Vietnam, August 2015 – July 2017
Another work contract comes to an end and it’s time to bid farewell to another country. On leaving South Korea and the Basque Country, I have roughly followed Matt’s end-of-season award format to reflect on my football watching experiences. Vietnam, though, where my groundhopping experiences have been limited, requires something different.
Instead, I have chosen 25 photographs that reflect the fantastic times I have had watching football here. While they have been chosen mostly for some personal significance, I hope they provide some insight into Vietnamese football and football culture.
This photo is from the first game I attended in Vietnam when I somehow ended up buying a ticket for the VIP section (I never returned there, unfortunately). The flag and anthem ceremony was something I would need to get used to, as it takes place before every game here.
On the field, the first goal I witnessed in Vietnam was scored by then 18-year old Nguyễn Quang Hải, who would be one of the country’s break out stars over the next two years. Quang Hải was also one of three loanees from the city’s other team, Hà Nội T&T, to score in the 4-0 win (the others being Trịnh Duy Long and Phạm Đức Huy).
2. Hà Nội T&T vs Than Quang Ninh (September 12, 2015)
Hà Nội T&T’s main supporters group, the ‘Contras’ have changed a lot in the last two years. Firstly, their numbers have expanded beyond the small core section in the photo. They’ve also seen the team they support change its name and its principal colour. I still haven’t learned exactly who or what it is they are ‘contra,’ though.
This game’s only goal came from Nguyễn Văn Quyết with a free-kick. Văn Quyết is probably the best Vietnamese footballer currently playing and, while he hasn’t ever been prolific, he was to score several important goals for his team over the next 18 months.
3. Becamex Bình Dương vs Boeung Ket Angkor (December 6, 2015)
Bình Dương (in red) were Vietnamese champions in 2015, earning themselves not just a place in the 2016 AFC Champions League, but also in the less celebrated Toyota Mekong Football Championship. Despite being based more than 1,500km away, this ‘home’ fixture against Cambodia’s Boeung Ket Angkor took place at Hàng Đẫy Stadium in Hanoi.
Were I following Matt’s awards format, I’d introduce the hipster footballer category at this point. Cambodia’s Chan Vathanaka can be seen lining up a penalty in this photo; he scored, one of three goals he got in his side’s surprise 3-2. CV11, as I’ve since seen him to referred to, has moved on to Japanese team Fujieda MYFC.
Vietnamese football changes fast and this photo is a good indicator of that. In the build-up to this game it was announced that Hà Nội FC (in pink) would be moving south to become Sài Gòn FC, making this the only Hanoi derby I attended.
A year later, Hà Nội T&T adopted the departed team’s name and, somewhere along the way, they also changed their home shirts (it was never actually clear in the first place whether home was yellow and away was white or vice versa; it’s an ongoing V,League bugbear) to purple. Sài Gòn FC have at least stuck with pink so far.
5. Hà Nội FC vs Đà Nẵng (March 13, 2016)
A week later, Hà Nội FC played and won their last game in the capital, defeating Đà Nẵng FC 3-0. The game was notable for the first goal scored in Vietnam by Jean-Eudes Maurice, a Haitian international who spent a few seasons with PSG. He only scored one more goal and lasted just three more games for the re-branded team, highlighting how brief a foreign import’s stay can often be.
There wasn’t much of a backlash against the switch, but it probably hasn’t worked out the way the owners were hoping. Sài Gòn FC are doing well on the field in 2017, but home crowds since they moved have regularly been the league’s lowest.
Beer is big in Vietnam. Locals consume more than anyone else in Southeast Asia and only the Japanese and Koreans drink more across Asia. It’s not really part of local football culture, however. That didn’t stop me finding time to enjoy a few beers on match days, with HaiPhong Beer, Na Da Beer, and any number of Saigon’s craft beers all adding to the match day experience. This warm can of Hanoi Beer, poured into a bag and drunk through a straw, did not.
