Fairway to perfection

Vietnam offers quality courses just a short flight away

Like surfers in pursuit of the perfect wave, passionate golfers are willing to search far and wide for the idyllic course. But now, less than three hours from Chek Lap Kok Airport, there is an exciting new golf destination for Hong Kong enthusiasts.

Vietnam is one of the region's fastest growing tourist destinations, offering a fascinating mix of French and Indo-Chinese culture. The communist authorities opened the door to golf resort development about a decade ago, and the country now has some unexpectedly good courses.

Since the mid-1990s, 10 resorts have either been built from scratch or upgraded to international standards. Another 10 projects are planned or under way, in recognition of the demand not only within Vietnam but across Asia, particularly from golf-hungry Japanese and Koreans.

Compared to established golfing destinations such as neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam is still the new kid on the block. What it lacks in quantity, however, it compensates for with quality.

The pick of the country's layouts - Dalat Palace - is unquestionably one of the best golfing experiences in Asia. Flights from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City take only two and a half hours, putting Vietnam well within the comfort zone for a three-day or long weekend break.

A late-night service launched recently by United Airlines allows you to finish your working day in Hong Kong and be on the golf course the next day.

Most of the country's golf development has been in the south, with four resorts within an hour's drive of Ho Chi Minh City.

While golf has only recently blossomed in Vietnam, the sport itself is not entirely new. In fact, Emperor Bao Dai, the last ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, was so fond of the game that in 1922 he built a nine-hole layout in the romantic city of Dalat, about 300km north of Ho Chi Minh City.

Today, after several makeovers and a lengthy closure due to the war, the Dalat Palace Golf Club stands as a tribute to the emperor's prescience. It is truly one of the most unique and enjoyable golfing experiences in Asia.

For a start, it is located in the middle of one of Vietnam's most picturesque cities, known variously as the City of Love and Le Petit Paris.

Founded by French doctor Alexandre Yersin in 1893, Dalat nestles on a cool plateau of the Annamite Cordillera, a mountain range that runs up the spine of Vietnam.

Imagine stately pine forests, sparkling lakes, flower gardens and French-built villas and you start to understand why Dalat has long been a favourite retreat for local Vietnamese wanting to escape the hustle and humidity of city life.

The golf course is right in the heart of Dalat, overlooking Xuan Hong Lake. Stretching just over 7,000 yards from the back tees, it features bent grass from tee to green, something you will not find elsewhere in Southeast Asia. While the greens are firm and fast, well-struck approach shots will bite and spin. Drives that pull up quickly on the lush, spongy fairways of most tropical resort courses run metres further on the firm fairways, crafted from rolling hills.

Water comes into play on 10 of the 18 holes, demanding accurate shots and, at times, tempting bravery from the bigger hitters. The par-5 sixth is a good example. At 434 yards from the back tees, it is not inordinately long. But a narrow fairway, out-of-bounds markers to the right and a expanse of water down the left, make it the No 1 challenge on the course.

Even if you crack your drive down the centre, well-placed bunkers short and right of the small green are waiting to gobble up your second shot.

On the back nine, golfers are treated to a succession of holes with elevated tees, and stunning views of the hole below and the township beyond. If the test of a golf course is the desire to play it again, then Dalat Palace comes up trumps: you could play it every day for a week and still want to come back for more.

Having scaled such heights on the golf course, visitors should continue to enjoy the best that Dalat has to offer by staying at the Sofitel Dalat Palace, a graciously restored French-chateau-style mansion with 43 huge rooms. Sweeping staircases, wood-panelled hallways, faux-Impressionist works and claw-toed antique baths are just some of the features that make a stay at the Sofitel like a journey back in time.

Take in the regal ambience of Le Rabelais, the grand dining room, where Sofitel's chefs incorporate Dalat's fresh produce - notably artichokes, avocadoes, fruits and berries - into classic French dishes, served with fine imported wines.

It is best to fly to Dalat, an easy, one-hour jet service from Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam Airlines. Flights operate every day (except Sundays) departing at 10am. You can travel by road but be prepared for a long, teeth-chattering, white-knuckle ride.

A somewhat easier drive takes you to the seaside village of Phan Thiet, about 200km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, where you will find the renowned Ocean Dunes Golf Club, designed by Nick Faldo. Stay at the 123-room Novotel Coralia Ocean Dunes Resort and you will find the course right on your doorstep.

Waking early is important at Ocean Dunes - first because a dawn stroll along the oceanfront offers a rare visual treat. Around 6am, the beach is literally teeming with people - children kicking soccer balls, grannies doing tai chi and fishermen preparing their nets. Regular visitors also know that early risers enjoy an advantage on the golf course as they scamper to complete as many holes as possible before 11am.

As you would expect from a perfectionist like Faldo, Ocean Dunes is no pushover. But just before midday, particularly between May and November, the links-style course turns into a ferocious tiger, as the prevailing off-shore breeze turns into a ball-stopping gale.

The front nine of this 6,725-yard resort course is played in relative shelter away from the coastline, but that does not mean you get relief from sand and water.

On six of the holes water comes into play, and sand fringes the entire length of many fairways. Thankfully, they are forgivingly wide off the white tees, giving plenty of options for higher handicappers.

The fun starts on the ninth hole, selected as one of the world's best 500 by USA Golf Magazine. Golfers need to rifle an iron about 150 yards through a narrow tree-lined corridor to reach an elevated green. Holes 12, 13 and 14 are Ocean Dunes' answer to Amen Corner, combining breathtaking ocean views and score-busting winds.

Play well here and you are on the way to a good round.

After golf, try out the Novotel's seafood dinner buffet. You will not find a better selection of fresh fish, lobsters, prawns and crabs, pulled from local waters that morning and waiting to be barbecued just the way you like it.

Phan Thiet, like much of Vietnam, has a wet season from May to September. But for visitors to Ocean Dunes, this is an excellent time of year.

For golfers, the wind is not as strong. And for sun-seekers, warm days spent on the golden beaches will be interrupted only briefly by cooling tropical showers between 4pm and 6pm most days.

Allow three hours for the road transfer to Phan Thiet. Alternatively, you can catch a train which operates twice daily from Ho Chi Minh City.

Green fees at Dalat Palace and Ocean Dunes are US$65 for weekdays and US$85 for weekends. Carts cost an extra US$30 and caddies are US$15 a round. Both resorts offer golfing packages that are excellent value.

For example, you and your partner can stay for one night at the Novotel Ocean Dunes (twin share), enjoy an American breakfast and play a round of golf each for just US$90 per person.

There are several good courses within easy range of Ho Chi Minh City. The closest is the Song Be Golf Resort, just 25 minutes from downtown, and the newest is the Long Thanh Golf Club, about 45 minutes east of the city. Built on a plateau off the Dong Nai River, Long Thanh's par 72 layout opened just last year.

Vietnam Golf and Country Club, about 30 minutes from town, is the biggest club in Vietnam, with 36 championship holes. The east course, which opened in 1997, was designed by Lee Trevino.

Vung Tau is a 27-hole layout perched on 3km of white sandy beach about 90 minutes' drive south of Ho Chi Minh City, while Bochang Dong Nai Golf Club is another 27-hole resort about an hour to the north.

King's Island Golf Resort, set on the shores of Dong Mo Lake about an hour from Hanoi, is the better of the country's two northern courses.

For more information about the Sofitel Dalat Palace or the Novotel Coralia Ocean Dunes Resort, visit