Playing golf in Vietnam - Three kings of the Orient
With a name inextricably linked to conflict, Vietnam is enjoying a new dawn as a golf paradise that is now readily accessible to British golfers thanks to new direct flights. The central coast region around Danang is the country’s golf hotspot and now offers three courses by top designers. Peter Ellegard visited the area on a trip centred on the opening of its latest arrival, and was surprised to encounter a charm offensive from its normally reticent creator…
Photos: Peter Ellegard, Golf Coast Vietnam and Paul Myers
For a man with such a tetchy reputation, Sir Nick Faldo seemed remarkably at ease and happy to chat as he relaxed with a beer in the clubhouse of Vietnam’s Laguna Lang Co golf club following the official opening of his new course there. Around the table with him were his son, Matthew, and American manager-cum-partner, LeslieAnne Wade, as well as several others including his design guru and a couple of us journalists. Sir Nick is famously prickly with the media when he is displeased, perhaps going back to his early days as a pro when he was unkindly nicknamed “Nick Foldo” for collapsing in the 1983 Open Championship and 1984 Masters. Yet here he was, laughing and joking with us, and even picking up my copy of Great Golf Magazine to poke gentle fun at one item that caught his eye. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony a little earlier, he had been playfully bantering with his “guard of honour” – six ladies wearing vivid blue ao dai tunics, Vietnam’s traditional dress – before entertaining the invited guests with a short game and bunker master class, again totally at ease.
CENTRAL VIETNAM COAST. Was it being with family members in such a beautiful tropical oceanside setting that had mellowed England’s six-time major champion and former world number one? Perhaps the always-happy locals? Or maybe it was the fact that, even with courses bearing his stamp in 20 countries around the world, he has finally come of age as a great golf course designer – and was comfortable in the knowledge that his latest creation, at the heart of a sumptuous resort tucked between a golden 3km beach and steep mountains swathed in jungle, is something rather special. At the press conference the next day, high up in the Saffron restaurant overlooking the resort and arcing beach, Sir Nick candidly admitted that when he designed his other Vietnam course, Ocean Dunes at Phan Thiet, in the mid-1990s, “I was a 30,000-foot architect,” inferring that he spent most of his time drawing courses up while travelling and rarely visited them. “These days I’m much more hands on,” he quickly countered, adding, “I hope this course will be a good calling card.” He needn’t worry. Laguna Lang Co is not just a good calling card; it is both a visual feast and a wonderful test of golf in what has become this emerging golfing nation’s premier golf heartland, the Central Vietnam Coast.
JUNGLE. Laguna Lang Co is the newest of three top-flight courses in and around Danang, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city. Its arrival follows the opening of the Montgomerie Links Vietnam, by Colin Montgomerie, and the Greg Norman-designed Danang Golf Club, respectively built in 2009 and 2010. It forms part of the 940-acre Laguna Lang Co integrated resort complex that also includes a Banyan Tree resort with 49 villas and a 229-room Angsana hotel, luxury properties that boast both spas and a range of dining experiences. According to Sir Nick, the 6,958-yard, Par-71 course is unique in Vietnam because it incorporates six environments: sand “blow-outs”, rice paddy fields, beach, river, jungle and exposed rock outcrops. The rocks feature most prominently on the par-3 11th hole, Sir Nick’s favourite, and were only discovered, he told us, when he and his team were hacking back the jungle growth with machetes to map out the site.
FEMALE CADDIES. The course changes character repeatedly as the holes meander through the different environments, all the while impressing that it could only be in Vietnam, particularly while standing on a tee or green in the midst of paddies. That feeling is enhanced by the sight of the female ground staff tending to the fairways by hand on their haunches and the uniformed female caddies with their traditional conical hats. They and the other resort workers are drawn from nearby communities such as the pretty fishing village of Lang Co, which can be visited on an après-golf tour and which was the finishing point for a tortuous moped expedition over the jungle-clad mountains by Top Gear’s adventurous presenters. We had made the hour-long journey from Danang to Laguna Lang Co resort through the very heart of the mountains via the 6.3km Hai Van tunnel, South-East Asia’s longest. The mountains have been emulated by Sir Nick on his golf course, both in the severe slopes of the greens (I was lucky to escape with a four-putt double bogey on one par-3 hole during the pre-opening tournament after hitting the green with my tee shot but finding a chasm between my ball and the hole) and the “chocolate drops” that decorae the par-3 5th hole. They are a series of mounds mirroring the mountain peak behind the green.
BUNKERS. The other two courses are just south of Danang. On the way, we passed a stark reminder of Vietnam’s tragic and violent past: concrete bunkers that once housed warplanes and helicopters at the US air base by today’s airport. The 16th parallel that divided South Vietnam from the Communist North lies close to Danang, and its Red Beach was where American marines first landed in March, 1965 at the beginning of the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese, unsurprisingly, call it the American War). Bunkers and caves built by former colonial masters, the French, also riddle the Marble Mountains and were where the Viet Cong holed up during the war. Today, the mountains stand opposite the five-star Hyatt Regency Danang and the grottoes house Buddhist shrines and souvenir sellers seeking to ambush tourists. It is bunkers of a different sort that this beguiling part of Vietnam is becoming known for now. They are a key feature of Norman’s links-like Danang Golf Club, which is laid out on coastal sand dunes and features large waste sand and scrub areas as well as contoured bunkers.
