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Asia’s new golf tiger

It was surprisingly long ago that golf came to Vietnam.

French colonial authorities had planned the hill station of Dalat in the country’s Central Highlands following World War I, and when architect and urban planner Ernest Hébrard drew the first master plans for the new resort in 1922, a golf course was included in the plan.

The course was unbuilt at the time, but it was certainly in operation in 1932 when Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, returned home from France, where he seems to have discovered the game. In 1930, the British design firm of Colt, Alison and Morrison published a four-page marketing brochure listing all the courses they had worked on. At the bottom of the fourth page were the words ‘Indo China: Ville de Dalat’.

Harry Colt, who was 60 in 1929, certainly never went to Dalat to design the course. His younger and more nomadic colleague, Hugh Alison, almost certainly did not. Alison was in Asia, in Japan, between October 1930 and April 1931, and it is almost conceivable that he boarded a ship from Tokyo to Saigon at the end of his journey, but this is very, very hard to believe, because the timing does not really match up, and the marketing brochure makes no mention of Alison’s Japan work. What is much more likely is that Colt or Alison drew the course from topographic maps at some point in the late 1920s, as they did for many other distant projects. It had long been rumoured that it was being built for Bao Dai, but given the timing of his return from France, this seems unlikely. But according to Adam Calver, a Vietnamese resident who is now chief operating officer of Faldo Design, the emperor built a small track near the coastal city of Hue, which was the country’s capital between 1802 and 1945, but it has long been unused.

Dalat was first abandoned in 1945. Around the same time that it was built, another course called Saigon or Go Vap Golf Club was established and continued to be used even after Dalat was abandoned. In the late 1950s, a doctor named Dao Huy Hach led the restoration of the Dalat course using the resources of the Saigon club, but by 1975 the course had fallen into disuse. It was finally restored to its current form in 1994. During this period, Vietnam’s first modern course, Vietnam Golf & Country Club in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), was established. And since then, golf has spread throughout Vietnam.

Initially, the logic behind golf in Vietnam was tourism. The country, which The Times recently called ‘Asia’s most intoxicating’, is one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in the world. Vietnam received 2.1 million international visitors in 2000, but this number has fallen below 13 million since the pandemic. South Korea, the hub for golf enthusiasts, is Vietnam’s biggest source of visitors. And first, it is clear that some of these tourists will be golfers and second, as elsewhere in the world, golfing visitors are, on average, high spenders. Within Asia, Thailand, as it is known, is the most successful golf tourism destination, with around 800,000 tourists visiting the country to play golf. China’s Hainan Island was another attempt to create a golf tourism hub in Asia, but the country’s anti-corruption efforts have led to a crackdown on golf development, and Hainan has consequently fallen out of the headlines.

Given Vietnam’s growing tourism and the country’s natural beauty (it has 3,260 kilometers (2,000 miles) of coastline), it’s no surprise that golf has become a topic of conversation. “I first went to Vietnam in 2015,” says Brian Curley, a globe-trotting architect now with the newly formed firm Curley-Wagner. “China was struggling and I had to pick up my ball and go somewhere else to do business. I had been hearing for a while that ‘Vietnam is going to build golf,’ and I got the job of designing Stone Valley in Hanoi. On my first visit, I checked in at the hotel and met the general manager. He saw my plans and asked what I did. ‘I build golf courses,’ I said. ‘Please build me a golf course. There are a lot of people asking about golf and there’s nowhere to play,’” he said.

“From a tourist perspective, Vietnam has the potential to be a hub for Southeast Asia,” says Adam Calver of Faldo Design, who moved to the country in 2017 to run the course at Laguna Lang Co, which was designed by Faldo and opened in 2013. “There is a variety of terrain – there is great mountain golf as well as coastline. But the balance of the game has changed in recent years. Covid has tripled our domestic golf demand in Laguna – we went from 10 per cent Vietnamese golfers to 30 or 40 per cent. Covid has seen players start to bring their families to the course in large numbers and junior golf has started to grow significantly. The Vietnam Golf Association has launched a junior golf tour in partnership with the R&A and the Faldo Series final has been here since 2017. There are a lot of very good Vietnamese juniors now. The growth of golf among Vietnamese goes hand in hand with the country’s overall economic growth.”

Mike Gorman of Robert Trent Jones II, principal architect of the firm’s Hoiana Shores project, about halfway along the Vietnamese coast near the city of Da Nang, echoes the message. “Hoiana’s original market was tourists, particularly Korean and Japanese tourists,” he says. “But what’s happened is that the country has developed so quickly that there’s been a local golf boom among Vietnamese. But the tourist market is still strong. Every time I land at Da Nang airport, there might be 20, 30 or 40 golf bags unloaded from the plane.”

