Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in South-East Asia. Its people are warm and welcoming, its history is fascinating, its food is epic and the landscapes are simply stunning. It is also one of the fastest-growing golf markets in the world.
The seatbelt signs were flashing like strobe lights as air hostesses rushed to secure food and beverage carts while the plane weaved its way through heavy, rain-filled clouds. Some passengers were noticeably nervous … But Beryl from Ballarat appeared to be having the time of her life – and she continued to tell this weary writer all about her first trip to Vietnam.
To be fair to Beryl and her husband Don, who had been asleep against the window of the 787 Dreamliner since we boarded, their week abroad did sound as though it had been rather special – and it had been capped by an interesting visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
As it turned out, the man sleeping through the turbulence had been one of the 60,000 Australians to serve in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. His health had been deteriorating since his 80th birthday, so he wanted to show his wife of nearly 50 years where he had spent his early adulthood while he was still able to do so.
Beryl was an excellent storyteller … But I had been listening to her for well over an hour and I could no longer keep myself awake. After all, I had just experienced an exceptional week of my own, playing some of the finest golf courses in central Vietnam; one of the fastest-growing golf regions in South East Asia.
In fact, Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing golf markets in the world … According to the R&A’s latest Golf Around The World report, Vietnam currently has 78 golf courses with another 43 in various stages of development.
Our journey began 30 minutes south of Hoi An at the newly-opened Vinpearl Golf Nam Hoi An, which was completed in 2018 and is part of the adjoining five-star resort, featuring everything from tropical villas to theme parks and an on-site safari.
Designed by International Management Group (IMG) course architect Steve Shepherdson, Vinpearl is your quintessential resort course and caters for players of all abilities, providing five different teeing options. Its playing surfaces are already in superb condition – given it’s less than 12 months old – and it remains closed every Tuesday to allow grounds staff the freedom to complete any necessary maintenance work.
“According to the R&A’s latest Golf Around The World report, Vietnam currently has 78 golf courses with another 43 in various stages of development.”
The par-72, links-style layout stretches to 6,515 metres from the tips and features wide, strip-cut fairways, gently-rolling greens, white-sand bunkers and numerous water hazards dug into relatively flat terrain.
Put simply, Vinpearl, with its well-appointed clubhouse, friendly caddie service and grass-tee driving range, is doing exactly what it needs to do as one of the new kids on the block: It is providing visitors with terrific on-site facilities and 18 well-presented golf holes, some of which are truly memorable and deserve mentioning here.
The opening hole, which measures 369 metres from the tips, requires precision off the tee and is guarded by an intimidating waste bunker along its entire left flank. Should you manage to find the short grass with your drive, your next test will be to hit the slightly-elevated, kidney-shaped green and avoid the bunker to the right, which is all easier said than done of course – especially if you, like me, struggle to draw the ball.
Anyway. The best stretch of holes, for mine, begins at the par-5 7th.
The small putting surface of the 477-metre challenge is certainly reachable in two for
the longer hitters. But first, you will need to ensure your tee shot stays airborne over the 175-metre-long lake and avoids the two fairway traps and surrounding fir trees. Water, bunkers and shrubbery combine to bracket the lay-up area and tilted green, so the second shot becomes crucial in determining the score you will eventually pencil on your card.
Our group – which included the young, Sydney-based professional Andy Chu – was unanimous in saying this hole was one of the standouts for the entire trip. So, too, was the short one-shotter that followed.
The 144-metre par-3 8th presents an undulated green that is protected by two bunkers on either side. Hitting the large, paspalum putting surface shouldn’t prove too challenging – and you should be able to give yourself a decent look at birdie. But the sloping nature of the green could (and in our case, did) lead to its fair share of three-putts.
The outward nine concludes with an intimidating, 424-metre par-4, which demands a strong tee shot to be struck over water and between four fairway bunkers. One of the more difficult approach shots at Vinpearl then beckons, as the heavily-slanted green is adjacent to yet another lake … Par here would truly be an excellent score.
Before leaving Hoi An, you simply must head into the well-preserved Ancient Town, where you will discover iconic landmarks like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Precious Heritage Museum, which contains striking portraits of the ethnic tribes of Vietnam, captured by French photographer, Réhahn.
