Road Trip - Vietnam
Intriguing Adventure in an Exotic Land


Story by: Bill Nestor

It had been 40 years since I had watched Country Joe & The Fish perform their Vietnam Song at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, while expecting my invitation from Uncle Sam any day. Vietnam was much on my mind then, as it was on this trip while exploring the country’s cities, villages, people and golf. Much has happened since 1975, the end of the American War--as it is still referred to in Vietnam. The primarily agrarian society of 87 million continues to emerge, evolve and now embraces tourism as an important facet of its economic future.

Ho Chi Minh City

Traveling in Vietnam was a sultry undertaking beyond the temperature and humidity. Salient customs and norms are noticeably different, colorful and mysterious. There are beautiful beaches, resorts, neighborhoods and many areas in cities and the countryside that have been cleaned up, transformed and developed. New construction has resulted in attractive and chic lodging, shopping, dining and many comforts that tourists and golfers can appreciate. There are also historic and cultural sites of great interest and unique perspective. The infrastructure is not yet fully extended and pollution concerns, magnified by sheer numbers, need to be worked out.

Getting around isn’t always the simplest of tasks. Plane, train, and bus transportation are the most efficient modes of traveling longer distances within the country, with taxis being best in cities. Renting a car also requires hiring a driver. Even an express bus ride to a distant town, although a wonderful escapade, was an ordeal. Using a travel agent helps but may add unwanted stops and additional dong ($1 US dollar was worth 17,500 Vietnamese dong during my visit). In population centers English is more common, but a willing translator outside the city or away from resorts and attractions was a problem.
 
Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail
There are some 30 golf courses in Vietnam with multiple layouts at a few of the locations. www.worldgolf.com/courses/vietnam
 
Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, established in 2007, is a collection of nine courses at six locations from Hanoi in the North to Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) in the South. It boasts a shared common denominator, a level of quality with course conditions and facilities that are top notch; it is a significant example of the continuing evolution of Vietnam’s tourism.
 
The park-like properties I experienced are peaceful and immaculately landscaped. Access along tree-lined paved roads and service from well-groomed and attired staff is a welcoming fit for the upscale golf traveler. The trail offers some world-class layouts in a variety of settings—mountain, valley, coastal, city and town—including some impeccable properties with luxury lodging and prices to match.   www.hochiminhgolftrail.com
 
Dalat Palace Golf Club in Veitnam
Dalat Palace Golf Club was originally established in 1922 but not built or played until the early 30’s. The classic 7,000-yard routing takes advantage of the site’s undulating terrain in the cooler climate of the central mountains, which reach 5,000 feet. Many consider Dalat the best golf course in Vietnam.
 
One of the well-schooled local lady caddies who make the hot and muggy trek a cheery affair
The 36-hole Vietnam Golf & Country Club near Ho Chi Minh City has 1,000 members and 110,000 annual rounds with excellent conditions and facilities plus, the well-schooled local lady caddies who make the hot and muggy trek a cheery affair. Covered from head to toe helps them maintain a prized pale complexion.
 
Long Thanh Golf Club & Residences, also close to Ho Chi Minh City, offers two superbly landscaped eighteens in an idyllic rural tropical setting. The hilltop course offers spectacular vistas while the lower course presents a challenging routing with ponds and water hazards.   
 
The Ocean Dunes Golf Club is a Nick Faldo-designed tropical links-style course on a stunning, windswept sandy shoreline of the East Sea (in most of Asia it is still the South China Sea). The setting lends itself to relaxing and challenging days on the course and comfortable nights at the adjacent four-star beachfront Hotel Novatel Phan Thiet.
 
Kings’ Island Golf Club, Hanoi’s oldest, provides two eighteens on a chain of lakes. The Lakeside 18 runs along the shores and inlets while the lengthy Mountainview course offers a competitive adventure in addition to striking natural beauty. The land is widely considered some of the most diverse playing ground in Southeast Asia.
 
Montgomerie Links Hole #12
Montgomerie Links, a recent addition to the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, was completed last year. The Colin Montgomerie design incorporates features typically found on links courses in the European Tour player’s Scottish homeland. The Central Coast region location with the Marble Mountains and East Sea frequently contributes blowing windy conditions. An added attraction is its proximity to the Nam Hai Resort--a model of elegance, style, service, and ambiance. 
 
New courses will be added to Vietnam’s golf portfolio. The Greg Norman designed Dunes Course at the Danang Golf Resort on China Beach is scheduled to open this spring next to Montgomerie Links. One-hour north, a new Nick Faldo course will break ground this year. The addition of these three to the central coast locality will create an attractive regional golf destination.  
 
Essential equipment for playing golf in Vietnam is moisture-wicking clothing such as Antigua’s Desert Dry Extra-Lite that expels perspiration and optimizes comfort.
 
