Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0 (25th Feb 2017)
Saigon is the kind of city that slaps you round the head with its noise, traffic and sheer chaos, lets you know it’s more business-like than beautiful, but like Vietnam in general, seduces you with unexpected charm.
It has the angriest traffic and probably the friendliest people around. It’s one of the few countries in the region to use an alphabet recognisable to westerners, then splats an array of accents and squiggles all over it, sometimes two to a letter, to make it incomprehensible, to cope with Vietnam’s tonal language.
It has an exchange rate which makes seven-figure bar bills possible, and a late night scene which means as a foreign tourist you can be approached by a girl on a motorbike offering “boom boom”, while you are appropriately, by coincidence, stood outside the “Phuc Long” coffee house chain. Vietnam also has the most fantastic coffee, even if a white coffee will be no more white than plain chocolate.
It’s officially a Marxist-Leninist Communist country, yes espouses a free-market capitalist economy that makes you wonder why a nation of 93 million hasn’t traded its way to more wealth yet. At times it’s an almost impossibly bonkers place, but it’s great.
Other impossible things over there include trying to explain to a Vietnamese barmaid in the fine, fun and friendly “Number Five Bar” the humour in the often repeated genuine Irish newspaper headline “Cork Man Drowns” (mentioning that he was called “Bob” really was a step too far), and trying to comprehend bus timetables to take me to and from Ho Chi Minh City FC’s Thong Nhat Stadium, a good three miles from the city centre. I had a go at both, but gave up.
Handily, Saigon’s taxis are cheap, and also haven’t yet managed to develop the fault which affects so many in nearby Thailand, where the meters seem to break every time a foreigner flags a taxi down. Unlike the bus, the taxi also deposited me right by the ground. I’d not even got out of the taxi before an old woman bearing a ticket strode purposefully to the door and suggested through the power of mime that I buy off her.
Seeing the price as 70,000 Dong (about £2.50) I took out a 100,000 dong note to pay, expecting change. The old woman clearly saw the language barrier as a great opportunity, and proceeded to thank me for my “generosity” in apparently not wanting any change. I could have pursued it, but it could have been undignified, and on balance, she needed that extra 30,000 dong much more than I did.
I spend 30,000 anyway on a couple of coffees over the road, now a dab hand at the Saigon road-crossing technique of walking out into the never-stopping traffic and having blind faith that bikes will swerve around you.
Unlike in Da Nang, there was an obvious sense of activity, and a game was clearly taking place tonight. Being a foreigner, and clearly not looking a threat, I was waved through the security checkpoints, with the chance to put my guesses of the block/row/seat info on my ticket to use, as the little Vietnamese I’d learned wouldn’t be of much use. A barmaid, the same one I’d baffled with “Cork Man Drowns”, had taught me (phonetically) “Mo Hai Ba Yo!” which is “1…2..3…cheers!” but I couldn’t really see it coming in handy.
70,000 dong had got me into the luxury of the main covered stand, and clearly fans in Saigon like a little luxury, as this was clearly the most popular part of the ground. The next most popular part was the uncovered opposite side, where large steps of concrete acted nominally as seats. In the distance, Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, with a helipad jutting out from the side like the bottom lip of one of Sting’s Brazilian rainforest buddies, could be seen in the distance.
Hardly anyone went in either end. Both were beyond an already distant running track and deeply unpopular. About 100 Can Tho fans, who’d made the 100 mile trip up from the heart of the Mekong Delta for this game, sat in green isolation in the corner of one end. At the other corner of this end was another green invasion, with a large tree’s branches hanging over into the stadium, as if trying to climb in without paying.
It hit 33C (91F) on this day, and given the evening humidity, it must rank as one of the hottest, or at least sweatiest, games I’ve been to. I find walking up the stairs hard-going, so heaven knows what it must be like to play in. Maybe the heat led to the slack marking for the opening (and only) goal after seven minutes, where nobody bothered to mark an attacker in the middle of the penalty box, and he headed a cross in with ease.
If Can Tho were now losing on the pitch, their fans did their best to win the terrace battle, in terms of noise rather than violence. The home fans had been rather tame. Their attempt at “pyro” saw the setting off of one small firework, which could probably have been safely used indoors.
The support certainly reflected a cultural difference in the manner of encouraging a team. With many drums and cymbals, they sounded like every Chinese New Year parade you’ve ever heard, with little variety from the ubiquitous “clang-bang-clang…clang-bang-clang” percussion to spur their team on.
Can Tho were 2nd from last in the league, but while they didn’t look that bad, they always looked they had a mistake in them, and were always just 2nd best. The game wasn’t a classic, perhaps because of the heat, and they possibly only had two serious chances to equalise. The first brought about a diving save that looked rather more flamboyant than necessary, as it the keeper had heard scouts from richer leagues were in the stands. The 2nd was a free kick from outside the area, which went only just wide.
Ho Chi Minh city had two excellent chances to extent the lead, but somehow spurned them both, to the annoyance and amazement of the home crowd. The first was a blast at goal from eight yards, with the keeper stranded, which the home striker could somehow only blast into the back of a defender in front of him.
After that a shot was fired across goal. A touch would have been a certain goal, but it was left, as it rolled just wide of the post.
I should have gone the previous week, when a game v the bottom club, Long an, was much more eventful. It ended 5-2 to Ho Chi Minh City, but the last three of Ho Chi Minh City’s goals all came in injury time. Ho Chi Minh were awarded a late very dodgy penalty, and in a bizarre protest Long An refused compete for the rest of the game, including the spot-kick, with the keeper turning his back rather than try to save it. They then just let the home side walk in two more goals without any kind of challenge, and it ended 5-2.
Only only goal for me though, and I had to take solace with a quick taxi ride (well, quite slow really – it was in Saigon traffic after all) back across town to Number Five Bar where a friendly welcome was waiting. What more could I ask for in my last night in Vietnam? Another goal or two would have been good, I suppose, and surely somewhere I could have had the chance to use an Apocolypse Now reference, but football in a new country, and the chance of a night out with access to the computer picking songs from YouTube, and I was happy. I, for one, would never complain that “I’m still only in Saigon”.
…and finally, a clip I took of the Saigon traffic. This wasn’t the busiest junction I saw by a long shot, but it was a “suggested” pedestrian crossing!