Nam Định FC vs. Bóng đa Huế
Thiên Trường Stadium, V.League 2, June 25, 2017
If all goes to plan, then July will be my last month in Vietnam. That means the race is on to have attended 50 Vietnamese football games by the time I leave. For groudhoppers who regularly post three-figure seasons, 50 games in two years may seem a modest target. Seasons here, however, are short (26 game weeks in the top-flight, just 14 in this season’s second tier) and most of my weekends during those two years have been spent at work; 50 might not be a lot, but I’ll be very satisfied to reach that tally.
Following a weekend double-header, 50 also now looks achievable. First was Hà Nội FC versus Hải Phòng FC. This is probably the biggest fixture currently played in V.League 1. The two cities are 120 kilometres apart- very close in V.League terms- and their teams finished last season as the league’s top two, Hà Nội edging the title on goal difference. The build-up online was impressive and thousands of Hải Phòng fans were rumoured to be making the journey. We, Bill from vietfootball.com and I, even managed to add to the hype by securing an interview with Hải Phòng striker Errol Stevens for our Hanoi Football Show podcast.
The rumours turned out to be true, and as Bill and I sat in a cafe opposite Mỹ Đình Stadium, bus- and car-loads of Hải Phòng fans arrived, mostly hanging out of windows and doors and waving flares. It was all very friendly outside the ground, but things got a little out of hand as the match approached its climax. Despite having been reduced to ten men in the first half, Hà Nội were leading 2-0 when flares and bottles rained down from the Hải Phòng fans onto the running track, causing the game to be halted for several minutes. In terms of noise and numbers, Hải Phòng have probably the best fans in the league, but for the second time this season their behaviour is likely to cost their team in fines and perhaps more games behind closed doors.
That was game #46, but game #47 almost didn’t happen. Bill and I parted on separate motorbike taxis with no firmer plans than “Nam Định tomorrow, then?” Despite being just 85 kilometres from Hanoi and having decent train and bus links, neither of us had yet made the trip and another postponement seemed on the cards. However, a few early morning messages later, we found ourselves on the 10:50am Futa Lines bus heading south. The road, a few noticeably big bumps aside, was good and the countryside was pretty, with a surprising number of churches. By 12:30pm, we found ourselves under the hot blue skies of Nam Định.
The city of Nam Định is home to almost 400,000 people and is famous for being the home of perhaps Vietnam’s most famous culinary export: phở bò. It was also the birth place of Trần Hưng Đạo’, under whose legendary leadership the Vietnamese military managed to repel Mongol forces in the 13th century and whose name now adorns street names up and down the country.
The city’s football team also has history and, under various, mostly sponsor-led guises- including the brilliant Megastar Nam Định- have been part of the V.League almost since its inception. As Công Nghiệp Hà Nam Ninh, they were national champions in 1985, then finished in the top three on three occasions in the early 2000s as DPM Nam Định. Under that name, they also won the Vietnamese National Cup in 2007 and played in the 2008 Asian Champions League as a result. However, they only picked up a single point and suffered heavy losses to Kashima Antlers (0-4 and 0-6) and Krung Thai Bank (1-9). Following financial problems, they suffered successive relegations in 2010 and 2011. In 2014, they eventually won promotion from the Vietnamese Second Division and are now in their third consecutive season in V.League 2, just losing out to Viettel FC in the promotion play-offs last season.
From the bus station, we took a taxi to the stadium, hoping to find refreshment and entertainment nearby. The triumvirate of it being intensely hot at lunchtime on a Sunday meant there wasn’t much going on. Fortunately, a couple of small restaurants were open and we opted for a bowl of bún chân giò. It wasn’t a dish either of us were familiar with, but it turned out to be a delicious serving of broth, noodles, and pork knuckle. From there we set off in search of some Na Da beer, a cheaper alternative to Hanoi’s growing craft beer scene that is brewed in Nam Định.
The plan was to find the brewery, but the bar/restaurant that Google maps led us to was serving Na Da beer, so it worked out well enough. After a glass of the ‘Duchy’ premium amber ale, we switched to the silver bullets of lighter ale. Several locals came over to shake our hands and raise a glass with us, and one presented us with the business card for his dog meat restaurant. However, we declined the invitation and headed to the stadium.