FISHING BOATS. At 7,190 yards, it is the longest of the area’s courses and is gently contoured. The main coast road splits most of the course from a three-hole loop that heads out to the East Sea, culminating in the signature par-3 16th hole, where you tee off directly towards the ocean with the raised green framed by the distant Cham Islands. Fishing boats chug past as you putt out on the green. Stay on-site in a villa alongside one of the ocean loop holes and you are picked up by buggy and taken to the clubhouse where you are met by the smiling caddies. Breakfast and dinner is right on the beach at the White Caps Bistro restaurant. Head to the beach early in the morning before breakfast to capture the hypnotic sight and sound of the high-prowed fishing boats, circling lazily just offshore while the fishermen cast their nets and haul in their catch with the sun glinting like gold off the wave crests.
MATURE FEEL. Despite being less than five years old, Montgomerie Links Vietnam has a mature and established feel. There are far more elevations than its near neighbours and it also features several water hazards, indigenous vegetation and large but well-protected greens, besides wind-blown sand dunes that add a linksy element. The Marble Mountains can be seen from several parts of the course. The par-5 12th is a beauty that has been described as the best par-5 hole in Vietnam. It plays uphill towards the modernist clubhouse on a fairway pock-marked with circular bunkers that in times past might have been mistaken for bomb craters. Find yourself up against the lip of one and it could blow your score away. The trio of courses – now marketed with leading area resorts and hotels under the collective brand of Golf Coast Vietnam – are a match for anywhere else in Asia and underline why Vietnam won the Asia and Australasia Golf Destination of the Year crown for 2013 in the prestigious IAGTO Awards.
MASTER PLAN. The country now has just over 30 courses, with the master plan calling for 90 by 2020. Its other courses are mostly clustered around the gateway cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was known, so it is possible to combine areas for a twin or multi-centre golfing holiday. However, the Danang area has more than enough to keep both avid golfers and their non-golfing partners happy. The delightful ancient port of Hoi An is close to both the Montgomerie Links and Danang Golf Club courses and can be reached by taxi or on a rented bicycle, cycling through timeless rice paddy scenery and visiting a pottery village on the way. It is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region, the others being one-time Vietnamese capital Hue 70 minutes north of Laguna Lang Co and the jungle temple complex at My Son, 55km inland from Hoi An. Boat trips head out to the Cham Islands.
COLOURFUL OLD QUARTER. Although something of a tourist trap, Hoi An is well worth a half-day or even longer to explore. Go in the morning and avoid the crowds that throng the narrow streets of its colourful Old Quarter later in the day, allowing you to explore attractions such as its ornate Japanese Covered Bridge and temples, and browse the many art galleries, art shops and clothing shops without being jostled. Pack light for your trip to allow space for the bargains you will undoubtedly want to bring back. Hoi An is famed for its tailors, and you can get a suit hand-made in a matter of days from just over £50, and shoes made to match from around £25. You can even buy a model galleon. When you are all shopped out, find a waterside bar or restaurant to people-watch over a beer or two, and tuck into a local dish. Among them is Mango Mango, opposite the Japanese Bridge and run by celebrity chef Duc Tran. Vietnam’s history and culture has been shaped over millennia by the legacy of rule by the Chinese, French and Japanese. Its food is an East meets West fusion, exemplified in its most famous dish, pho, which is a beef noodle broth with charred onions added for flavouring and colour. You can also enrol in a cooking class at some restaurants if you want to try your hand at making local food.
MOPEDS AND SCOOTERS. Beware the fruit sellers, however. They beguile with their disarming smiles, asking you to buy their wares if you take a picture of them. But with an exchange rate of almost 35,000 Vietnamese dong to £1, it is easy to get confused and you can end up unwittingly paying as much as £10 for a bunch of overripe bananas and a sliced mango…as I did. You will also find yourself fending off guides trying to entice you on boat, bicycle, trishaw or moped tours – but all done with a friendly smile. Take care crossing the frenetic streets and roads, both in Hoi An and in Danang. They are awash with a sea of mopeds, scooters, motorbikes and bicycles that seem to bear down on you from all directions, many of them carrying entire families clinging to the rider. Keep walking and you find the two-wheeled sea miraculously parts, but hesitate at your peril. It may be a long way to travel, but Vietnam does not disappoint, combining some of the best aspects of neighbouring Thailand and China and with gracious, affable people who give the country a sense of serenity, despite its dark past.They even got Sir Nick Faldo to smile.
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamair.co.uk) flies direct from London Gatwick to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, operating onward flights to Danang from both. Return fares start at £775.
WHEN TO GO
Danang has a tropical monsoon climate. Best time is during the dry season, from March to September, when temperatures typically top 30ºC. The wet season is October to February with the wettest months October and November. Temperatures are a few degrees lower
Montgomerie Links Vietnam
Green fee: £42-£64 including mandatory caddie
Banyan Tree Lang Co and Angsana Lang Co
Both part of the Laguna Lang Co resort, the Banyan offers villas with pools while the Angsana hotel exudes Asian chic.
The Ocean Villas
Part of Danang Beach Resort, it offers spacious villas alongside the beach holes of Danang Golf Club.
Hyatt Regency Danang Resort and Spa
Luxury hotel on white-sand beach minutes from Danang Golf Club and the Montgomerie Links.