Golfing the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Ho Chi Minh Trail
Photo provided by Mandarin Media
Ocean Dunes is one of the courses on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail sounds like an idea for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, but it's real.

Sports Illustrated published a story on the country as a burgeoning golf mecca in 2003. The relatively new golf trail's name, however, evokes images of the war.

That's why it's perfect. It's a guaranteed attention-getter. I haven't been there (the boss said in his rejection note that it had something to do with budget issues), but you can check out the courses at hochiminhgolftrail.com, where you'll find this brochure-style prose: "From the bustle of modern Saigon to the languid, thousand-year-old streets of Hanoi... from the sunny, windswept beach of Phan Thiet to the startling seascapes of Ha Long Bay, the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail delivers the ultimate golfing adventure."

Hal Phillips is a Maine-based media consultant who helped dream up the surreal name for the trail. "When we came up with the name, we knew it would be provocative in the West," Phillips said. "The rest of the world doesn't have that visceral response that Americans do."

Phillips got involved in the project after a buddy of his, Jim Sullivan, married a Vietnamese woman and moved to the country. Sullivan said that the country's new resorts and hotels didn't know how to market themselves. Together they started Mandarin Media, landed several golf clients and organized the courses into the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail.

"It's a marketing cooperative," Phillips said. "The Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail has seven courses and an eighth is going to join this summer. Golf is just a small part of what we do. It's vacations, not just golf. The coastline is huge. There are tons of beachfront resorts. An oceanfront room that you'd expect to pay $400 a night for is $150. They're ridiculously posh and very affordable."

While the stigma of war has made the idea of vacationing in Vietnam hard for many Americans to imagine, Phillips insists that the people harbor no ill will.

"The war is just so long ago," Phillips said. "The Vietnamese are over it, and they've been over it for decades."

Jeff Puchalski, the general manager and director of golf for Vietnam Golf Resorts, has been in Vietnam for more than a decade. He was a golf professional at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles for 11 years, and when it came time to move on, nothing in L.A was available. His wife's brother worked for IMG in Southeast Asia and was in charge of golf course development.

Puchalski sent his resume and got three offers right away from courses in the Phillipines, Indonesia and Dalat, Vietnam. He took a job as general manager and director of golf for Dalat Palace Golf Club, located in the central highlands.

"When we first left Wilshire, half of the membership said, 'What a great experience you'll have,' " Puchalski said. "The other half said, 'How can you go there? Don't you know how many friends I lost there?' It was completely divided.

"They call it the American War here. We got here, we didn't know what to expect. It's just so friendly. About 65% of the population was born after the war. They have no recollection of it."

Dalat served as a hunting station for the French in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tigers and other game were in abundance. The French left in 1945, but the Dalat Palace Golf Club remains. (Recent evidence indicates that the course may have been a Colt & Alison design.)

The country has changed considerably in Puchalski's 13 years there. While it is still officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, capitalism is at work and English-speaking tourists can communicate with the locals in most parts of the country. Last summer, air service to Dalat became available, turning a six-hour drive from Saigon into a 40-minute drive.

Six new courses have opened within the past year or so in Vietnam. Two or three more will have at least nine holes open by the end of this year. Colin Montgomerie is designing a course in Da Nang, not far from China Beach.

Golf is clearly beginning to get a foothold in the country. There are two golf magazines and two more are set to launch. Hana Bank sponsors an Asian Tour event, the Vietnam Masters, in Hanoi. The Vietnam Golf Association was founded last August and will focus on junior golf. In December, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators named Vietnam as the Best Undiscovered Golf Destination.

"Golf was not on the list of things to do here 15 years ago," Puchalski said. "When I first came to Vietnam, we couldn't count 70 Vietnamese golfers. Now we're up to 4,000 or so."

Golf in Vietnam is a growing phenomenon. What would Ho Chi Minh think of having a golf trail named after him? Forty years later, he might be happy as long as it meant he got preferred tee times.

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