Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Napalm Be Gone

Posted on 08. Sep, 2013 by in Golf


That boom you hear in Vietnam is an explosion of golf courses

DALAT, Vietnam

My favorite golf course in Vietnam owes its existence to a puppet king, a French architect who restored Roman ruins, and a rich American who craved virgins.

* * *

I spent part of the Vietnam War period protesting it, along with my fellow high-minded and moderately-spoiled American university-student friends.  Then, after we got rid of Lyndon Johnson only to watch Bobby Kennedy get shot and Richard Nixon elected, I entered the United States Peace Corps, which at that time offered a deferment to the conflict we considered unjust and “not our problem”.

I was assigned to Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.  Just a short hop across the South China Sea from Vietnam, as it turned out.

During those heady, full-of-life days I never thought that I would eventually love the sport of golf or go to Vietnam to play it.

But golf in Vietnam is booming, and it has become a travel-writer’s cliché to point out the irony that the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which Americans tried so hard to napalm into oblivion (the Vietnamese refer to the conflict as the “American War”), has now been renamed the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail and features courses which would not be out of place in such high-ticket golf destinations as Hawaii, Spain or nearby Thailand.

According to Nguyen Ngoc Chu, general secretary of the fledgling Vietnam Golf Association, Vietnam currently has 17 golf courses.  But 30 more courses are under construction in Vietnam, he says, while more than 50 additional are in the planning stages.  That would give the communist country some 100 courses, about half the number of Asian golf-behemoths like Thailand  and  Indonesia.

Recognizing this growth and the quality of the courses, at their December 2007 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators designated Vietnam as the “undiscovered golf destination of the year”.

* * *

The Dalat Palace Golf Club seems to be everyone’s favorite course in Vietnam. Partly it’s the intelligent and challenging layout, partly the mature vegetation, partly the numerous hills and lakes. But what is truly delightful is that Dalat,
altitude 1,500 meters, is a city of eternal spring, making it a welcome retreat to the pollution and hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

* * *

The golf course at Dalat played a key role in Vietnam’s golf history, involving Bao Dai, the last of the Nuyen kings and French architect Ernest Hébrard.  French-educated Bao Dai, widely seen as being a puppet ruler serving French, and later Japanese, interests, encouraged construction of the course.

M. Hébrard, who redesigned the Greek city of Thessaloniki, Greece, after the Great Fire of 1917, upgraded Casablanca and restored Diocletian’s palace at Split in Croatia, was assigned to design Dalat town.  In 1922 he allotted space on Doi
Cu Hill for a golf course.

Due to the rigors of World War II and the burgeoning Vietnamese independence movement, by the time of Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945 the course at Dalat was abandoned.  Jim Sullivan of Mandarin Media, who helped coin the phrase Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, notes that when local golfer Dao Huy Hach wanted to revive the course in the late 1950s, “he had to rely on aerial photos to pick out the putting surfaces” amidst the overgrown vegetation.

* * *

What’s the reason for Vietnam’s golf boom?

Vu Van Yen, deputy editor of Vietnam Golf magazine, feels that a strong economy, growing at a rate of eight percent annually and aided by Vietnam’s entrance to the World Trade Organization, is a major locomotive of the golf boom.  She estimates that the number of golfers in Vietnam is growing at 15%-20% a year.

The tourism numbers are also robust.  Some 4.4 million international visitors came to the country in 2007, an increase of 16 percent -18 percent over 2006 according to the Vietnam Trade Information Center.  By 2010, Vietnam is expected to host six million international visitors generating some $4 billion in total incoming tourism receipts.  Vietnam also aims to attract US$5.5 billion in foreign direct investment for travel industry development during this period, according to EuroMonitor International, which publishes market intelligence on a variety of industries.  The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) predicts that Vietnam will be among the top ten tourist destinations in the world by 2016.


But will Vietnam face a golf course bubble?

Absolutely  not, says Nguyen Ngoc Chu, whose Vietnam Golf Association is linked to the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.  “Germany, with a similar area and population to Vietnam, has 656 golf courses,” Mr. Chu notes. “We now have 8,000 Vietnamese golfers and that number is growing — and it’s still early days.”

* * *

A friend and I were drinking in Larry’s Bar at the elegant Dalat Palace Hotel and I asked who the “Larry” was who gave the pub its name.

Turns out that a man named Larry Hillblom spent $40 milion to restore the Dalat Palace Hotel and the Dalat Palace Golf Course – he could be considered the financial godfather of the current Vietnamese golf boom.

In the annals of rogues, scoundrels and guys whose life story would make a terrific Coen brothers movie, Larry Hillblom’s true story is better than fiction.