“Every course in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City is jam-packed with locals, playing about 200 rounds a day,” Curley says. “You hardly ever see any foreigners playing.” As a result, there are a significant number of courses under development, although exactly how many depends on who you talk to. “There are 65 to 70 courses operating in the country right now, with maybe a dozen more actively under construction,” Calver says. “We hear there are a hundred in the planning stages, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” Gorman says. But there’s no doubt that, as elsewhere in Asia, developers are building for the future and accepting that their courses could lose money in the early days.

“Everything in Asia is built ahead of the curve,” Curley says. “Construction costs are comparable to the rest of the world, three-quarters of what you would spend anywhere else, but operations are incredibly cheap. If you’re ahead of the curve in a resort in Vietnam and it’s going to take five years to get enough golfers, you’re not losing that much money. It’s cheap to maintain a golf course there because labor is cheap, so you can wait. In general, water is cheap in Vietnam. You’re not trying to bring water to the course, you’re trying to get it out of the course through drainage, rather than through big, expensive irrigation systems. A lot of projects rely on surface water – you dig a lake, you direct the drainage into it and you get your own water. You tend to get water all year round, so your lakes often look like lakes. You can go to the sites, dig a hole two metres deep and it’s awash with water. Even the dune areas on the beach have water.”

Curley’s mention of dunes brings us to what makes Vietnam a truly exciting country for golf. Just a glance at a map shows you how long the country’s coastline is, and a significant portion of it is sandy. “Vietnam is an amazing country,” Gorman says. “There’s an energy and a vitality to it that I’ve never been to before. From Hue, past Da Nang, another 200 or 300 miles, the coastline is all sand, and it’s some of the best dunes anywhere.”

“If you go straight across the water from Hanoi, you’re on mud flats,” Curley says. “But going south you hit the sand at a 45-degree angle, and it’s mostly sand along the coast. I’ve seen some of the best places I’ve ever seen. You’ve got basically two types of places, along the coast and the lower parts of the mountains, the dunes that aren’t used for farming. The rice fields are protected. You’re either on the beach or on the rocky outcrops.”

Calver adds: “I drove from Dung Hoi to Ho Chi Minh, basically hiking on the dunes. It’s a spectacular coastline and there’s a lot of sand. Some of it has rock mixed in with the sand but there could be a significant amount of great coastal golf courses.”

There are already a number of good courses along the coast of Vietnam. The best, according to the Top 100 Golf Courses ranking, is Bluffs Ho Tram Strip, part of a large casino resort designed by Greg Norman’s practice and located 80 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The course explores massive 50-metre-high sand dunes and has sea views from every hole, but they do not actually touch the water; this land is earmarked for future development.

Hoiana Shores, designed by Jones and ranked second, has a bit of golf along the coastline and is also part of a larger resort (as far as we can tell, all golf courses in Vietnam are public). Jones has two other projects in development in Vietnam, according to Gorman: one near Hanoi and the other outside Ho Chi Minh City.

“I first went to Vietnam in 2005/6 with Tony Cashmore and Tom Phillips from the Faldo group – Tony was working for Faldo in Australia,” says South African architect Paul Jansen. “Tom had a few leads and called me and said, ‘We’ve got a couple of potential projects in Vietnam.’ I was there a few weeks later.

“We visited a few places, including what became Laguna Lang Co. We finished the drawings a year or two later and the foundation was laid in 2009. At that time, the road only reached the top of the mountain and we had to walk to the ground. A few months ago, the only way to get to the ground was by boat. But it was amazing – we took our inspiration from the surroundings. A third of the place was rice fields, it was quite wet and we had to do some clearing in the forest areas.”

Read more: Golfplan’s Kevin Ramsey shares insights into his experiences working in Vietnam.

According to Calver, Faldo currently has two new projects in the country: Royal Long An near Ho Chi Minh City, where 18 holes are open and nine holes are in the roughing stage. Also at Silk Path near Hanoi, where turfing has begun and a third nine holes are in the planning stages, is the status of the course:

“The golf courses in Thailand don’t have the natural settings that Vietnam has, but the operations are nailed,” Curley says. “Vietnam has the courses, but the operations are behind. Once they figure that out, it’s going to be impossible to beat them.”

This article was originally published at: April 2024 issue Golf Course Architecture. For a print subscription or free digital edition, please visit: subscription page.