Golf isn't the new imperialism, despite what you might read

The Ocean Dunes Golf Course along the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail.
Ocean Dunes Golf Course

I went to Vietnam in 2008 to write a story for Golf Magazine about a Marine veteran, Ron Chambers, who returned to play golf in the areas where he had served in 1968. So I read Tuesday's New York Times article about backlash against golf-course development in the country with more than casual interest.

My article was specifically about Chambers and his reception in Vietnam, his own personal feelings and how much Vietnam had changed. I saw golf in Vietnam as a symbol of normalcy. A man who originally came to Vietnam to fight a war returned 40 years later to play golf and received a surprisingly warm welcome from the people he once fought against. It was a story about how in some sense the war is ancient history in Vietnam (the median age is about 26), and yet remnants of the war are still everywhere, in old bunkers, in persistent concerns over the effects of American use of Agent Orange, and most especially in the Vietnamese people's complicated, love-hate attitudes toward the United States.

But golf has become much more than a game in the contemporary lexicon. For some critics in the developed world, golf symbolizes a new type of imperialism. The New York Times article is definitely in the "golf is a four-letter word" camp, quoting the views of critics who see golf-course development as a pretty terrible deal for the Vietnamese:

And when rich people play, it appears that farmers and villagers pay the price.

Development of a single course can cost the land of hundreds of farms, displacing as many as 3,000 people, sometimes devouring an entire commune, Nguyen Duc Truyen, an official of the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Sociology, said at the recent conference. Only a small number of them find jobs on the new golf courses.

For example, the Dai Lai golf course in Vinh Phuc Province drove thousands of people from their land but provided jobs for only 30 local residents, according to a report in July on the Vietnam News Service. Farmers are typically compensated at a rate of $2 to $3 a square meter, the news service said, about the cost of a sack of rice.

Along with land, golf courses also put a strain on water resources, said Le Anh Tuan from the Can Tho University Environmental Technology Center. In a widely quoted estimate, he said an 18-hole course could consume 177,000 cubic feet of water a day, enough for 20,000 households.

The criticism is overheated — golf-course developers have challenged many if not most of the article's figures — but the concerns are not easily dismissed. It does feel weird paying $100 to play a round of golf in a country where the average yearly income for a family is $2,800. And it was creepy to learn that cemeteries were being relocated to build luxury hotels in seaside Danang, home of the famous China Beach R&R spot for American troops. I visited a traditional Vietnamese village that was being relocated to make way for a golf course. The villagers' attitude toward the relocation was, in a word, fatalistic. Their only protest was the occasional thrown rock onto the course.

Still, these problems are not unique to Vietnam, and they're not unique to golf; issues like these arise whenever tourism comes to the developing world.

The Times article quotes people who work for the courses as well as Vietnamese officials, but it is far from a comprehensive portrait of the country's attitude toward golf. For many of the regular people who actually live in Vietnam, golf has much more positive associations. The sport is aspirational, and owning a set of clubs is as much proof of business success as driving a new BMW in Scottsdale. That's why driving ranges in Ho Chi Mihn City are packed all day with people who might not play a single round of golf all year. That's why golf is seen as an indicator of whether a country has a healthy middle class.

We need a thoughtful examination of the costs and benefits of golf-course development in Vietnam, not a condemnation of the entire sport that ignores the feelings of many Vietnamese.

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