on Highway 1A, I saw a man on a motorbike pushing a broken-down Suzuki truck with one foot propped on the bigger vehicle’s bumper. And as I am leaving the Metro, I pass an elderly woman in a conical hat, parting a bank of plate-glass sliding doors as if she is stepping into a time machine.

“I bet she buy a robot,” says my driver.

Two hours after stopping at the Metro, I tee off with Jeff Puchalski, the director of golf at Phan Thiet’s Ocean Dunes Golf Club, one of a dozen courses that have opened in Vietnam since 1994. Puchalski is a relatively old hand in Vietnam, having moved here from California in the mid-1990s. “We’re not leaving,” he tells me, referencing his American wife and their two small children. “We’re here.”

Designed by three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo and opened in 1996, Ocean Dunes is part of the 123-room Novotel resort in Phan Thiet, a coastal town due east of Ho Chi Minh City. The layout is billed as a links course, which, in traditional parlance, means treeless and by the sea. While the track is indeed by the sea—in a region that ranks as the country’s most dependably sunny spot—it is by no means treeless, not in a land as fecund as Vietnam.

“These casuarinas grow two meters every year,” says Puchalski, gesturing toward a row of chopped seaside pines. “And these pandanus root in thickets that we’ve got to keep cutting back. The mongooses don’t like that.”

And at Ocean Dunes, they like the mongooses, which live in the pandanus and help contain the snake population. This, after all, is Vietnam. As we approach one green, a sign steers our “Carts This Way.” A neighboring sign, on the edge of some off-fairway brush, warns us to “Beware of Snakes.”

I am not overly concerned with snakes, partly because I am playing decently but mainly because my caddie, Van, walks point whenever my ball strays off the fairway. On the fifth hole, I stir Van from a silent, respectful regard of my game by leaving an 8-foot putt 6 feet wide of the hole. She steps beside me, draws down her sun veil, and, in a feathery voice, says, “Left, inside.”

Most of the caddies at Ocean Dunes, and elsewhere in Vietnam, are women. Some, like Van, could be candidates for modeling jobs, though the typical duffer might never know as much from the swaddling of dish towels and kerchiefs that protect their faces from the sun. To the same degree that we covet tanned skin in the West, they want light skin in the East.

On the next green, Van hands me my putter, drops her kerchief, and says, “Slowly . . . please,” referring to my stroke. Then she saunters toward the hole on a path that loops right to allow for a big break. She directs my sight by flicking her finger at her tail end as she walks, intimating the correct line of my putt.

Van becomes increasingly involved in my game, sensing my respect for her judgment. “Tee it up shorter,” she reminds me after I loft one high into the solar winds. When I flub a shot attempting to hit through a stand of coconut palms, she says, “If easy, so boring. If difficult, more interesting.” And later still, on the 14th hole, she remarks on a view of the fairway, “It’s so romantic in the evening.”

I look away, then, from her gray, form-fitting slacks, knowing that such words are part of an innocent vernacular common to young Vietnamese. She then confirms my instincts, sighing, “The lizards come out at night, over there, and the fish rise in the pond. So romantic.”

After playing 18 in the heat of Phan Thiet, I am ready for Dalat, a mile-high “city of eternal spring,” where the temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees. In the air-conditionless colonial era, the French studded the slopes of these pine-clad hills with hundreds of exquisite villas that mimicked the aesthetics of the homes they had left behind in Normandy, Corsica, Bretagne, and the Landoise.

I check into the Sofitel Dalat Palace, a 1920s-era property that evokes the palatial more than the colonial. In my room, chandeliers hang from the 15-foot-high ceilings in the foyer, in the water closet, and above the baldachin drapes of my bed. Before dinner, I receive a call on the room’s replica of a 1920s wood-handled brass phone. It is the hotel’s general manager, who is following up on my request for a spin in the 1952 Citroën he has just restored. The car has a 3-speed gearbox, velvet seats, and three windows on each side. For sheer relevance of transport in colonial Dalat, it is perfect.

Antoine Sirot motors up Tran Hung Dao Street, pointing out the singular features of houses based on the architecture of Deauville, Le Touquet, the Savoy, and the school of Art Deco. He glories in the Burgundy-style roofs of the monumental Geographical Building, and in the Ardoise tiles of Lycée Yersin, the old colonial high school.

“Dalat is like a black-and-white movie without a soundtrack,” says the Parisian expat as we cruise past a former maternity clinic. “We’re trying to give it a soundtrack.”

The day after our Citroën tour, I meet Sirot at the Dalat Palace Golf Club, outside the villa clubhouse, which remains enveloped by violet bougainvillea. The facade of the building is crisscrossed by decorative half-timbers. “Very Tudor, very British, very golf,” is Sirot’s assessment.

