Our second week in Hai Phong started just like the previous one, with no expectations of anything being any different to what we had already experienced. Little did we know at that point that it was the week of the semi finals and the finals of the Under 23 Asia Cup football and that this would have a huge impact on the mood of the country. Even though it was only the under 23 team, the fact that they had made it to the semi finals had captured the attention of the entire country.
The semi final match was played on Tuesday night and as we were walking to get dinner we noticed that all of the coffee shops that had TVs were packed with people. Everyone was out to support the Vietnam Under23 team. Scooters stopped in the middle of the road to catch a glimpse of the score, or to catch the rest of the match on their way home. The whole of one side of one of the main roads, Lach Try, was blocked off with row upon row of eager scooter drivers outside one coffee shop.
The Vietnam Under 23s rose to victory after 30 minutes of extra time, on a penalty shoot out and won the match 2-1 against Qatar. They were going to be in the final on Saturday. This was a historic moment. No Vietnam football team had ever made it to the finals of a tournament of this size and the whole country was celebrating already. Glowing with pride (literally, as flares were being let off in the streets), the whole city shone red on Tuesday night.
Every game we played at school for the rest of the week consisted of team names of “Vietnam U23” and when that had been chosen by the first team in my grade 5 class, the second team was then called “Vietnam U11”. Some teams chose to be Qatar simply because they’d made it to the semi finals, but nobody wanted to be Uzbekistan (who they were up against in the finals on Saturday). The schools were wild in all the right ways as the children chanted “Vietnam. Vo Dic” or “Vietnam. Champions” at break time, and before each and every round of any game we played with them in class. The streets of Hai Phong, even wilder.
On Saturday for the game, DTLC, the language centre through which we’re employed in Hai Phong, set up a massive speaker and streamed the game on their enormous TV outside the main office in town. We had benches across the street, Bia Hoi, prawn cocktail crisps, assorted nuts, incredible company and everyone who drove past paused to shout, chant, watch, check the score, hoot or wave. The vibe was unbelievable.
Sadly, Vietnam lost in the second last minute of over time as Uzbekistan scored their second goal of the match, and while there were tears, it did little to dampen the spirit of the city. The skies glowed red yet again as the streets filled flare-carrying motorbike riders. Chants filled the air in spite of the loss. Beer flowed, as did rice wine, among chants of Mot, Hai Ba, Zoi and people celebrated the fact that the team had even made it as far as the finals.
It was an incredible experience and something none of us will forget in a hurry.