Mr. Hillblom was a millionaire many times over – he founded and was the “H” in the courier and air freight company DHL. Besides golf he had another passion – he enjoyed deflowering young women, paying big money to madams in Vietnam, the Philippines and Micronesia for certified virgins.

When Hillblom died numerous women who said they bore children by Hillblom consulted their lawyers and made a claim for his estate.

These women and children faced two obstacles —  Mr. Hillblom did not acknowledge the illegitimate children in his will, and he disappeared in a plane crash leaving behind no DNA – rather surreally his home and office in Saipan, Micronesia had been wiped clean of anything — a piece of hair, sweat on a sheet, a dirty Q-tip — that could have been used to prove paternity.  The sinks had been scrubbed with muriatic acid, and toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes and clothes were found buried in the backyard, making them useless for DNA testing.

Considerable money was at stake.  Eventually a judge ordered Hillblom’s brother and mother to submit to genetic testing.  After a lengthy court battle four children from the Philippines, Vietnam and Micronesia were awarded $90 million apiece.


* * * * *

 Golf was put on hold during the various Vietnam wars.

Nevertheless American golfer Billy Casper, in Vietnam on a USO tour to bolster troop morale, played a round in Dalat with golfer Dao Huy Hach in 1966, several months before Casper beat Arnold Palmer to win that year’s U.S.
Open.  “The course looked like it was just carved out of the dirt,” Mr. Casper said.

* * *

Golf hasn’t had smooth sailing in this Communist country, which only in the last decade or
so has embraced a capitalistic surge.

Mr. Chu notes that golf had to receive an official Communist Party endorsement that playing a game so closely associated with capitalism and colonialism was “ok”.  Because teachers in Vietnam only earn about $150 a month, and the prime minister’s salary is just $300 a month, Mr. Chu notes, golf was seen as a rich man’s pastime and had to be repositioned as being socially-acceptable.

The breakthrough came in the early 1990s, according to Mr. Chu, when former Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam attended a regional meeting and felt isolated when the other diplomats went off to play golf.  Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then Malaysia’s foreign minister (and later Malaysia’s prime minister), took Mr. Cam aside and encouraged him to learn to speak English and to play golf.

Mr. Cam returned to Hanoi and promoted golf among his colleagues.  He had to overcome resistance, Mr. Chu notes, including a fear that golf courses will “take land from the people”.  (In fact, one of the dark sides to the current Vietnam golf boom is that land grabs have occurred in which the local government gives the green light for private golf developers to buy land from villagers, often at prices favorable to the developers.) Foreign Minister Cam helped to set up an informal golf academy for high-level government officials. Mr. Cam took Mr. Badawi’s advice to heart; he now speaks English, is honorary president of the Vietnam Golf Association, and plays golf off an 18 handicap.

Attractive golf courses can be found throughout the country, a long, skinny nation (shaped like a dragon, the Vietnamese like to say), which covers a latitude shift greater than that of Bangkok to Singapore.  Many new layouts, several involving superstar architects like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, are on the way.  With such a variety I asked Mr. Chu which course is the best.  Mr. Chu, a mathematician with a philosopher’s bent and a diplomat’s smile replied:  “A
golf course is like a lady. Each one is beautiful in her own way.”

* * *

It’s a clichéd truism that military bunkers in Vietnam have been replaced by the less-martial golfing variety. Nevertheless, this concept is particularly valid in the region of China Beach, near Danang, in the center of the country. The 30-kilometer long strip of white sand was initially a major Vietcong redoubt and later a much-appreciated R&R site for American GIs – during the war U.S. soldiers near Danang created a small golf course using C-ration cans as cups and red sand for greens.

Vietnam vets will recall that China Beach isn’t far from the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe where, on March 16, 1968, the American 11th Brigade, following General William Westmoreland’s strategy of “flushing out” the Vietcong, massacred 504 Vietnamese civilians during a four-hour killing spree.

The Vietnamese are nothing if not pragmatic.  Today, My Lai and My Khe are located near two of the country’s most prestigious courses – the Colin Montgomerie-designed Montgomerie Links and the Greg Norman-designed Danang Golf
Club.  Just as the Vietnamese have embraced “Market-Leninism”, they seem rather unemotional about the construction of a major resort near a killing field that was once in the heartland of Vietcong territory.  Pham Thanh Cong, 50, My Lai museum director, was one of only five survivors of the My Lai massacre — he survived by hiding under the corpses of his mothers, sisters and seven-year-old brother, according to James Pringle of the International Herald Tribune. “Yes, we are happy at the prospect of more foreigners coming,” Mr Pham, is reported as saying. “We want them to see the tragedy that occurred, but also to enjoy themselves in Vietnam. New development creates employment, and helps improve peoples’ lives.”


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