Golf was the game of empires, primarily the British, who established colonies – and courses – from India to Australia, South Africa to America. The French tried to keep up with their rivals across the Channel and although they could never quite match the Commonwealth for acquisitiveness, they did have some success. And sometimes they brought golf along, too, notably to a remote area in Vietnam.
About 200 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by almost everyone as Saigon), and a mile high in the Lang Bian Mountains, sits the city of Dalat, a vestige of France’s influence in Indochina. Getting to Dalat is a four-hour-plus drive over macadam sadly in need of repair, or a 45- minute flight followed by a half-hour ride up windy roads. Passing lush hillsides, small farms, and thick forests, the feeling is of climbing toward Shangri-La and not knowing what will be around the next bend.
Which must have been how French physicians felt in the 1890s when they chopped through the jungle and discovered a small village that soon became a weather station and sanatorium.
Within 20 years, Dalat was master-planned as a retreat for colonists escaping the heat of the lowland cities. In the centre was Le Grand Lac, a man-made lake shaped like a crescent and ringed by broad boulevards for strolling, Parisian-style. On either side of the lake was a small hill, one crowned with the grand Lang-Biang Hotel, the other a park. The bourgeoisie added cafes, an Art Deco train station, a Catholic church, and peaked-roof villas.
Today Dalat is a city of 200,000 that still caters to visitors, mostly honeymooners and those looking for a few days of cool breezes, art galleries, pagodas, and promenades. Sideby- side with the French remnants – including a miniature Eiffel Tower – a modern sprawl of shops, government buildings, and motorbikes gives the city an eclectic charm.
The lake has been renamed Xuan Huong after a 17th-century Vietnamese poet, and the old hotel is now the Sofitel Dalat Palace. As for the park, it became a golf course – at one time, one of the world’s best.
The Dalat Palace Golf Course (owned, since the early ‘90s, by the same people who own the hotel) is unlike any in the country. Granted, there are fewer than 20 courses in Vietnam, but this one is no less special. Nearly all the others are built in the lowlands or by the sea, which means they are relatively flat; Dalat rolls over naturally hilly terrain. Thanks to the cool, mountain climate, the course is lush with New England-like bentgrass on the greens, fairways, and tees, a far cry from the sparse and fickle hot-weather grasses found throughout Southeast Asia. But best of all, Dalat is an old-school challenge, demanding discipline rather than distance.
Beginning at the circa 1945, villa-style clubhouse, the front nine hugs the rolling hills, slowly descending toward two meandering lakes that figure on 10 of the 18 holes.
The first holes are expansive but demand blind approach shots, the result of tracing the hills. Down in the valley waits the first water hazard and a pleasant walk in the park among tall casuarina pines suddenly becomes archery as the fairways pucker.
The orientation of the holes makes a subtle shift on the back, with play up and down, rather than along, the mounds; the elevation changes are often dramatic, affecting club selection both off the tee and to raised and dropped greens. And rather than edging the fairways, the lakes now must be carried on five of the back-nine holes. But the water’s location varies: On some holes, it must be carried off the tee; on others, it interferes with the second shot and, following a poor drive, could force a lay-up. On the 16th, a slightly errant tee shot might find the lake, which squeezes in from the right side and also fronts the green. The final hole is the longest, a par-five that climbs steadily uphill to the green.
Somewhere during the long walk home, the thin air takes its toll and it is the hearty golfer who doesn’t walk off after the final putt gasping for air. (Luckily, it’s a very short walk into an open-air dining area that serves surprisingly good food from the clubhouse kitchen.)
Courses this strong don’t simply come out of the ground, but the provenance of golf on Doi Cu Hill is a pastiche. There may have been eight (or maybe it was nine) holes as early as 1916. An 18-hole layout was, for many years, attributed to Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam: There’s no doubt that Bao Dai, who was raised and educated in France, loved his golf; a set of his clubs is on display in his Art Nouveau-style summer palace, one of many kitschy structures in town. But the puppet emperor didn’t return home until 1932, by which time the course already existed.
It was almost certainly the work of Harry S. Colt and Charles H. Alison. Among the leading golf architects of the era – their work includes Wentworth, Royal Portrush and Century and Old Oaks in New York – it is unlikely that either Englishman ever went to Indochina, working instead from topographic maps or aerial photographs.
No matter how they designed it, the course was a hit. In 1939, the National Golf Review compiled a list of the 100 finest courses in the world. Its panel included many of the game’s leading lights – among them Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, and Walter Hagen – who voted the Old Course at St. Andrews on top, followed by Cypress Point and Pine Valley. “Ville de Delat, Indo China” came in 94th, placing ahead of Scotland’s Turnberry and immediately behind Bermuda’s Mid-Ocean Club.
The layout today seems very Colt-ish: The opening holes are not difficult, the land determines the design, and the rules are meant to be broken: Dalat has three parthrees and one par-five on the front, three fives and one three on the back. Most importantly, the emphasis is on strategy and accuracy and, when the round is over, one doesn’t so much remember individual holes as the flow of the whole.
