VIETNAM: Golf helps drive economic modernisation

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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