An Irishman in search of a Vietnamese football experience has a night to remember.
The streets of Hanoi, Vietnam are brutal, rabid and eternally humming with traffic of every description. So the slightly more nightmarish scene than usual around Hang Day stadium wasn’t perturbing, even in my hungover, paranoid state. As I slowed down and saw the café I was looking for, people began gesturing at me frantically, beckoning me towards them. I wondered if they were trying to entice me into their houses for their own nefarious means, probably to hack me to pieces in front of the grandchildren.
A fine Saturday’s entertainment. No. Bike parking, of course.
I chose one of the less insistent women and joined Tom, PJ and Zack for some pre-match hydration. We were going to watch Ha Noi T&T take on Quang Ninh Coal in Vietnam’s top-flight football league. Though the beautiful game is beloved in the country, Manchester and Rooney resonate deeper than HAGL and Phuong ever will, and the country isn’t exactly a hotbed for sporting achievement. I was expecting the people who attended local football to be proper lunatics; with any luck they’d be like the mental patients who fill the terraces (and dugouts) of Irish League football. The sort of unhinged men who have no qualms screaming “Sheep-shagging cunts!” at 12 year olds. The sort of men who beg stewards to let them into a 600-strong away stand for a fight. My expectations were high.
After sucking back a few warm beers, we set off to find Van, Tom’s colleague from Quang Ninh. After some shouting back and forth on the phone, with kick off approaching, we found the short, buck-toothed Vietnamese girl. She ushered us in free of charge to stand with the Quang Ninh faithful, men and women who had made the 240 mile round-trip to watch the snooty Hanoians have it put right fucking up them. I was excited – these people would surely be frothing at the mouth, hands shaking, Grade-A psychopaths.
As we emerged from the stairwell and entered the away stand, I was disappointed. These weren’t people ready to tear limbs from sockets over stolen yards at a throw in. They were young. Good looking. Wearing bandanas. Carrying amps. Some of them even had breasts, and not breasts earned through years of fried food, but God-given mammary glands. The air didn’t stink of nervous paranoia or crushing hopelessness either. Everyone here was actually ‘Excited’. ‘Optimistic’. ‘Having Fun’. I’m not in North Belfast anymore, Toto.
Don’t get me wrong, I love football. The raw emotion such a simple game can evoke in otherwise closed, stunted men is staggering. But misery is football’s currency. Only one team wins the league. The rest trudge along, most with little hope for any success, with the oasis of victory only fleeting. Misery is what keeps people coming back. They know every Saturday will probably be filled with stress, rage or even tears. A victory or witnessing some inspired play makes it worth it. But only because of the misery that had to be endured to enjoy it.
The peppy and excited masses thrust flags into each of our hands. This was almost too much for me. Flags were for finals and kids. The game began and the amp four rows in front of us roared into life, blaring some Viet-techno that sparked a chant in keeping with the general vibrations of the scene. The chant was essentially ‘QUANG NINH!’ with a thudding drum. Positively PG13. Where were the accusations of paedophilia? The derisive references to Hanoi rent boys? This level of cheer was sustained, even at the strangest moments. The chanting even picked up when the away side’s keeper barely saved a goal-bound effort; at a time when any sane Brit would be biting their fingernails and whispering a quiet ‘fucking hell’ under their breath.
The match itself was mostly uneventful, with Quang Ninh’s Russian striker nodding home the game’s only goal in the 60th minute. Within 10 minutes he was playing centre-half, hoofing everything that looked vaguely like a football away from his own goal. Full-time and the level of excitement was raised only slightly. After all, we’re here to have fun, the football’s secondary. I exited the stadium with my fellow Tays to discuss the experience over a chicken BBQ dinner. In between potato skewer four and five, Tom got a call from Van, inviting us to a pub/restaurant with the travelling support. With chicken in our hearts and beer in our guts we beat on, borne back ceaselessly against the flow of traffic.
The pub was huge, two floors, with the second floor entirely devoted to the blue army. Four large tables were filled to capacity, with the young faces replaced by what football fans should look like. Middle to old aged, wizened and aged by years of misery and booze. Just like home, they were dressed terribly, like fashion began and ended in the 1970s. They must have been above us in the ground. Each table had four or five hotpots, with food ready to be dunked into the simmering water to be a little bit cooked and a lot soaked. It’s a familiar scene at bars up and down the country, except these drunken, lecherous men were colour-coordinated.
We sat at the end of a table and cracked into the jug of beer in front of us. We drank like normal, confused Tays; sipping constantly, filling silences with gulps. This was not prudent. In between slugs of beer and bites of ‘matter’, I saw a man stumbling towards us. His appearance was, to be kind, striking. Short, wearing a replica top a size too small for his gut, middle-aged and so red-faced he could go in the dictionary beside ‘Asian glow’. He sauntered towards us, slapped Zack on the back and started babbling in Vietnamese. We realised this man wanted to drink with us and suddenly he was a little less frightening. After draining our glasses, at his insistence, he staggered off, with a story to tell his co-workers at the mechanics/restaurant/police station. Soon, it felt like every man in the room wanted to come see us, say something in Vietnamese, and demand we down our drink. Worse still, the men sat beside us started rolling joints and passing them to us. We did drive here you know, I whispered to one man, getting only grins and back slaps in reply. This process was repeated ad infinitum, until what must have been the chairman/president/big dick of the supporters club grabbed a microphone. Some words in Vietnamese and then boom! One of the degenerates had let off a flare! Indoors! Suddenly everyone was conga-dancing around the room. They started singing and letting off more flares. More men forced us to drink.
I looked around the room and saw men, women and children, singing, dancing and drinking, all bathed in the warm red glow of the flares. I realised I had been looking for lunatics in the wrong place. Of course no-one took the football too seriously or got too angry. This was Vietnam, where being run over is just a minor inconvenience. Why lose sleep over a bloody game? But a night away from their wives and plenty of beer had turned the mild-mannered coal miners into diet hooligans. They were singing, dancing, drinking, spilling, shouting and starting fires. There was no tantalising promise of potential violence associated with football in Blighty. Maybe that made the incredible scene in front of me all the more impressive – no-one wanted to take anyone’s head off, this wasn’t rage-borne exuberance. They wanted to shout, dance, sing, and scream to the heavens because they could. No local party official, wife or mistress could stop them, tonight anyway.
By midnight us Tays were all fairly well on and clucking for a dance floor and women who spoke some English. Of course our Vietnamese hosts (they paid for everything, poverty breeds generosity) got on their bus home, ready to nod off. We continued our night, in a haze of blown tyres and cheap beer, with the feeling that we had been part of something special for a night.