On the field, Vietnam won 4-1 in the first game of new coach Nguyễn Hữu Thắng’s regime. Legendary striker Lê Công Vinh scored a brace and a number of young players performed well, most notably Nguyễn Văn Toàn who also got two goals on his debut.
My first trip to watch football outside Hanoi was to nearby Haiphong. Hải Phòng’s fans were starting to dream having opened the 2016 season with seven consecutive wins, and the visit of reigning champions Bình Dương attracted a crowd of 28,000, the largest during my time following the V.League.
The game was a pretty dull 0-0, but the big crowd, the few hours in the brewery across the street, and this pretty sunset over Lạch Tray Stadium meant it hadn’t been a wasted visit at all.
8. Hà Nội T&T vs Hải Phòng (May 8, 2016)
The following week, thousands of Hải Phòng fans made the journey by bus, car or motorbike to the capital and they far outnumbered home fans among this 9,500 crowd. After parading around the city on their scooter, they finally congregated en masse outside the ground. It all made for a great atmosphere.
However, they were to leave disappointed, as T&T ended the visitors unbeaten start. Errol Stevens scored an excellent free-kick to cancel out Hoàng Vũ Samson’s opener for T&T, but Samson, the V.League’s all-time record goalscorer, scored a 93rd minute winner to stun the away support.
9 – 11. Hà Nội T&T vs Quảng Nam (May 22, 2016)
Another ex-PSG striker had arrived in Hanoi in the 2016 off-season, and, like Maurice, Loris Arnaud flattered to deceive; his goal in this impressive 3-0 win was his first in the V.League. Hà Nội T&T were in ninth place heading into the game, but victory started a run that would see them lose only three more games all season.
There were plenty of other reasons to enjoy this day. I finally succumbed to the inevitably of supporting Hà Nội T&T and bought a shirt. I also got to meet Mr. Tuan Nguyen Quang, who can be easily identified at most football matches in Hanoi (and on TV at games further afield) by his elaborate headgear- often a large rocket- and outlandish, football-themed clothing, like the Hà Nội T&T suit in the photo. I love his enthusiasm for football, which, just a few weeks later, manifested itself in the form of an outfit featuring the flags of all the countries at Euro 2016.
After the game, as we did after most home games, our expanding little group of foreign supporters headed around the corner to Chicken Street (Lý Văn Phúc) for some of the finest grilled poultry in the city.
12. Viettel FC vs Đồng Nai (July 10, 2016)
Hà Nội FC may have departed earlier in the season, but Viettel FC would play their 2016 home V.League 2 games at Hàng Đẫy. The club, owned by and named after the country’s leading telecoms company, were once the biggest draw in Vietnamese football. As Thể Công, they were the team of the People’s Army and were national champions on five occasions; more than any other team.
For a while, there were rumours the big crowds that followed them in those days might return once the club moved back to the capital, but so far attendances have tended to number in the hundreds. Viettel FC have, like others in Vietnam, opted for youth in the search for success and are producing some great technical players, like national team defender Bùi Tiến Dũng. They have not yet discovered how to produce someone to regularly put the ball in the back of the net, and every Viettel game I attended was a low-scoring affair. Maybe the crowds will return once they find that elusive Vietnamese striker.
13. Hải Phòng vs Hà Nội T&T (August 13, 2016)
This is probably my favourite photo from my time here. A lot of football fans in Vietnam are followers of the European game, but here was a group of committed supporters doing a conga line in the rain while their local team was losing at the home of their biggest rivals.
14. Hà Nội T&T vs Cần Thơ (August 17, 2016)
This is the other contender for my favourite photo. Bill, my regular Vietnamese football companion and podcast co-presenter, has a lovely Hàng Đẫy sunset as his Twitter accoutn (@soccervietnam) header photo, and I was always jealous of it. The sunsets are often great behind the main stand and I was particularly happy to be there to capture this one.
