“Việt Nam vô địch! Việt Nam vô địch!!”. That’s one of the only few things I learned in Vietnamese, it stands for “Vietnam Champion!”
I had no idea that Vietnamese cared so much about football. Although, I think they didn’t even know themselves. In the past days Vietnam reached the final stages of the U23 Asian Cup and the entire country went completely crazy. Every Vietnamese you’d talk to, anywhere, in a shop, in a club, at the mechanics…they would all smile broadly and say “Việt Nam vô địch!”.
It all started for us in Hue, when during the quarter finals Vietnam was facing Iraq. I had perceived a bit of football hype in the days before that to be fair, but didn’t bother paying any attention. That night was different though. There was a big mess in the street and people seemed to be watching football in every bar, restaurant, pub, shop, house…I with David and other backpackers were still pretending nothing was happening, until all in a sudden everyone shouting in the street like crazy. Alright, here it gets serious, let’s see what happening. The two teams had gone to extra time after drawing 1-1, then Iraq scored and soon after that Vietnam had quickly levelled up, 2-2. They were heading towards a penalty shoot-out.
Let’s watch then.
One minute and Vietnam scored again!
DELIRIUM…People jumping, shouting, chanting, beeping their bikes horns.
4 minutes of joy, then Iraq scored again. 3-3. “OMG. I like this shit, these teams are horrible, but it looks fun!”
They went to penalties.
Vietnam go first…GOAL!
Iraq…and it’s SAVED!! Central, appalling penalty, easy save.
Vietnam…last penalty. Scoring this they would bring home the game…the goalkeeper saves it….no…the ball is just deviated and it’s GOAL!!!
Loads of people got to their motorbikes starting parading around. A Vietnamese city is loud by norm, having the road completely full of bikes is an everyday scene. Now imagine everyone riding their bikes, beeping their horns and waving the red flags of Vietnam, shouting and chanting. That was loud. It was a sea of red flags with the classic yellow star in the middle. It was amazing. It was all night long.
The day of the semifinal we woke up in Phong Nha, a place famous for its caves, the plan was to head to Ninh Binh which however was 8 hours riding away. Too much for a day. We had to stop somewhere halfway, probably in Vinh, a big industrial city, but definitely not a tourist destination. I thought to leave fairly early in order to arrive in time for the game, but Italo convinced me to join him for a cave tour by boat in the morning. It was the slowest boat ever. We thought it would take just a couple of hours, but it took all day. It was quite boring, mostly because we could have left at the entrance of the cave, but they made us start at the beginning of the river. Useless. The cave was cool though.
David was out of games that day, he was dying in bed for some food poisoning or some unidentified illness. He didn’t come to the boat tour and when we were finally ready, as a good friend and travel companion I left him there, alone, sweating in his bunk bed, drowning in the breadcrumbs of some shitty biscuits which were the only thing he could eat. Horrible scene.
I sat off only with Italo. It was late. The game started while we were riding through the villages, we could somehow follow it as every screen was tuned it to it and every single person was watching it. When it was meant to be the end of the game, we stopped in a sort of cafe. The result was 2-2, extra time again.
“Shall we watch the extra time here?” That thought touched us only for a moment, we couldn’t possibly ride in the dark as our bike lights were too shit and we were halfway to Vinh in a village without any accommodation. Plus the “cafe” was pretty shit.
We started riding again and after a while it was clear. Vietnam had won again, later on we discovered it was after a penalty shootout again. The road which seemed fairly quiet so far started to be busy, it was countryside, but still there were quite a few bikes riding around and beeping their horns with Vietnamese flags. The party was on…again.
When we reached Vinh, it wasn’t just a party, it was a jungle. Probably I’ve never seen so many bikes all together. The noise was incredible, it was all red, because of the flags, the clothes, the painting, the smoke…”Việt Nam vô địch! Việt Nam vô địch!!” The situation was unreal. There was no logic in the traffic, you were just trying to pass through the crowd as if you were standing on your feet at a concert.
Obviously I lost Italo there. I reached the hostel we had booked on the way, checked in and waited. Italo arrived half an hour later, his eye wide-opened, the face pale. Apparently someone had crashed into his bike and fell face down in a lake of blood. Italo was stopped by the police while an ambulance arrived to assist the guy who had crashed. Italo shat himself (literally I think).
