Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Việt Nam Vô Địch!

Everybody loves it when the home team wins. And in Hanoi, a victory in football (soccer), the national obsession, is cause for delirium. Tonight, I had the opportunity to see Hanoi erupt, as Vietnam roundly thrashed Singapore 4-1 in the semi-final match of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, in order to set up Thursday's championship match against Malaysia.

This victory does more than put Vietnam at the threshold of a championship; it signals the country's emergence as a regional sporting powerhouse. To put it in perspective, the 2009 SEA Games mark the 50th anniversary of an event that has been held biennially since 1958. The games, held under the supervision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), not only feature perennial Olympic favorites, such as gymnastics, volleyball, and wrestling, but some lesser-known sports such as Pencak Silat, Pétanque, and the painful-sounding Shuttlecock-Kicking (one only hopes the athletes, and their shuttlecocks, are properly protected).

Since its foundation, the Games have been regarded as the premier regional sporting event for the 11 participating countries. In the all-time metal count, Indonesia and Thailand tower above the field. But Vietnam, third place in the last two SEA Games, has been moving up the rankings, and in this year's event, Vietnam narrowly trails arch-rival Thailand in the total medal count. This kind of success bolsters Vietnam's socialist government, which since 1975 has actively promoted sports with the slogan, "To be strong to construct and defend the country." At a more visceral level, however, Vietnam best chance to win its first-ever SEA Games gold medal in the national sport (previous soccer champion Thailand has already been eliminated) has fans frothing at the mouth.
The visible sign of all this frothing is, naturally, the traditional celebratory traffic jam. Apparently, every time Vietnam wins a major sporting event, Hanoians don their red jerseys, drape themselves in the national flag, get on their bikes and go clog the already-clogged streets of the city even more. The din is frightful; drivers lean on their horns with extra vigor, and roll through the city yelling and screaming like maddened yaks. Frankly, the yelling, along with the sudden appearance of yellow stars on blood-red fields, are all that differentiate it from normal Hanoi traffic. But it's hard not to get caught up in the fun, especially when one sees little children, scarcely aware of what they're cheering for, jumping up and down and waving their flags.
It's all jolly good, and reason enough to hope that Vietnam's Young Lions come out roaring Thursday night and crush Malaysia as they did Singapore. The victory chant, Việt Nam Vô Địch!, translates roughly into "invincible against adversaries." VIỆT NAM VÔ ĐỊCH! VIỆT NAM VÔ ĐỊCH!


  1. Hey, I wrote about this in my new blog about Hanoi too -- but with nowhere near your eloquence or command of Vietnamese. See it at hanoikathy.wordpress.com. I know this is a bit forward of me, but I would enjoy meeting you, since I am here in Hanoi a year (actually, 10 more months now), and I guess that you might be able mentor me a bit in the adjustment to living here. If you are OK with that, e-mail me at kselvaggio@verizon.net