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VIETNAM: Golf helps drive economic modernisation

by Amy KazminFinancial Times
August 1st, 2005

Sixteen state officials and private entrepreneurs are gathered on the edge of Hanoi's West Lake on a sultry Friday evening. They are listening to Michael Moh as he explains the intricacies of an essential element of successful Asian business and diplomacy: golf.

“When you want to aim, your club must form aninety-degree angle to the direction you want the ball to go,” says the lanky Singaporean golf pro. As a translator repeats the words in Vietnamese, Mr Moh demonstrates the correct grip, checking each student's technique.

“Hold the club lightly so your muscle is relaxed,” he counsels. Finally, the pupils are led to a driving range, where they use their new knowledge to whack balls which float into the lake.

Among those practising swings at the Hanoi Golf Academy is a 46-year-old executive of a state-owned trading company. He travels frequently to arrange jobs for Vietnamese labourers in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

“Golf is very, very important,” says the executive, who practices daily. “It strengthens relations. All the bosses in our partner countries play golf.”

When Hanoi opened its door to global capitalism in 1988, the Communist party frowned on golf as an irrelevant bourgeois indulgence. Today, the Communist elite has bestowed its full blessing on the game as both symbol, and tool, of Vietnam's economic modernisation. “Golf is a very effective instrument for bringing people together,” says Pham Sanh Chau, deputy director of the government's Institute for International Relations and general secretary of the semi-official Hanoi Golf Club, established to boost the game.

Vietnam's first nine-hole course was built during the French colonial era in the hill station of Dalat to amuse Emperor Bao Dai. That legacy tainted golf in the eyes of Hanoi's revolutionaries.

After 1975, the Dalat course was abandoned to weeds, used only by young lovers for secret trysts. In the early 1990s, Asian investors were grudgingly permitted to build several new fairways, although golf remained ideologically suspect.

“It was regarded as a luxury game,” says Mr Chau. “People felt very hesitant and guilty if they were caught playing golf like if they were caught playing tennis.”

In 1995 all that changed Hanoi joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then Malaysia's foreign minister and now its prime minister, advised Communist leaders that full participation in Asean had two requirements: speaking English and playing golf.

So began golf's official rehabilitation and its elevation to a tool of national advancement. Nguyen Manh Cam, a foreign minister sidelined at his first Asean meeting while colleagues played a round, led the struggle.

In 1998, the politburo permitted officials, mainly from the foreign ministry, to set up the Hanoi Golf Club to improve local skills and establish golf's legitimacy.

The Golf Swing, a popular instruction book, was translated into Vietnamese. Multinational companies sponsored lessons for leaders in exchange for “face-to-face time” with the power brokers on the green.

Golf is catching on. Nearly 200 people have attended the club's golf academy, which provides subsidised lessons in golf basics for officials and members of the public. Private lessons from Mr Moh at $400 (€329) for 10 hours are in demand.

This month, the inaugural issue of Vietnam Golf Magazine was published with endorsements from Mr Cam and Hoang Van Nghien, the former Hanoi mayor. Deputy prime minister Vu Khoan, the point man for Vietnam's quest to gain World Trade Organisation membership, was pictured taking a swing.

Golf did face initial resistance. In 1997, 500 peasants near Hanoi clashed with police over the appropriation of their land for a $177m golf course built by South Korea's Daewoo. But as new courses developed without such tension, official doubts waned.

Today, Vietnam has 10 golf courses charging fees ranging from $13,000 to $25,000; hefty sums in a country with an estimated per capita gross domestic product of $568. Most club members are foreigners, but the number of local golfers and courses is growing.

So far, most Vietnamese seem indifferent to their leaders' enthusiasm for golf. But the Hanoi Golf Club persists in its mantra that visits to the greens are for the greater good. As Mr Chau says, when Vietnamese Communists play golf “it's more a political mission” as distinct from entertainment.

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