Hanoi, Vietnam – Football is the world’s game, but that doesn’t mean it’s my game or my country’s game. Like many American kids I grew up playing baseball and watching American football and basketball, which means my natural instinct is to catch and throw a ball, not kick it. So, you can imagine my trepidation as I stood on a football field after entering the game as a sub on defense. My roommate and I had been invited to play by our office, and when they said it was just a friendly game I figured it would be fun to try my hand, er foot, at the game and see what made it so popular.
But, this wasn’t just a few guys out fooling around and having some fun. No, this was two teams playing hard and trying their best to win. For someone who hadn’t played football since he was five or six years old, it was slightly intimidating, albeit pretty cool to watch (from the sidelines). There’s a big difference when someone says it’s been five years since they played, and I’m thinking I haven’t played in twenty-five. Oh well, it was nonetheless an excellent cultural experience and a lot of fun – one of my favorite nights while in Hanoi.
Some highlights from the evening:
- Originally, we thought we would have enough time to go home, change, eat and return to the office. But, like all plans, our’s was meant to be broken. There was no time to go home if we wanted a ride to the field. So, we had to find a restaurant close to the office and play in our work clothes (fortunately, polo shirts and shorts).
About that restaurant, I wasn’t too hungry and didn’t want to eat a big meal before running around all over a field. So, I thought I would buy the cheapest, smallest thing on the menu (Vietnamese sausages that were really just hot dogs) to just hold me over until after the game. Or so I thought. There were two menus, one with the real price and one with a different price. After a lot of back and forth with the waitress (who spoke maybe five words in English), it was determined that the real price was the same as my roommate’s full dinner. While the sausages were good, they weren’t miss out on a giant plate of what looked like really good food good enough.
- One of the senior researchers gave us a ride to the field in his car. And, it was a real car, not some little ass smart car or Peugeot. It was pretty much the first thing I could actually fit into comfortably in Vietnam – and it had air conditioning.
- We arrived at the field plenty early to warm up and prepare for the match. Only, it wasn’t the right field. So, everyone piled back into their cars and onto their motorbikes and away we went, at least in theory, to the new field. But, no one knew where we were going. This being Vietnam, a convoy of three or four cars and five to seven motorbikes stopped in the middle of the road while a couple people went off in different directions to find the field. Once found, a call was made and the convoy moved on. Of course, this being Vietnam, no one seemed to care that an entire lane of traffic was blocked by a lost group of footballers.
- Once we arrived at the field, the scene was like something straight out of Los Angeles (or a scene out of White Men Can’t Jump), only with football fields instead of basketball courts. There were palm trees, skyscrapers, wide boulevards, and three football fields wedged into the middle of it all.
- In the US we have the water bucket or the Gatorade bucket for when you’re thirsty during a game. In Vietnam, they have the tea bucket. Seems fitting.
- Out of deference to everyone else who actually knew what they were doing, we decided to start the game sitting on the sideline as subs. My roommate played around 10 minutes in the first half, and acquitted himself well. He even received a smattering of cheers after serving up a nice header to clear a ball on defense.
- I, on the hand, had a much different experience when I entered as a defensive sub for the last two minutes of the half. Considering I had to keep telling myself not to catch the ball, I think I did okay. No goals were scored, even though I cleared the ball directly to the other team that left them with an open shot on goal (which they thankfully missed). Instead of cheers, everyone was holding their breath as the clock wound down.
- In the second half, the best players played, which means we came nowhere close to getting on the field. In the end, the other team was just too strong, and we fell 7-2 (or maybe it 7-4). Despite the loss, it was a fun and memorable evening.
- While we may have lost the game, we definitely won in terms of fan support. Many of the girls from the office and a sister clinic showed up to cheer on the team. They stood on the sideline banging pots and pans together while yelling at the top of their lungs. It was a pretty cool sight. For our part, my roommate and I kept yelling “C’mon!, c’mon!”, at least until we realized we were yelling “thank you” in Vietnamese (it’s only slightly awkward when the other team is in position to launch a shot on goal).
- After the game, we went to a beer garden to partake in a sport I actually do quite well in – beer drinking. As it was an office team sponsored by, well, the office, the beer kept flowing and my glass was never empty. The cool thing is both teams sat at the same table, drank together, and showed that the game was the game and the bar was the bar. Everyone was friends now, which meant lots of clanking glasses and shouts of tram phan tram (bottoms up!). And, even though we didn’t play much, that didn’t preclude us from being included in all the festivities.
- The appetizers/small plates that were served with the beer were right up my alley. Boiled peanuts, fermented meat rolls (might sound slightly unappetizing, but it tastes so good with sweet chili sauce), and this meat dish that tasted like beef jerky. Beer, boiled peanuts, and beef jerky – this Southern boy was in heaven.
- By the time things started to simmer down a little bit, it was late and the buses had stopped running. There also weren’t many, if any, taxis driving down the street. So, my roommate and I hitched a ride on the back of a couple motorbikes to our house. We’d all been drinking, they didn’t have extra helmets for us, and the guy I was riding with forgot to put down his foot rest bars (which means I was trying to balance myself on the back of a moving bike without dragging my feet on the ground). Probably wasn’t the smartest idea in the world, but when Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do, right? Either way it was a ton of fun riding through the streets of Hanoi with the wind in my hair and not a care in the world. What a way to end a great night.