The award-winning Montgomerie Links, about 25 kilometres north of Vinpearl, was designed alongside the Vietnam East Sea by its Scottish namesake and opened in 2008 to immediate praise.
The World Golf Hall of Famer, who topped the European Tour Order of Merit eight times, has created one of the most-celebrated layouts in Asia. Its large greens, rippled fairways and wind-swept dunes effectively reflect the courses Montgomerie grew up on.
But this is Vietnam we’re talking about – where 2,500 millimetres of rain can fall per year – so it would obviously be difficult to build anything of note without lakes and streams, which are plotted cleverly throughout the routing. There are also more trees than you would perhaps expect to find on your typical links-like property.
The par-72 is 6,484 metres from the “Monty” tees. But, just like Vinpearl, it can be enjoyed by players of all skill levels, thanks to its four teeing options; the shortest of which reduces the course to 4,665 metres.
One of the standout holes at Montgomerie Links is undoubtedly the tricky par-3 5th. The 134-metre tee shot here is played directly over water to an expansive green defended by an impressive ‘Lion’s Mouth’ bunker.
The shrub and tree-covered dune behind the green shelters the prevailing headwind, so taking an extra club or two and knocking it down is the order of the day to entertain the idea of making par or better.
Another high-quality offering is the thought-provoking par-5 12th hole, which, at 482 metres, is a genuine three-shotter thanks to the 17 bunkers scattered cleverly throughout the trek. The tee shot here will need to carry the better part of 200 metres to clear the beginning of the lake, – which then proceeds to border the left portion of the fairway – and pull up before three hungry sand traps. From here, the conservative play is to lay up between another set of bunkers before approaching the elevated putting surface; going for the green in two would be an incredibly aggressive move, given the deep bunkers that await anything falling short.
Before I had rudely dozed off … Beryl had been talking about visiting Ba Na Hills, which is an old, French resort situated in the mountains about two hours’ drive inland from Montgomerie Links.
The hill station, now an amusement park run by Sun World, is 1,500 metres above sea level and is reached by travelling on the longest cable car system in the world. The eight-kilometre climb into the clouds is truly spectacular and features views over the 150-metre long Golden Bridge, which opened in 2018 and is supported by two giant stone hands.
My main reason for visiting, however, remained at the foothills of the mountains at the highly-acclaimed Ba Na Hills Golf Club.
Designed by Luke Donald, Ba Na Hills opened in 2016 and has since been named the best golf course in Asia two years running by the World Golf Awards. Not bad considering it remains the only Donald-designed track on the planet. What’s more, it can be enjoyed after dark, too, thanks to numerous floodlights placed strategically around the property.
The former World No.1, who partnered with IMG for the project, ensured the par-72 would provide an enjoyable and fair challenge to players of all abilities.
Framed by native forest, the undulating layout meanders its way around picturesque streams and lakes, while white-sand bunkers bracket striped couch fairways and smooth-rolling greens.
Guests deciding to play from the championship tees should do so knowing they will be taking on the longest course (7,184 metres) in Vietnam, something that is best exemplified by the monstrous 648-metre 5th hole.
The three-shotter, thankfully, begins from an elevated tee but your drive still needs to travel at least 220 metres to avoid a lengthy water hazard to land safely on an angled fairway, which then snakes its way on to an hourglass green.
The pick of the holes at Ba Na Hills is the 176-metre par-3 8th, with its impressive green complex framed beautifully by an inspiring mountainous backdrop. The tee shot needs to clear another lake and avoid five bunkers to find the large, tilted putting surface. Par will feel like an achievement here, despite being rated the fifth-easiest hole on the card.
Travel 30 minutes east from Ba Na Hills and you will reach the rapidly-developing coastal city of Da Nang, which is certainly worth visiting for the magnificent Dragon Bridge, which breaths fire and water at 9pm on Saturday and Sunday.
A further 60 minutes’ drive north is the Sir Nick Faldo-designed Laguna Golf Lang Co, which is nestled between the mountains of Bach Ma National Park and the pristine waters of Chan May Bay.
