The Saigon Saints might not have been the first expat football team in Ho Chi Minh City; Olympique (‘mafia from Marseilles’) and the Saigon Raiders (‘Danish-English mongrels’) can probably claim that accolade. But when the Saints formed in 1995 they certainly had the best name — The Saigon Smokers.
Fortunately for the team’s original sponsor, Dunhill, one of the two founders, Phil Worthington, is still here. He retired from football in 2005 and these days he works in market research in a brand-new office tower with centrally installed aircon and double-glazed windows. No insurance claims on that front, then.
The other founder, Tomas Emmers, is somewhere else. Our guess is he works in a different industry. But like the other football teams around, The Smokers were formed with one objective: to take a break from the only leisure activity available at the time.
“In the early days, playing football was essential,” says Phil. “There wasn’t much to do except go to bars. It proved a great source of fun and I still have lifelong friends from this time.”
He adds: “Training never existed, tactics were questionable, [there wasn’t even] a football league and the trophy cabinet was bare. We were, however, avid tournament participants. The highlight was our second place finish in the Bayon Challenge in 1997.”
Those days are far in the past.
Two decades later, smoking is now demonized (in the West) and the Saigon International Football League (SIFL) has been established almost 15 years. Saigon Saints club captain Ben Peadon is a seven-year veteran of playing football in Vietnam. He has seen the league grow in “stature” and competitiveness. He might even have the injuries to prove it.
“During my first couple of years, the league was dominated by one particular team,” he says. “Recently it has become a lot more competitive with several teams vying for the top spot. It’s more and more popular among local Vietnamese teams, with more being added over the years. The league now has 10 teams competing on a weekly basis.”
He adds: “The league is [an excellent] way of bringing people together from different nationalities. That 90 minutes [on the pitch] is a great escape from the daily grind of Vietnam… But the best thing about it is the social side. It’s a great place to meet like-minded people with an appreciation for the greatest game on earth.”
Which means, of course, ending up where it all started. In the bar.
While male-orientated sports — think chest bumps and secret handshakes — seem to have a secondary or even primary focus on something called booze, the netball playing outfit The Hanoi Ois don’t have the same problem of ending up from whence they came. Instead, they suffer from a ‘what is netball?’ crisis. Cricket and rugby players — who also tend to come from Commonwealth nations — will sympathise. And those from the UK will tend to see netball as a women’s sport. It’s not. In Vietnam (like in countries such as Australia) it’s played by both sexes.
Here’s a shortened version of a recent conversation we had in our office:
Photo Editor, Kyle: What’s netball?
Chief Editor, Nick: It’s like basketball, but without the bouncing.
Creative Director, Mads: And when you’ve got the ball, you can’t move from your spot. You have to pass it or shoot.
Photo Editor, Kyle: Really? Never heard of it. So what do you do?
Nope, netball has obviously not made its way to Kyle’s hometown of San Diego, USA yet. Although they know about it in Norway, where Mads calls home.
Fortunately for putting-a-ball-through-a-hoop enthusiasts, it’s come to Hanoi.
“The Ois have been going for six or seven years,” says Ois organiser Louise Cotrel-Gibbons. “We’re actually the only netball club running in Hanoi (as opposed to in Ho Chi Minh City where there are about nine), so we are limited in the numbers of competitive matches we can have. We try to organise fixtures with Ho Chi Minh City and other Southeast Asian teams one to three times a year. The rest of the time we work on fitness, skills and friendly games.”
Despite venue issues and the lack of a competitive league in Hanoi, and the fact that netball is a pretty “niche sport internationally”, the Ois still managed to take nine players down to the inaugural Central Vietnam Games in Danang this year for two full matches (one mixed and one ladies).
“We got pretty thrashed [by the Saigon Shooters],” she says. “But we certainly didn’t make it easy for the Saigon team. It was a great weekend of friendly rivalry and teamwork.”
However, playing netball in Hanoi does something more important for Louise than just continuing a 15-year association with a sport she loves. It’s a “constant source of exercise, fun, skill development and friendship” and it also helps her keep her foot in the door with life back home. “It gives me a once-a-week familiar feeling among the hectic life here in Hanoi.”
Safety in Numbers
For those craving home and that camaraderie you can only experience with people from your own country, the cricket leagues in Vietnam might be the answer. I know, I tried it. But that was years ago in Hanoi when there was a fortnightly match between the Australians and the Indians. Australia had just sneaked past England in a tightly fought World Cup semi-final. So, I wasn’t going to play with anyone from Down Under. I chose India.
Unfortunately for India, except for a knock of 23 in my first innings, I turned out to be pretty useless. Which all lends credence to the well-worn phrase, “White guys can’t play cricket.” Well, some white guys. I soon got relegated to the subs bench. But, I did get invited round to the Indian ambassador’s residence for tea.
What that now defunct India versus Australia match-up did show was that when it comes to cricket, teams get organised more or less in terms of nationality. That is certainly the case with the Saigon Cricket League (Hanoi still hasn’t quite got a league, unfortunately). There are two Indian Clubs, a Pakistani Club, an English Club, an Australian Club, a Sri Lankan club and only one outfit — United Cricket Club (UCC) — that is mixed nationality.
