The DCM gave some fresh insight on the situation in Vietnam and his profession. “Unlike so many people,” he remarked, “diplomats tend to see things in shades of grey rather than black and white. For instance, if your sole interest is human rights, then you probably consider Vietnam one of the worst places on earth. But if you’re an average Vietnamese person, you’re probably pleased with the vast improvement in personal freedom throughout the last ten or twenty years. An anti-abortion zealot may come to a country and make reproductive health their sole policy priority, while an industrial lobby doesn’t care much about what’s going on in the country so long as they’re buying our Boeings. We diplomats have to see things from all sides.”
The Marine sergeant returned our passports through a slit in a reinforced glass compartment and we left the embassy, which is guarded by well armed Vietnamese soldiers and blocked by two brown shipping containers. A few in the group had tickets to the Asian Cup match between Vietnam and Japan, and Mark, Zach and I got the idea to go over to My Dan stadium to try our luck at the box office.
As soon as the taxi dropped us off in the middle of a throng of excited Vietnamese fans streaming toward the brand new stadium, we realized that the box office wouldn’t be necessary because every other guy on the sidewalk was scalping tickets. We managed to get in for $9 by driving a tough bargain. The scalper shook our hands, smiled and told us to enjoy the game and to make sure to root for Vietnam.
We rushed past the gates, through a furiously beeping metal detector and into the roaring stadium. Just before we reached the seats, the crowd erupted. Vietnam was up 1-0 in the 8th minute.
It was an exciting game, although things went downhill for the Vietnamese. Japan is a World Cup team and clearly outplayed the red players. In the 30th minute, a Japanese forward headed in a beautiful cross and a few minutes later the Japanese kicked a free-kick into the top corner. In the second half they sunk two more goals.
From my experience with foreign soccer matches, I would have expected the crowd to become bitter and violent. But the Vietnamese were different. Even though this was a much anticipated, important game, there was little negativity. The crowd didn’t whistle or curse the referee when things didn’t go their way—even when the referee overlooked the tripping of a Vietnamese forward in the penalty box, the crowd let it go. They cheered wildly when Vietnam made a big play, but sat down in quiet acceptance when the Japanese scored. Rowdy guys tossed bags of water but it was done in jest, not bitterness, and everyone laughed when it happened, especially when it landed near one of the stern army soldiers who stood waiting for a riot that would never come. The crowd was mellow and happy, which I think matches the tempo of the country. A massive portrait of Ho Chi Minh watched over the game.
In general, the crowd expressed their support of their soccer team by chanting, “Viet Nam Clap Clap Clap!”, the equivalent of screaming “U! S! A!” at a hockey match. Occasionally, a section sang “Ole Ole”. In the second half, a massive flag was unfurled over the crowd and it was slowly passed around the entire stadium, engulfing our section for an exciting moment.
The game wound down and defeat became certain, but just as the crowd seemed ready to take off and go home, a fan would stand up and rally a cheer. A few times, the whole stadium rose up spontaneously, as if to tell the players, “You may not be doing well this game, but you’re our team and we’re proud of you.”
We streamed out of the stadium and took a taxi back to the Bao Khanh. After dinner, I was about to go into the hotel but I heard a faint buzz in the direction of the lake and decided to check it out.
It was a wild victory procession. Although Vietnam had lost badly against Japan, the United Arab Emirates had beaten Qatar, which allowed Vietnam to advance to the next round with just one win and one tie. Hoan Kiem Lake was a crimson red ring of frenzied celebration, as motor bikers pored in from all over the city to circle the lake and proclaim their love for Vietnam. Hundreds of bikers swung red and yellow flags, children piled on the roofs of cars and makeshift bands played from the balconies. People were hysterical, bringing traffic to a standstill as they stopped to dance in the street. I doubt this type of thing happens after elections.
For my part, I took lots of pictures and then joined the fray. I was still wearing my red headband from the game and as a rare foreigner, I was a convenient outlet of patriotic jubilation. Two youths enticed me to hop on the back of their motorbike, which was inching forward through the thick cloud of bikes and flags. I hopped off soon afterward when the speed picked up and stood on the sidewalk trying to rile people up. I probably won’t ever have an easier time inspiring people. All I had to do was extend my hand and every biker would cheer and slap it. The stream of bikers would chant “Viet Nam!” and I’d cause a sensation by yelling “Vo Dich”, which I’d learned meant “Victory!”
I stood among the frenzy for about half an hour, sharing a good victory with a good people.