Journey In Country: Paradise Lost and Found
The three million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, one for every two people, appear to have a life of their own.
My travel was exclusively in South Vietnam, where stifling weather, a crush of humanity and crossing streets were ever-present challenges.  Ho Chi Minh City drivers are notorious and seemingly oblivious to traffic regulations. Motorbikes fill the roadways; backups at red lights are often 15 wide and 50 deep with three or more passengers or boxes piled high behind some operators. The three million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, one for every two people, appear to have a life of their own. A green light initiates a free for all. Cars, trucks and motorbikes cut in front of one another, jockeying for position with no apparent order or yielding.
 
An excursion deep into the Mekong Delta toward the Cambodian border took me on a memorable odyssey.  Traveling six plus hours by bus filled with non-English speaking riders, unsure if I was on the right bus or route could have been a fretful episode. But the time spent observing the people and sights along the road allowed for uninterrupted cultural immersion.   Nearing Can Tho, the road dead-ended at a river and loaded onto a ferryboat filled with people, cars, trucks and of course more motorbikes. As the boat left abruptly from the dock it appeared to be on a heading with no direction except to bounce off the other two-dozen or so ferries clogging the waterway.
 
On the other side of the Hau River, I found the Victoria Can Tho Resort with its exotically beautiful French colonial hotel.   The open-air reception area, adjacent pool, lounge and dining areas are adorned with richly finished natural wood accents and decorative tile work. A young and beautiful welcoming staff in traditional colorful side-slit dresses hospitably offered cool juice and an iced towel--a fitting introduction to a truly cathartic respite at this oasis far from the maddening crowd of Saigon and a long day’s travel. The expansive river view suite reflected the upscale nature of Victoria’s quality presentation and amenities, all tastefully done-- classic bar, fine dining, Cuban cigars, spa, cooking classes and breakfast cruise on the Lady Hau, a converted rice barge, to the Cai Rang floating market.
 
The Floating Market is commomplace in Vietnam
 
While dining on the lantern-lit patio, beneath a thatched ceiling and moonlit sky amid warm tropical air mitigated by ceiling fans and a gentle breeze, I listened to the night boats drifting up and down the river. My reflections drifted as well, back to a time when my top down Alfa inched slowly in heavy traffic near the entrance to Max Yasgur's farm, site of the Woodstock festival. My how the years have changed me and in many ways not changed me at all. www.victoriahotels-asia.com/eng/hotels-in-vietnam/can-tho-resort
 
The people of Vietnam are very comfortable being physically close, whether it’s in an elevator, sharing a dining table or on a bus. Touching bodies sit or stand against one another free of inhibition--leaning against me, laying a hand over my leg or resting a head on my shoulder. Perhaps it’s the nature of this crowded society or merely a cultural phenomenon. 
 
An Indoor Market in Vietnam
As it turned out, my view and impressions were based on a limited exposure to a relatively small geographical region and for a short restricted period of time. But I could not help but observe the dichotomy that exists in Vietnam. Many places were hot, crowded and dirty, likely the result of 43% of the population being in this part of the country. Yet there are also resort havens--clean, well-kept islands of civility with well-appointed facilities, exceptionally maintained golf courses and fashionably dressed and manicured staff providing polite service, iced beverages and sumptuous cuisine.
 
Resort beaches and upscale river hotel docksides were also well kept.  Many other areas I experienced were not. It is evident that much effort has been put into some locales, like Ho Chi Minh City. There are well-kept and upscale restaurants, neighborhoods, markets, department stores, historic sites (the restored post office, Tunnels of Cu Chi, the Caravelle Hotel (www.caravellehotel.com), War Remembrance and other museums), first-rate hotels and other examples of Vietnam’s emerging contemporary society. 
 
The Lang Thanh Golf Club, Course Two
While in Ho Chi Minh City I stayed in a middle class fashionable ex-pat suburb-like neighborhood with dining and drinking establishments just outside the gated residential area. It was safe, clean and new with spacious multi-level housing. Bars and eateries were pricey catering primarily to Australian and British patrons. 
 
Outside the city along the roadside was a different picture. Shanty strip malls run contiguously for miles. At first they appeared to be vacant, unused and dilapidated empty buildings. But they are simply rundown structures, unkempt and dirty but functioning shops selling wares and plying trades. There are also crudely built river and canal front housing sharing waterways with garbage and sewage. Canal travel in a wooden sampan, with its 12-15 foot long shafted outboard engine projecting on a 45º angle, required numerous stops to untangle plastic, trash and debris caught in the propeller.
 

Montgomerie Links Clubhouse and 10th hole tee box

It’s very apparent that much has been accomplished to bring Vietnam into the 21st century and provide a balanced socio-economic climate that betters the health and welfare of its people. But I think no one denies there remains much more to do.   Foreign investment in tourism-related projects--golf courses, resorts, spas, hotels, and vacation residences—is an integral part of the plan to create jobs, support economic growth and perpetuate the travel industry. Sustainable development is an expressed primary consideration in the design and operation of many of the projects, to insure a balance between environmental, social and economic factors.
 
Will Vietnam be able to effectively achieve its expressed broad range goals, or merely line the pockets of the wealthy already in power? Only time will tell.
 
Bill Nestor writes about golf, travel and lifestyle from his home in Vermont.