By Aviva West (Reuters.com) - When it comes to R&R, Danang still hasn't lost its touch. In the city's post-war evolution, first came the tourists, then the swank resorts. Finally, the pro golf courses arrived.
Vietnam's fourth-largest city and its central region's most important sea port, Danang is best remembered for its role as host to a U.S. airbase during the Vietnam War. "China Beach", as it was known, earned a reputation as a fun-in-the-sun stop-off at the very doorway to the war.
More than 25 years later, this beach city has shaken off its wartime past. Long gone are the surfing G.I.s and whirring helicopter blades. In their place are brightly painted hotels, broad boulevards and the occasional beach tout.
And golf pros. Two-time British Open winner Greg Norman may not have been the first professional golfer to build a course in Vietnam, but his creation has certainly shaken the competition.
In May 2010, the Norman-crafted, 692-acre Dunes Course at the Danang Golf Club (here) opened to widespread acclaim. Vietnam's most-lauded course, the 7,160-yard, 18-hole, links-style layout features fast fairways, rugged sand dunes and wild, blown out bunkers that trundle down to a stunning stretch of sandy white coast.
Described as one of the most unique layouts in Southeast Asia, Dunes was designed in the spirit of the world's best links -- Moonah Course at The National in Australia and Doonbeg in Ireland -- two other award-winning Norman designs.
Among the standout experiences at Dunes, the signature par 3 16th offers a vista that players can be forgiven for taking their time to enjoy; from the tee, the view is Vietnam at its finest. A gentle surf laps at a white sand beach as long-tailed fishing boats glide past rocky islands in the distance.
To the east are the sparkling blue waters of the South China Sea and the jungle-covered peaks of the nearby Cham Islands, starting point for some of the country's best scuba diving. Just south and inland stand the fabled Marble Mountains, home to a series of Buddhist temples carved deep into the dramatic grottoes and caves.
Reviews of Dunes have also praised its generous fairways and restrained use of water. Despite the roomy atmosphere, so many built-up waste areas demand accuracy if a good score is to be earned. In homage to history, an authentic French bunker remains nestled between the 16th and 17th holes, a preserved reminder of colonial times (rumour has it there are plans to turn it into a concession stand).
Until 1986, when Hanoi officially opened the door to capitalism, the Communist party had frowned on golf as an irrelevant indulgence of the bourgeoisie. In the past decade, though, the Communist elite have bestowed its full blessing on the game as both a symbol and tool of the country's rapid modernisation.
Cadres who could afford it were quick to take up the game; if you're on a Vietnamese fairway, chances are that the gentleman on the next tee wields significant authority. With green fees at $75-99 for a weekday and $125-149 for a weekend, the average Vietnamese, who earns less than $1,300 per year, will never swing a club.
To serve this burgeoning class of local and foreign golferati, the Danang Golf Club recently soft-opened a semi-private 3,800-sq-m clubhouse. Boasting an excess of glass and metalwork, its café and restaurant are popular with businessmen from Japan, Singapore, Korea and China -- Vietnam's primary investment partners. "Full service" operations are expected by April 1.
Blissfully cool and quiet, the shrink-wrapped newness of the clubhouse and the wild luxury of the course offer an emblematic glimpse into today's Vietnam. Swing by swing and hole by hole, Danang is pushing forward with its vision for a new era of R&R.
Getting there: Danang International Airport is 3 km from the city centre and serves flights from within Vietnam as well as from China, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.
Staying there: The Furama Resort (www.furamavietnam.com/welcome) is the best, but also recommended are Sandy Beach Resort (here) and Life Resort Danang (here).
Three more top Vietnam golf courses:
Da Lat Palace Golf Club (www.dalatpalacegolf.vn) Located in the town of Da Lat, a former French hill station 310km from Saigon, this is Vietnam's first golf course. Well-reviewed, the course sits 5,000 feet above sea level, with a historic stone mansion for a clubhouse.
Chi Linh StarGolf and Country Club (here) Located an hour outside of Hanoi, this 18-hole course first opened in 2003, and is especially popular with the Politburo and Japanese businessmen. Features full amenities but is best visited in the dry summer months.
Montgomerie Links Golf Resort (www.montgomerielinks.com) Located literally next door to The Dunes Course, this Colin Montgomerie-designed layout features a more manicured 18 holes. Pair a round at the Dunes with one here for the full golf experience.
(Editing by Peter Myers)