Hà Nội T&T, however, suffered their second loss in a week, and the momentum that had built up in recent months was in danger of being lost.
15 – 16. Hà Nội T&T vs Thanh Hóa (September 18, 2016)
At the start of the dramatic final day of the 2016 V.League 1 season, four teams could potentially have ended the day as champions. Despite their slow start, Hà Nội T&T were now top of the league. However, they had the toughest challenge of the four contenders, facing fifth-placed Thanh Hóa, who themselves had been in involved in the title race for most of the season.
At least they were at home. I’d been to all 12 previous league home fixtures, but work meant I would be arriving late to this one. With Thanh Hóa bringing a decent crowd and the possibility of a trophy boosting home support, the gates had, frustratingly, already been locked by the time I turned up. I waited patiently with others, watching the game on the TV of one of the cafes under the stand.
The gates eventually opened around the 70-minute mark. Gonzalo Marronkle had given T&T an early lead to calm any nerves, and the ever-reliable captain fittingly headed in an injury time second to seal the club’s third title.
17. Vietnam U19 vs Australia U19 (September 19, 2016)
By this game, a year and a bit after I had first visited, Hàng Đẫy had really grown on me. Some of its gaping cracks were highlighted in a video shared online just before this tournament began, but its ramshackleness is part of its appeal. For my final months in Vietnam it has been undergoing some much-needed repairs, meaning I didn’t have the chance to say a final goodbye. I love this photo of it with the Hồ Chí Minh portrait, the golden-starred flag, and the players proudly singing the anthem.
The game underlined the prominence currently being placed on youth football in Vietnam, and the pressure that it is resulting in for the players. There was a decent crowd of expectant home fans, many of whom left when Vietnam found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. There was an entertaining second half comeback, but they eventually went down 5-2.
The investment in youth, however, is paying off. A few months later, this squad made it to the semi-finals of the AFC U20 Championship, which meant they became the first Vietnamese team to qualify for a FIFA World Cup.
18. Thailand U19 vs Australia U19 (September 24, 2016)
Thailand are Vietnam’s biggest footballing rivals, but their brilliant fans meant we were cheering the young War Elephants on in the final. Unfortunately, they were unable to repeat their 5-1 win over Australia in the group stage, losing comfortably by the same scoreline.
The fans, quite a few of whom seemed to have travelled from Thailand, were great. As well as this giant flag- complete with local policeman on his phone underneath- there was near constant drumming and singing.
19. Hà Nội FC vs FLC Thanh Hóa (March 19, 2017)
Just like Hải Phòng in 2016, Thanh Hóa arrived in the capital on a long unbeaten start to the season. They had made some sound transfers, like podcast favourite Uche Iheruome who had scored five goals in his first nine starts, and brought in a new manager: Ljupko Petrovic, who famously led Red Star Belgrade to victory in the 1991 European Cup.
With strong travelling support and some help from Hà Nội FC’s new co-owners, SCG of Thailand, the crowd was bumped up to 18,000; the biggest I’d seen at Hàng Đẫy. It was also probably the best V.League game I witnessed. The quality was high by V.League standards, but there was also plenty of drama.
First Samson missed a penalty, before Omar Pape Faye, probably the V.League’s best player in 2017, gave Thanh Hóa the lead. Hà Nội defender Nguyễn Thành Chung equalised with a spectacular volley on 80 minutes, and then Petrovic was sent to the stands for some very aggressive protesting after a disallowed goal. Finally, just as had happened the previous year, a rival’s unbeaten start came to an end in injury-time at Hàng Đẫy Stadium, when Đinh Tiến Thành comically headed past his own keeper.
20. Hà Nội FC vs FELDA United (May 5, 2017)
Elimination by Hong Kong’s Kitchee FC in the AFC Champions League qualifying round, meant Hà Nội FC would play in the AFC Cup, the second-tier continental tournament. Bill and I were excited and confident that Hà Nội would do well, but it all ended in disappointment.