“I’m honestly not sure why the teams are largely based on nationality,” says the Vietnam Cricket Association’s, Mark Jones. “However, when we are overseas, we often tend to gravitate towards people with a similar background whether that be language, interests or occupations. Likewise with cricket, the individual countries have a unique style of playing the game and different approaches to it, which is one of the reasons I find cricket such an interesting sport.”
While the national rivalries can be played out on the pitch (and even sometimes in the nets), Mark assures us that there is a lot of interaction between members of the league. “Nationality really isn’t an issue,” he says, “as we are all just individuals who love cricket.”
He adds: “The camaraderie within the league is excellent. We’ve all made some fantastic friendships with members from all of the clubs. Cricket tends to be unique in the sense that we love our sport more than players of other sports and tend to have a more encyclopedic knowledge of the game.”
Back at the Bar
Some expats in this country… Sorry, correct that one. Many expats in this country seem to love the bars. One such watering hole lover is jovial Belgian, Kris Goetghebeur. Always ready with a laugh, his right-arm exercise comes in more than just the form of lifting a glass of Tiger Draught to his lips about 100 times a night. He’s a darts player, and while fortunately for the general public he doesn’t rate his skills with sharp implements, he’s pretty devoted to his second most favourite pastime.
A committee member of the Saigon International Darts League (SIDL), for Kris and the members of the league’s 23 teams (there are now three divisions), Tuesday nights are sacred. So sacred, in fact, that he has a permanent Tuesday-night babysitter (his mother-in-law) booked from just after Tet all the way through to December.
“It all started in 1998 with just two bars playing against each other on Tuesdays,” he recalls. “Those bars were Ice Blue Pub on Dong Khoi and the former Gecko bar of the late Michael Keung on Hai Ba Trung.”
Unlike physically challenging sports — you can count tiddlywinks out of that one — darts is as much a social event as it is a sport.
“Beers and darts are a good match for a fun evening,” explains Kris when asked about his arm-wrestling prowess. “It is just a relaxing Tuesday evening out to throw some darts, have some beers. Vietnamese players started adding slowly, first through girlfriends and wives of players and then some bar staff to make up the teams. There is a now a 100 percent Vietnamese ladies team, called ACDC.”
There are also a number of excellent Vietnamese darters including the ‘veteran’ Guppy Liem, who has been with the league from nearly the beginning, as well as Mr. Dung Acceptable, who is one of the founders.
“The relationship between expats and Vietnamese is very good, we are just all darts lovers. Xu, the cook from Ice Blue Pub, is currently the Vietnamese male national champion and Thuy is the female national champion for this year. There is a good respect between all of us.”
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Fortunately, for those of us not into sharp implements, it’s good to know that the bars in this country aren’t just for darters. They’re also for televised sports enthusiasts, the kind of people who prop up the bar, eyes glued to obscenely sized TV screens, most often with drinking and sports-watching companions in tow.
Man behind the scenes at The Republic, Chris Vella, should know. The grand fromage of one of Hanoi’s most successful sports-cum-comfort food bars, his screens are home to any sport with an acronym — AFL, NBA, NFL, NHL, EPL, MMA — all the way through to rugby league and rugby union.
“Most expats come for the different sports,” he explains. “Americans for the NBA and NFL, for example. But our biggest grouping of mixed expats is the rugby union. The Hanoi Dragons have a diverse team with members from Australia, New Zealand, America, Pakistan, Ireland and England. The Rugby World Cup coming up in September will be huge. Different nationalities will come to The Republic to watch their countries play. The rivalry is fun, with most of the expats there just to be a part of the atmosphere the game creates.”
However, when asked about the connection between sport and beer, he says it’s one he “doesn’t really want to think about”.
“[I guess] it’s a long tradition, especially in Australia,” he says. “A good group of people watching sport and having a few drinks in a good environment is a match made in heaven.”
Saigon-based quantity surveyor, Sam Dawson, agrees. A follower of everything from rugby and AFL all the way through to Formula 1, MotoGP and MMA, while he will keep an eye on the results of “a big football game involving the national team or sometimes check out the Saigon Heat scores,” for him it’s all about watching the sports he loves. In particular it’s about watching these sports over a beer with friends — the social connection forms an integral part of being an expat overseas.
“It makes it more interesting to be able to discuss what’s happening with other people who understand and are interested in what is going on,” he says.
English teacher and cross-the-board sports lover, James Parry, hits a different note.
“I love Vietnam,” he says. “But sometimes I need to forget about the chaos of the place and come back to what’s familiar. Sports, bars and beer. The combination works perfectly. There’s something comforting about it all.”
Which brings us to a solid conclusion. When it comes to the expat love of sports, you can take the sportsman out of the bar. But you can never take the bar out of the sportsman.
To get involved in expat sports, turn to our listing sections. Alternatively, just head to a bar with lots of large TV screens and beer on tap