By SETH MYDANS
Published: October 19, 2009
PHAN THIET, Vietnam It may be the most capitalist enterprise in
Communist Vietnam by the rich and for the rich: a proliferation of
golf courses that is displacing thousands of farmers and devouring
the rice fields the country depends on.
Until last year, according to experts who have done the calculations,
licenses for new courses were being issued at an average of one a
week, for a total of more than 140 projects around the country.
Promoters created the idea of a "Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail," a series of
eight courses whose label is as good a sign as any of where Vietnam
seems to be headed its heroic wartime past redefined as a sales pitch.
If all those projects were completed, the number of courses would
approach that of golf-mad South Korea, where there are close to 200.
It would still fall well short of China, which has more than 300, and
would be nowhere near the number in the United States, which has
about 16,000 courses, or even Florida, with 1,260.
For a country that had only two courses at the end of the war in 1975
and that according to some estimates has only 5,000 golfers today,
however, the increase in projects over the past four years has been explosive.
But a backlash emerged within the news media and among academics and
government officials over the social and environmental costs.
In summer 2008, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a halt to new
construction pending a review, and last June the government ordered
the cancellation of 50 of the projects. But most of the others are
well under way, to add to the country's 13 established golf courses.
"Developers and foreign investors are saying they want to make the
country a tourist destination, and to do that you need to offer more
amenities like golf," said Kurt Greve, the American general manager
of the Ocean Dunes Golf Club and the Dalat Palace Golf Club. Most of
those tourists would come from elsewhere in Asia, especially South
Korea and Japan, where golf courses are hugely overcrowded.
"They're all wanting to grow golf," he said, referring to the
developers and investors, "but the government is saying, 'Whoa, whoa,
whoa, wait a minute!'"
In its drive to industrialize, Vietnam has already lost large amounts
of farmland to factories and other developments. According to the
Agriculture Ministry, land devoted to rice, the national staple and a
leading source of export revenue, shrank to 10.1 million acres from
11.1 million acres, just from 2000 to 2006.
Many of the new projects seem to have to do more with capitalism than
with sport. Taxes on golf courses are lower than those on other forms
of development, and many of the projects appear to be disguised real
Only 65 percent of the land involved in the current projects has been
set aside for golf courses, Ton Gia Huyen, an official with the
Vietnam Land Science Association, said at a conference on golf
courses in May. The rest of the land is reserved for hotels, resorts,
villas, eco-tourism areas, parks and recreational projects.
One solution is to change the tax structure, said Nguyen Dang Vang,
vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee for Science,
Technology and Environment.
"Golf courses are for rich people, account for vast areas of land,
cause pollution and affect food security, so taxes should be
appropriately high," he told the newspaper Tuoi Tre in July.
And when rich people play, it appears that farmers and villagers pay the price.
Development of a single course can cost the land of hundreds of
farms, displacing as many as 3,000 people, sometimes devouring an
entire commune, Nguyen Duc Truyen, an official of the Vietnamese
Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Sociology, said at the
recent conference. Only a small number of them find jobs on the new
For example, the Dai Lai golf course in Vinh Phuc Province drove
thousands of people from their land but provided jobs for only 30
local residents, according to a report in July on the Vietnam News
Service. Farmers are typically compensated at a rate of $2 to $3 a
square meter, the news service said, about the cost of a sack of rice.
Along with land, golf courses also put a strain on water resources,
said Le Anh Tuan from the Can Tho University Environmental Technology
Center. In a widely quoted estimate, he said an 18-hole course could
consume 177,000 cubic feet of water a day, enough for 20,000 households.
"The dry season is critical," said Kiet Tuan Le, the chief
groundskeeper here at Ocean Dunes, 125 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh
City. "I've got to continually ask the water department, almost fight
them, because there's not enough water for the city people."
Mr. Greve said that the resort was working to minimize its
environmental impact, with a new strain of grass that was more
salt-tolerant and would require less fresh water.
The nearby Sea Links Golf and Country Club, which is built on sand
dunes, pipes in water from a source nearly two miles away, said one
of the resort's directors, Tran Quang Trung. Automatic sprinklers
switch on every 15 minutes and individual hoses provide a continuing
drip at the base of each tree.
The sumptuous, rolling 18-hole course is only one part of the
ambitious, 420-acre development, he said.
Rows of villas, 315 of them, stand behind the course like soldiers on
parade, with many sold before they were built. A five-star hotel
overlooking the course has almost been completed.
Just beyond the development area, the red earth is already being
turned for the construction of six ocean-view apartment buildings
with 550 units.
In the future, Mr. Trung said, it will all be known as "Sea Links City."