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TEED OFF (10-10-2010)

How do you wish Happy Birthday to an old friend who is 1,000 years old? Well for one thing, the cake had better be huge and the fire department on stand-by in case help is needed to extinguish all those candles.

What kind of present do you give an old friend who has given you far more than you can ever give in return?

To me, Ha Noi is that old friend and is where I have called "home" for almost 20 years. Despite working in various parts of the country at different times, I always come back home when the job is done.

When I first came to Viet Nam, Ha Noi was a sleepy, pleasant little town, regardless of its designation as the nation's capital. You could walk the streets without fear at any hour of the day or night, enjoy strolling under the tree lined streets or just enjoying a moment of quiet reflection at Hoan Kiem Lake.

Girls in Ao Dai pedalling their bicycles along the streets reminded me that I was truly in a different world than what I had known, or expected.

I dare say that nobody would have envisioned the roads filled with Benz, BMWs, Bentleys and even a Maybach or Rolls Royce 20 years later.

There were only two golf courses under construction in 1993, Kings' Island and Song Be. Both opened their doors in August 1993, if I remember correctly. I cannot speak for the folks at Song Be, but I can tell you that we had daily visits from almost every government department and military officers. They were just curious as to what "golf" was and if it was something they should be worried about.

The jury is still out on that question.

While many people back home told me not to come to Viet Nam because, as an American, I would be treated poorly, I found that the exact opposite was true. If anything, the Vietnamese people, both high and low, went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome. In 20 years, I have never been made to feel unwelcome.

That says a lot about the people and the country.

William Shakespeare once wrote "A rose by any other name, would still smell as sweet." So call it what you want, Ha Noi or Thang Long, it's still sweet and 1,000 years old today and that, my friends, is old.

Imagine this, Ha Noi predates "organised" golf by almost 744 years!

Granted, golf supposedly first appeared in Scotland in the 1400's, but it wasn't until 1754 that the Society of St Andrews Golfers was created, so to avoid any controversy, we'll stick with the date it was organised.

Bringing things in through customs at the airport was a headache in the beginning, but after a while, it became fun. You need to remember that, in Ha Noi, nobody had the slightest idea what "golf" was.

It got to the point where they would throw up the "closed" sign when they saw me coming with trolleys loaded with crates of driving range golf balls, clubs and mats. I swear a few guys requested transfers to Lao Cai because of me.

Perhaps it was the time I brought 50 large rainbow bags full of Bermuda grass that might have sent them over the edge.

Again, nobody could have envisioned that by 2010 there would be 26 courses in Viet Nam and another 50 on the drawing boards awaiting approval.

Kids who I hired at Kings Island to be caddies are now introducing their own kids to the HR department in hopes of securing a job. That alone makes me feel very old, but happy that I made a positive difference in their lives.

In the last 20 years, Ha Noi and Viet Nam have given me a second life. It allowed me an opportunity to help bring golf to an entire nation. It gave me a second career as a columnist. It gave me a beautiful wife and daughter.

It gave me a future that I never envisioned.

Not everything was roses though. Appendicitis, malaria and fighting a bureaucracy, who really wasn't prepared for a bunch of crazy foreigners turning the place upside down, made for some interesting moments, but that's what made memories are made of.

And so, my old friend, Happy 1,000th Birthday.

May you have many more. - VNS