Hanoi T&T vs Ha Noi FC, 6th March 2016
Ha Noi FC vs SHB Da Nang FC, 13th March 2016
Hang Day Stadium, V.League 1
It’s been a busy start to 2016 for me. First, and for the first time in my life, I’ve tried my hand at homebrewing. Continuing on the road to hipsterdom, I’ve also dabbled in a bit of podcasting, and most recently I started a course to complete the final part of my teaching diploma in the summer.
All this new stuff, coupled with recently turning 35, has put me in a reflective mood (I’ve even given a presentation to colleagues this week on how we can be better reflective practitioners), and having just passed the 6-month barrier of living and working in Hanoi, I thought it was also time to reflect on my early time in the Vietnamese capital.
And my reflection was that I’ve probably been overly harsh on the city. “It’s not an easy place,” is my go-to answer when I’m asked about life in Hanoi, but that really only covers the madness and inconvenience of the roads. But, if you’re brave enough to go looking, there is plenty of charm and beauty amid the chaos, and I was going to use the upcoming Hanoi derby to celebrate those positives on these pages. Football, though, my safe place, had its own nasty surprise.
Derby day began with a jog around Truc Bach Lake. The fact I’m willing to run the streets of Hanoi, is a sign that I’m coming to terms with the busy streets. Traffic is light on Sunday mornings, but pollution was not on this day and I spent much of the following week coughing and sniffing. At the end of my run, my favourite pho place was super busy, and although there are any number of other pho outlets, I went home for a more western breakfast of a fried egg baguette.
One place in Hanoi that never lets me down is the Beer Temple, so I headed there on my way to the game to reward myself for several hours of study for the aforementioned course. Then it was on to Hang Day Stadium to meet up with a growing band of Vietnamese football-goers.The stadium is just a 15-minute walk from my place and there was just enough time for a Hanoi beer at one of the cafes outside the ground before going in.
The capitals’ two teams are Hanoi T&T and Ha Noi FC and the two clubs share Hang Day Stadium. I had seen both play on one my first weekends here. Ha Noi FC are the new kids on the block, founded just a few years earlier and playing their first season in the top flight after achieving promotion last season. They also play in a brilliant all-pink strip.
For those reasons, and to add a sense of rivalry to the Vietnamese football podcast I’m part of with T&T-supporting Bill, I had declared myself a Ha Noi FC fan. Not for me, the glory of a team who have finished in the top two for the past six seasons, twice being crowned champions (I have, well had, Manchester United for that).
There had been a strong push both online and around the city, particularly from T&T fans, to drum up a crowd. The match was also free and there was certainly a larger gathering than usual inside Hang Day. We were on the terraced side behind T&T’s youthful Contras supporters group and they created a decent atmosphere, despite having recently discovered vuvuzelas.
At half-time, the match remained goalless. FC’s captain Nguyen Ngoc Duy went closest with a half-volley that had gone just over the bar. It had been a fairly boring first 45 minutes and lacked any derby-day edge.
Hanoi T&T started the second half terrifically. Ha Noi FC’s defence had been completely untroubled in the first half, but now they were struggling to deal with the excellent set-piece deliveries from T&T playmaker Nguyen Van Quyet. First, Samson headed one corner against the post, and moments later another was headed off the line. The inevitable goal came when another Van Quyet corner was flicked on at the near post and Gonzalo charged the ball over the line. Would this signal another Ha Noi FC collapse like their opening day 5-0 defeat (that had been 0-0 with 70 minutes played)?
No, FC have steeled themselves since then and went on to be the better team in the final stages. The equalizing goal came ten minutes from time. Haiti international striker Jean-Eudes Maurice spectacularly stopped a long ball going out of play with an overhead-kick. That ‘cross’ fell to Trinh Duy Long, who took an age to get his shot away, but the tame effort was flicked in by Truong Cong Thao.
Full Time: Hanoi T&T 1-1 Ha Noi FC
How did this, a late equaliser in my new favourite team’s first capital city derby, make me feel? Well, it was pretty bloody anti-climati, actually. That nasty surprise I mentioned; a few days prior to the match had come the unexpected announcement that Ha Noi FC would be leaving the capital and heading south to Ho Chi Minh City, where they will be known as Sai Gon FC.
Nevertheless, I was back at Hang Day the following Sunday for Ha Noi FC’s farewell match against high-flying SHB Da Nang FC. The previous day had been my birthday and I’d stayed out late watching the England-Wales rugby match, so there was no early morning jog or studying this week.
The game was another free admission, so this week we opted for the luxury of the seats on the other side of the stadium. Just like the previous game, it wasn’t a great first half and again the best chance fell to Ngoc Duy. This week’s volley was even better and required a good save to tip the ball over the bar; Hanoi FC’s industrious captain is a player I will miss watching.
The other first-half highlight was the Da Nang fans. Not particularly numerous, but very loud thanks to their own speaker system and wonderful saxophonist. He had a broad repertoire, which, bizarrely for March, featured Jingle Bells, and had plenty of fans tapping their feet and clicking their fingers.
This week it was Ha Noi FC who upped the second half tempo and took the lead just after the hour through Duy Long. Fifteen minutes later, a quick break and some great skill from substitute Ngan Van Dai teed up Cong Thao for the second. Another player I’ll miss is frontman Maurice. He works tirelessly and was finally rewarded for his efforts with his first goal for the club, a diving header, in the last minute.
Full-time: Ha Noi FC 3-0 Da Nang FC
It had been a great second-half performance, which made it all the more bittersweet. Players, fans, coaches and owners were all in celebratory mood as they bid farewell to their home of the last few years. With a birthday dinner to get to, I couldn’t stick around. After food, it was on to Mojito Lounge to close out the birthday weekend with a pho cocktail, a delicious rum-based drink that tastes disconcertingly like the eponymous beefy, noodle broth.
In a moment of anti-socialness and vanity, I checked Facebook (some friends must have been in a time-zone where it was still my birthday). A fellow Welsh exile, devoutly anti-modern football it seemed, was struggling with the upcoming arrival of the new football in his current home of Ho Chi Minh City. I couldn’t resist and my advice, tipsy from half a bottle of cava and at least one cocktail, was to put his beliefs aside and go along and enjoy himself.
And now, completely sober, I stand by that advice. It’s definitely not that I condone clubs moving or encourage ‘franchise football.’ Not at all. Vietnam has had organized football for a very long time, but the professional game (as we view it) is still in its nascent stages. Growing and evolving the game will require a certain amount of pragmatism. Last year, Ha Noi FC drew crowds of a few hundred and the two games I’ve described here pulled the lowest V.League 1 crowds on their respective weekends, despite both being free admission and the first being a capital city derby. It’s a pretty sad indictment of the Hanoi football scene.
I can’t claim to know much about the same scene in HCMC, but surely Vietnamese football needs a top-flight team in the country’s largest, most commercial city. That, for the moment, this requires parachuting a team in from elsewhere is sad, but maybe what the game here needs.
I don’t know who I’ll be cheering for now. There’s Viettel FC in the V.League 2, which gets underway soon, but the corporate name and backing don’t fill me with the confidence that I won’t be back in the same situation further down the line. And, of course, there’s still Hanoi T&T. They’re bottom of the league at the time of writing, so the glory-hunter tag may not apply after all.
Good: some exciting games and improving performance so; Nguyen Ngoc Duy and Jean-Eudes Maurice; Da Nang’s saxophonist; pho cocktails
Bad: ‘my’ team moving to another city!