Try booking 18 holes at any fancy golf course in Bali, Thailand, Malaysia or China these days and you’ll find hordes of Australian golfers have beaten you to the tee.
They fly in ever-increasing numbers to play courses created by the world’s most famous course designers (think: Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Pete Dye), to find quality they’d only see at home on courses worth hundreds of dollars in green fees (or on private courses they can’t play for less than $50,000 per year in annual membership fees).
But in their push throughout south-east Asia, one country has been left off their list entirely – 'till now. Vietnam’s never been a place you’d associate with golf. But that’s changing. There’s now 36 championship courses in Vietnam that rate with anything you’ll find in Asia. And there’s around 20 more in development.
I’m here to play as many of the courses as I can – before the world discovers how much Vietnam offers – without the crowds, and so I can say “I told you so” when, in the years to come, Vietnam becomes one of the world’s top golfing destinations.
Most of Vietnam’s best new courses can be found in a region helpfully dubbed The Golf Coast. It obviously took some foresight and plenty of optimism for the central Vietnamese coastline region around Danang to go with the title, but courses created by the likes of Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie ensure no-one will be left with egg on their face.
The Golf Coast provides the perfect access point for Australian golfers to start their golf holiday. There’s three of Asia’s top championship courses here – with a fourth due to open early in 2016 (Ba Na Hills). But oddly, as I tee off on the first course to be built, Montgomerie Links (in 2010), and then Greg Norman’s Danang Golf Club, there’s barely another golfer on any fairway.
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But that’s what appeals about the Vietnam golf experience, despite its emerging sophistication, there’s still an element of discovery about being here. It’s the blue sea famous in this area that’s the real star of the region, and the rolling green hills – although on some holes there’s even armory left from the war.
An hour’s drive from here, I play golf at one of the most stunning courses you’ll ever see. Nick Faldo’s Laguna Lang Co is built within a huge horseshoe blue bay below towering green mountains and thick jungle no-one’s got a hope of taming. There’s also a resort on site, with a bar that looks out over the South China Sea.
After playing all The Golf Coast courses, I fly to Hanoi.
There’s 10 world-class championship courses sprinkled outside the city rim. My favourite is the 36-hole Skylake Resort & Golf Club. Here I’m surrounded by jagged karst rocks that make you feel like you’re in Halong Bay, and beside me locals tend to paddy fields.
The courses at Skylake are two of the most challenging I’ve played anywhere in Asia, I’m constantly hitting across gaping ravines, or over lakes, with any errant drive landing in thick jungle beside the fairway.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to many world-class championship courses, but the best new course in all of Asia has opened two hour’s drive south of the city and I’m desperate to check it out. Greg Norman designed The Bluffs at Ho Tram Strip and it already hosts an Asian Tour event.
There’s sea views over an otherwise undeveloped coastline from almost every hole, while the course rises and falls so much over 18 holes I begin to feel a little giddy. But it’s immaculate, every green looks like Augusta, and each time I get to the tee-box I feel like putting down my club and clapping.
Mark my words: in a few years, Vietnam will be one of Asia’s golfing hot-spots, but in the meantime it’s still possible to have a game of golf to yourself and feel like it’s you alone who knows the secret.