Thiên Trường Stadium has a reputation as one of the Vietnam’s best outside the major cities, having been used as a venue in the 2003 Southeast Asian Games. From the outside it looks very pretty situated next to a small lake. Inside, while it has certainly seen better days, it was definitely as good as anywhere else I’ve visited in Vietnam.
We paid 20,000VND each to sit opposite the main stand. This proved a good decision, as we were sat with 100-150 Nam Định ‘ultras’ with their yellow shirts, drums, and brass section. However, without the shade provided by a roof, it was very hot.
Another reason for our delayed visit to Nam Định is that our experiences of V.League 2 have not been very entertaining- my last three games involving two V.League 2 teams (2 league, 1 cup) had resulted in just three goals- and we had viewed Nam Định as the archetypal, dull V.League 2 team. This was with some justification; in the 2016 season, games involving Nam Định featured fewer goals than any other V.League 2 team (39 in 18) and there were just 11 goals in their first ten games of that season (when they also kept eight clean sheets).
In 2017, however, something has changed. Only opponents Huế had scored more goals than Nam Định coming into this fixture, while only bottom of the league Đồng Tháp had conceded more. The change was evident on the field in the early stages, as Nam Định cut through Huế’s defence on several occasions and they had their goalkeeper to thank for keeping them in the game. Nam Định’s left-footed #10, Nguyễn Văn Hiệp, looked particularly sharp on his team’s right side, and it was he who opened the scoring. After an extremely poor defensive header, Văn Hiệp half-cushioned the ball with his left-foot, before scoring with his right.
Not long after that, the players took an extended water break, so, with the beer was winning out over the heat, I went in search of the bathroom. What I found was a darkened room with a collapsed ceiling. Break-time over, Nam Định continued to dominate, but couldn’t find a second goal.
At half-time, we left the ground for the shade provided in the street outside. While the home supporters were drinking from a keg via a bucket, we opted for a cafe we noticed selling Na Da. What we got was a watery bia hoi, but it was cold and pleasant enough.
The second half continued in much the same vain as the first, and in the 65th minute, Nam Định’s tricky left-winger Lê Sỹ Minh was fouled near the touchline. He got up to deliver a great cross that was headed in by Vũ Hữu Quý and it was looking like game over for Hue.
Nam Định were now beginning to sit back and play on the counter-attack and the third member of their impressive frontline, centre-forward Phạm Văn Thuần was expertly playing others into play. More goals seemed inevitable and a third came on 72 minutes. Sỹ Minh burst down the left, but his shot hit the far post. Văn Hiệp, however, was first to the rebound and he squared for Hoàng Minh Tuấn, who finished well.
There were more chances, but no further goals for the home team. Huế did manage a consolation in the final minutes. Trương Đình Nhân made the most of contact in the box, but a penalty was a fair result and Võ Văn Minh converted. Another long water break meant five minutes of added-time, but the final whistle did eventually sound, giving the Nam Định supporters one final chance to set off their somewhat feeble flares (which, ironically given the previous evening’s pyrotechnics, were being set up by a fan in a Hải Phòng jersey).
Feeble fireworks aside, the home fans were great. From the topless drummer, to the brass section, to the middle-aged leading the ‘Nam Định! Nam Định!’ with full-bodied gusto, there was noise throughout and they had justified our decision to sit in the sun.
It was a short taxi-ride back to the bus station, and then, stuffed into the corner of a crowded bus, we were back on the road to Hanoi. It might have been nice to have seen a bit more of Nam Định, but we couldn’t have too many complaints about a day of travel, beer, food, and football that had cost us roughly a combined £20. We also had to reevaluate out ideas about V.League 2 and Nam Định. This win moved them to the top of the league and if they manage to stay there, their beer, their ground, and their improving team will be a great addition to V.League 1.
Good: Hà Nội defeating Hải Phòng; discovering bún chân giò; Na Da beer; Nam Định’s fans; the evolution of Nam Định’s team; Nguyễn Văn Hiệp; a cheap day out
Bad: Not much on the Sunday really, unless you can count being too hot; Hải Phòng’s excessive pyro