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 Health-Care 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."