But while the holes in the northern half of the park (roughly 1-7, 17, and 18) are from the 1930s, the other nine are of more recent vintage. The course lay abandoned during World War Two until a local doctor brought it back to life in the late ‘50s, uncovering the Colt holes we play today. In 1966, with the “American War” in full swing, Billy Casper – who would win the U.S. Open a few months later – played an exhibition: There was no grass on the greens, which instead were a mix of sand and motor oil, but Casper recalled 40 years later that “Dalat was a very special place.”
From the end of the war until the early ‘90s, the course again grew wild. Then Vietnam opened its doors to foreign investment, an American company came in, and, with the government’s help, restored the old nine and built nine new holes that keep the spirit of the original. The result may be a mongrel, but the region’s top golf magazine, Asian Golf Monthly, recently named Dalat one of the ten best courses in Asia.
For years, there have been plans to build a new clubhouse on the other side of the course, in the middle of the current back nine, which would necessitate renumbering the holes. The resulting routing would be better, mixing up those holes that play perpendicular to the slopes with those that play parallel. Access to the driving range would be simpler, and the rundown clubhouse would be replaced by something newer and bigger and the opening hole wouldn’t be a par-three.
No one will be surprised if this happens because the Dalat golf course, like the city that surrounds it, is used to change.
GOLDEN TRIANGLE: THREE MORE VIETNAMESE DELICACIES
Even though the Scepter’d Isle never established a political foothold in Vietnam, its golf influence has been strong. Besides the Dalat course – designed by Englishmen Colt and Alison – two of the country’s newest and best layouts also have British parentage, while the third is from an Aussie.
Nick Faldo and his prolific team are responsible for the links-style Ocean Dunes in Phan Thiet, a rollicking beach town about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City. The course may be flat but it’s also deceivingly strategic (and difficult) thanks to the ever-present wind, numerous water hazards, oddly shaped bunkers with steep sides, and angled fairways. Tall pines frame some holes, notably the par-three ninth that plays toward – and seems to fall into – the ocean. The small restaurant in the clubhouse is also a surprise, serving local fare as well as American hamburgers and the country’s best Mexican food.
Further up the coast near Danang, Colin Montgomerie created what his people have labelled a “modern links”: Located across the highway from the ocean, it is too lush to be considered authentically seaside. Still, Montgomerie Links raises the bar for course conditioning and amenities (including a terrific practice range) in this corner of the world.
Again, water and sand are in ample supply as holes tumble up and down dunes, through scrubby bushes, and along rice paddies. Some greens allow classic run-up approaches while others can only be reached from the air; the totality is hard to characterize, yet Monty certainly has made an impression. And when in the neighborhood, visit nearby Hoi An: Once an old market city where many cultures crossed and combined centuries ago, its Old Town is a notto- be-missed warren of cobble-stoned streets, eclectic architecture, handicraft museums, and made-to-order tailor shops.
Also in the neighborhood, check out the new kid on the block, Danang Golf Club, designed by Greg Norman and opened just a few months ago. This is being called the first true links in Southeast Asia, built on 370 acres of dunescape edging the East Sea, with huge areas of exposed sand; fairways that play hard, run fast, then turn wild at the edges; unkempt waste areas; and roller-coaster undulations. Early reports have compared the rugged look to Pine Valley and the sand belt courses of Norman’s native Australia. No surprise, then, to discover that the course was recently voted the Best New Course in Asia.
VIETNAM FACT FILE
GETTING THERE From London Numerous airlines can get you to Vietnam, but there are no direct flights. British Airlines and Cathay Pacific go through Hong Kong. Singapore Airlines through Singapore; Malaysia Air through Kuala Lampur. If you can get to Hong Kong, there are regular flights during the day. Dalat is about 200 miles from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but given the poor state of the roads, flying is the smart way to go. Flights on Vietnam Airlines are inexpensive and quick, about 45 minutes; there are two flights a day on weekdays, one on weekend days.
WHEN TO GO The rainy season is May through early November, so going in winter and early spring is best. Rainy season is very wet and very hot. At 5,000 feet, Dalat is considerably cooler, but will still be wet as it is close to jungle up there.
CURRENCY The Vietnamese dong (yes, that’s right, dong) is currently about 33,558 to the pound. So when you go to the ATM or the bank to transfer money, don’t be surprised to be getting a few million dong at once. Luckily the bills are big, but still; paying a few hundred thousand dong for a simple meal is amusing.
Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel: www.sofitel.com
For Ana Mandara Resort: www.anamandararesortdalat.com
Other golf courses: Danang / dananggolfclub.com Montgomerie Links / montgomerielinks.com Ocean Dunes: oceandunesgolf.vn
General sites: The unofficial www.guidevietnam.com has good, basic information with suggestions and links for tours and more in and around Dalat.