Unlike at Ocean Dunes, where you need to be a shot-maker, you can whack the ball all over Doi Cu Hill. This is not to say that Dalat Palace, which plays 7,000 yards from the back tees, is a cakewalk, although the greatest challenge here is to remain focused on the game. Every elevated tee box affords another resplendent vista accented by the long fetches of bent-grass fairways. On the third tee, you line your drive up with the tower of Lycée Yersin. A panorama of Dalat’s landmark Lang Bian Mountain awaits on the eighth tee. From the 13th hole, you can spot the tower of a nuclear research facility that the Americans built, but never opened, as a power plant before 1975.

“Our challenge in Dalat is to [build] something and make it look as if it’s always been here,” says Sirot. He looks across the valley where the next fairway lies, at a view he has seen countless times yet has not tired of. “We owe this place that.”

Focus also can be a challenge at the Vietnam Golf & Country Club in Ho Chi Minh City’s ninth district, where the staccato rip of AK-47 fire—from the neighboring Vietnamese army shooting range—can riddle your concentration. On this onetime cashew plantation, director of golf Blair Cornthwaite and I wade into the sun-blasted humidity as the morning temperatures reach into the 90s. Accordingly, our female caddies—in addition to long sleeves, gloves, trousers, and visors—wear dish towels around their necks and faces. The drapery irks the course director, who is attempting to wean his mummified crews off their wraps.

“I’ve redesigned the hats with a sun drape at the back,” says Cornthwaite, a New Zealand native who spent eight years in China before taking over the Taiwanese-owned course last year. “But I’ve had a towel sewn inside. I didn’t want the towel in there, but it’s a concession—kind of like methadone.”

We play the East Course, with its bunkers of immaculate white sand from Cam Ranh and its water holes fringed by flowering wild peanut plants. Birdsong fills the air, most conspicuously the Indian cuckoo’s four-note call, which sounds remarkably similar to a bar from Beethoven’s Ninth.

When I last played the VGCC, six years earlier, the club had only a few Vietnamese members. Koreans still represent the largest group of members, but Vietnamese now are a close second. The homegrown rich are the most lavish spenders in Vietnam, so much so that Cornthwaite facetiously wonders whether his primary function as director of golf is as arbiter of bets.

 

At the VGCC, as with every course in Vietnam, you play amid a vast workforce. As I approached a green at Ocean Dunes, 24 course attendants trudged out of a sand trap and then descended again to refill the bunker, sandbag by sandbag, when I completed the hole. Golf course jobs are coveted in Vietnam, because the employers typically are foreign, and the perks are better than those at locally owned businesses. But throughout Vietnam, in a broad range of industries, the rising prosperity of workers is prompting what was unthinkable even a few years ago.

At a diamond-polishing factory in Bien Hoa (near Ho Chi Minh City), workers recently went on strike to demand concessions. Management capitulated and met the workers’ demands for an additional 20,000 dong, or $1.25, per month.

In Hanoi, a statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands prominently in a downtown park, but the Bolshevik leader’s tenets have fallen to the mighty dollar. Vietnam is communist in name only. Hanoi long ago gave up on collectivization and planned economies; today, privatization of state-owned enterprises is the norm.

Vietnam’s prosperity is reflected in the country’s growing number of golf clubs. The Hanoi area today has two courses, with several more in the works. Kings’ Island Golf, 22 miles from the city, was the area’s only layout until 2003, when the Chi Linh Star Golf & Country Club opened 43 miles from town. Chi Linh, where still another 18-hole course is under development, sits at the nexus between Hanoi, the political and cultural capital of Vietnam; Hai Phong, the country’s largest port; and Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most stunning seascapes in the world. Outside of Hanoi, another course is opening near the old French hill station at Tam Dao, and 36 holes are under construction in the limestone karst mountains of Hoa Binh.

Throughout Vietnam, the bounce that everyone expected in 1994, and then again in 2000, is happening at last. Signs of the transformation are everywhere: the big-box retailers on Highway 1A, the time-share units rising along the fairways of the Ocean Dunes Golf Club in Phan Thiet, and the world-class resorts such as Dalat’s soon-to-open Evason Hideaway—a 16-suite property that complements the company’s beach resort near Nha Trang—and the Princess d’Annam on the south-central coast, where you can spend $1,000 per night for a villa.

 

In Phan Thiet, Jeff Puchalski believes his adopted homeland is ripe for a PGA Tour event—not an Asian PGA event, but the big leagues. “Our courses are ready,” Puchalski said one evening, standing on the veranda of the clubhouse at Ocean Dunes. “Vietnam is ready.”

And maybe, I thought, watching the sun sink into a cleft of the Annamite Cordillera, where American and Vietnamese soldiers struggled so long and so hard for so little gain, it’s about time.

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