“Ba Na Hills opened in 2016 and has since been named the best golf course in Asia two years running …”
Laguna opened in 2012 and weaves its way through trees, over rice paddies, along the beach and around natural streams and rock formations. Its bunkers and waste areas are filled with golden sand and the routing requires shots to be shaped more dramatically than the aforementioned courses.
What Laguna does have in common with the other layouts, however, is its five sets of tees that accommodate all players. The par-71 starts at 4,790 metres and maxes out at 6,493 metres from the tips.
The penultimate hole of the outward nine received plenty of praise from our group and clearly left a lasting impression.
The par-3 8th is played uphill – over the stream that runs like an artery around the entire property – to an undulated green, which sits 148 metres away. Strong onshore winds tend to whip up from behind the putting surface here, meaning visitors will probably need long irons to give themselves the chance to make birdie.
Our final stop was on the outskirts of the wonderfully chaotic Ho Chi Minh City at the oldest golf course in the country: Vietnam Golf & Country Club.
This 36-hole complex features two good-quality golf courses, which are divided by mature palm trees and other native vegetation. Lee Trevino designed the newer East Course in 1997, while Taiwan’s Chen King Shih was the man behind the 25-year-old West Course.
We opted to play the original layout and were immediately impressed by the strategic nature of the tree-lined design.
“Laguna weaves its way through trees, over rice paddies, along the beach and around natural streams and rock formations.”
One of the highlights of the par-72 – apart from its night-golf capabilities, abundant birdlife and true-rolling Bermuda greens – comes midway through the round, at the par-4 11th.
The 397-metre task doglegs left and features an imposing palm tree in the middle of the fairway, something that should generate plenty of conversation within your playing group as it did ours. The slightly-elevated green is wide but quite shallow, so correct club selection becomes vitally important for your approach shot.
Vietnam G&CC also offers on-site accommodation, insightful caddies, restaurants and spacious locker rooms, which served as an excellent place to reflect on my entire week before rushing to the airport and sitting down next to my new friend, Beryl.
WHERE TO EAT
The population of Vietnam has doubled in size to more than 95 million since the end of the war in 1975. Its people are warm-hearted, welcoming and enthusiastic about sharing their unique culture, which has been heavily influenced by the Chinese and the French. Perhaps that’s why food is spoken about with such passion.
Throughout our journey – visiting Hoi An, Ba Na Hills, Da Nang and Saigon – we sampled everything from banh mi (baguettes) and pho (noodle soup) to Vietnamese spring rolls and fish cakes.
Mai Fish, in Hoi An, is situated in a heritage house on the banks of the Thu Bon River and serves most of the aforementioned, classic Vietnamese dishes.
So, too, does the Racha Room in Ho Chi Minh City. It also doubles as an intimate cocktail bar and serves modern interpretations of South East Asian cuisines.
Meanwhile, in Da Nang, you will find what seems like an endless selection of rooftop bars, jazz clubs and restaurants.
WHERE TO STAY
• Located south of Hoi An, Vinpearl Resort & Golf Nam Hoi An covers the coast of Binh Minh beach and features everything from luxury villas, restaurants and bars to theme parks and safari tours. The five-star resort is also home to Vinpearl Golf Nam Hoi An.
• Should you wish to extend your time atop Ba Na Hills and take in everything the 19th century French Village has to offer, Mercure Danang French Village Ba Na Hills offers elegant, four-star rooms with panoramic views over the city of Da Nang.
• The four-star Monarque Hotel Danang is situated just two minutes from the iconic My Khe Beach and features comfortable rooms and an impressive rooftop swimming pool.
• Anybody planning on playing the Faldo-designed Laguna Golf Lang Co should really consider staying in Hue, at the spectacular Vedana Lagoon Resort & Spa – which offers luxury rooms and the first over-water bungalows in Vietnam. The resort also boasts extensive spa treatments, an indoor gym and numerous places to wine and dine.
• In bustling Ho Chi Ming City, Hotel Nikko Saigon offers five-star luxury and spacious rooms within the CBD of HCMC. The hotel is just 20 minutes’ drive from the international airport.