Eventually the policeman had gone to Italo saying “Don’t worry. He many beers. You go.” Letting Italo intend that the guy who had crashed was very drunk and it was his fault. Apparently the guy still bleeding went even to Italo to say sorry.
After giving Italo a few moments to recover we went out for dinner. We stopped in a local restaurant. They are usually have a lot of tables just on the sidewalk of the road. The tables are very low, with a grill in the middle, on which you’re meant to roast the food which is served raw. People are sitting around these tables very tiny stools. Vietnamese love that crouched down position.
Before we could even sit a table a guy shouted to us “Việt Nam vô địch! Viet Nam Viet Nam!!”. We of course replied “Việt Nam vô địch!”. He was sitting with three girls and invited us to join them at their table. Alright, we join, why not.
They gave us some of their food already cooked, roll us some dumplings trying to teach us how to do it and ordered some more food for everybody. We obviously had no idea what they ordered, but what could we say. The conversation was very limited, only the guy could speak english, the girls were just nodding and smiling. I mean it looked like Italo kind of managed to chat a girl up somehow, but Italo had his resources.
The guy started calling up some toasting, obviously to the “Vietnam Champions”, pouring in shot glasses a very strong liquor. We had several shots. More tables joined in and more liquor bottles arrived. At some point we were sitting among 20 Vietnamese, of which only 2 o 3 could speak a little bit of english.
A guy sitting next to me could only say “sorry”, so he kept saying to me “Sorry, sorry…sorry! Sorry!” That made me laugh. He thought he was funny because I was laughing, so he would say it even more…FFS
In the meantime, the red parade of beeping motorbikes passed a few times in the road, louder and louder. Every time they passed, we would all stand up and go by the road to join them in the celebrations.
Everyone got pretty drunk, the food and the shots kept arriving, until they all decided to go to a karaoke bar. We were not allowed to leave. Had to go to the karaoke bar, which anyway was more like a club. There we took a huge table, they ordered us beers and again food…this time was only fruit. We were not allowed to decide or to pay. It was amazing. We were literally the only foreigners in that club – as well as we had been at the restaurant.
The final was against Uzbekistan. That day we were in Cat Bá, in Halong Bay. This time we had arrived a day earlier and we were well ready for the game. They had built a maxi-screen by the waterfront and started selling bandanas, face paints and flags from the morning. We bought everything. Ready to support Vietnam for this last step.
The game would only start in the evening, but the streets were already filled with people parading with flags on their bikes from the early afternoon. The country had stopped.
At 19.30 the game started. It was in China and the pitch was completely white covered in snow. The atmosphere was jovial, smiles all around and people chanting. That didn’t last long though, after 8’ an early girl of Uzbekistan froze the square.
The chanting stopped drastically, now all that happiness and optimism which had been in the air for the past 4 days had been replaced by anxiety. Everyone was staring at the screen, standing up on the chairs, on the lamp posts, on their bikes. Policemen standing next to shop assistants, mums with kids in their arms, old people and children. Everyone with their face painted and flags in the hands.
41′ free kick for Vietnam from a very good position. From there goes the guy who had scored two goals in the semi-final against Qatar, the best player of the team (called of course Nguyen), the free kick specialist with his left foot. Short run-up, ball headed to the top left corner and…GOOOOAALL!!!
The second half resumed, both teams were slow and cautious. The football level was extremely low, incredibly boring. The regular time finished 1-1. Extra time. Vietnam was aiming to another penalty shootout, their speciality.
Everyone was chanting, they were nervous of course, but optimist. They had won 2 games like that, why not the third. The whole extra time went by without any shot from one side to another. Just when it was about to finish, at the very last minute, Uzbekistan won a corner kick. Last chance for them. Last chance to avoid the penalties.. Ball in the middle, everybody misses the headers, the ball floats dangerously through the middle of the box and then with a shy left foot, Sidorov a Uzbeki player who had entered just minutes before pushed the ball in the goal.
Silence. Dead silence.
It was the last minute of extra time of the final. It was over.
I don’t know how to say it, but “Việt Nam was not vô địch”.
It was a very sad moment, seeing all those beautiful people crying or on the brink of it. I felt very sorry for all of them. It reminded me of Baggio missing the penalty in 94′, of Di Biagio in 98′, of Trezeguet scoring the golden goal in 2000…fuck I lived that too many times. I know what it feels.