First, it was announced that both Hà Nội and Than Quảng Ninh would play their games at Mỹ Đình, despite Quảng Ninh’s home ground being 400km away. Next it was announced that one of Quảng Ninh’s opponents, Laotian champions Lanexang United, withdrew meaning one fewer game to attend (and who doesn’t want to see Laos’ finest).
Playing at Mỹ Đình, as the largely empty stadium in the photo might suggest, didn’t help either team and neither made it out of the group stage. I only got to two of the five games that took place there, but at least this 4-1 win for Hà Nội had goals, including a long-range rocket from Phạm Đức Huy.
After much procrastinating, I finally made it to this little ground earlier this year; with three Second Division teams using it as their home ground, it was going to be difficult to avoid. As the concrete terracing shows, it’s a ground of real character. There’s also a great old score board and a cafe on the other side of the ground offering cold beers, bowls of noodles, and a view of the action.
22. Hanoi Football Show interview with Errol Stevens, (June 23, 2017)
Knowing I wouldn’t be visiting too many new grounds in Vietnam, and therefore not writing too many new blog posts, I decided to look for another platform to delve into the local football culture. A few months in, I asked Bill whether he’d be interested in doing a podcast about Vietnamese and, even though it wasn’t something either of us had ever done before, the Hanoi Football Show was born.
The highlight was meeting Errol Stevens, a Jamaican international who is currently in his third successful season with Hải Phòng FC. He was kind enough to chat to us before this season’s big northern derby and talk about his experiences in Vietnam and elsewhere.
23. Hà Nội FC vs Hải Phòng (June 24, 2017)
Hà Nội FC’s game against Hải Phòng is probably the biggest match currently played in the V.League and often creates a fiery (literally) atmosphere. The travelling fans outnumbered the home support in this game, played at Mỹ Đình while Hàng Đẫy underwent refurbishments.
Loris Arnaud, who was vastly-improved after being somewhat surprisingly retained for a second season, opened the scoring and Văn Quyết doubled the advantage, despite having had Sầm Ngọc Đức sent off. With ten minutes remaining, the Hải Phòng fans began hurling flares and bottles onto the track that surrounds the field and have since been banned from away games for the remainder of the season.
This is in the supporters section of Thiên Trường Stadium, Nam Định. Bill and I finally paid an overdue visit last month. Nam Định won this game comfortably and earlier this month sealed promotion to V.League 1, where I think they’ll be a great addition to the league.
The photo also shows the importance of music in Vietnamese grounds. The brass and drums on show are generally more prevalent than singing and chanting and these guys were among the best I’d seen, along with Viettel’s brass band and Đà Nẵng’s saxophonist.
My 49th and final game in Vietnam. 49 was a frustrating number to finish on, especially as opportunities for a 50th were dangled in front of me before being cruelly taken away. At least I ended on a good game. Sông Lam Nghệ An often have a large away support in the big cities and this photo is of their impressive motorcycle parade before the game. I also got to see a few goals, grab a tasty bánh mì, and meet the guys of the HCMC UK supporters group, the only (I think) organised, English-league fans group in the V.League (i.e. they have a Facebook group).
Before I arrived, I knew nothing about Vietnamese football beyond what Bill was writing on his blog- vietfootball.com– or on his Twitter feed. I leave, I hope, with a decent understanding of the V.League and the country’s football culture. It’s great to see more and more people taking an interest and an increasing amount of English language coverage of Vietnamese football appearing on social media.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that this is happening now because Vietnamese football is clearly on the rise. I had two great years watching Hà Nội FC and seeing two exciting groups of young players, the U20 World Cup squad and the young men who will represent their country at the upcoming SEA Games and AFC U23 Championship. I’m confident these players will be able to give a good account of themselves and their country in these tournaments and others to come.