Sports clubs that make Hanoi a home away from home

Created 17 April 2022
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Homesickness is a cloud that darkens the horizon for expatriates missing things taken for granted at home. Getting to play games foreign to the host country can be an antidote.
Members of American Flag Football pose for a photo after another enjoyable Saturday session.

For one, it creates a community of people who love that particular sport, be it cricket, baseball, rugby, Australian rules football or even ice hockey. The bonding over a favorite sport is special, and expats bask in that togetherness, which is linked to childhood dreams of magic sporting moments when time seems to stand still. For an Englishman, for instance, it would be scoring a last-minute winner at Wembley for his country. For an Indian, it would be hitting a century in front of a raucous crowd at the Eden Gardens.

In Hanoi, several sports clubs set up by expatriates to play their special games provide the antidote to their homesickness and make the capital city a home away from home. As a bonus, the sport also becomes a way to bond with the locals, introducing their Vietnamese friends to learn and play a new game.

American Flag Football

Members of American Flag Football pose for a photo after another enjoyable Saturday session.

Members of American Flag Football pose for a photo after a Saturday session. Photo courtesy o American Flag Football

Most Vietnamese people would never conceive the image of scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. But on a gray Saturday afternoon in Tay Ho District, a new Vietnamese member of the American Flag Football community in Hanoi scored his first ever touchdown and was embraced by his exulting teammates.

"I flew back to USA a few years ago and brought back some flags and a football. We played a few times with some friends and then I started Hanoi Flag Football on Facebook," said Corb Vill.

Vill has helped the community grow and his team recently won the inaugural flag football competition in Da Nang, beating two teams from Saigon, including the final against an all-Vietnamese team.

"We are immigrants living in Vietnam. We love and respect the game, but we also love and respect local culture and life. Sports is the best form of exercise, stress relief and fun. Vietnamese are great about exercising and playing sport, and this definitely was part of the inspiration to start a flag football club here."

After initially facing some difficulty with being able to play due to Covid restrictions, many Hanoians of numerous nationalities now meet every Saturday afternoon to compete in the less injury-inducing variation of America’s most popular sport.

"We have absolutely connected a group of people who all have this sport in common. We really don't care if you are a foreigner or a local, everyone is welcome. We are trying to create a community of positivity, recreation, competition and ultimately, one team," Vill said.

Australian Rules Football

1966. The U.S. is intensifying bombing raids along the Ho Chi Minh trail as the Vietnam War escalates. Meanwhile, in Vung Tau (the site of the Australian Logistics Base), private John Heaney is in trouble with his commanding officer and is given the ultimatum; organize a game of Australian rules football or face detention/other penalties. That marked the birth of Australian rules football in Vietnam.

AFL returned to Vietnam in 1988 with two clubs, the Hanoi Hawks and Saigon Saints, but in 2007 these two merged to become the Vietnam Swans. Fifteen years on, the club has two branches, one in the capital and one in Saigon, both meeting up twice a week for training and local competitions.

Jason O'Cathrin, who played GAA in Ireland in his youth, was intrigued and excited by AFL. He said: "I jumped at the opportunity to give it a go here in Vietnam. Thankfully, my skills were transferable and I fell in love with the game and the community around it.

"It's hugely important, not so much for representing the culture, but more so for growing the sport and help give back to the local communities throughout Vietnam, we do a lot of work with charities and youth development within the sport and outside of it."

Jason O’Cathrin collects a loose ball whilst playing Australian Rules Football.

Jason O’Cathrin collects a loose ball whilst playing Australian Rules Football in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Australian Rules

O’Cathrin is a key individual who has helped introduce a foreign sport to Hanoi and continued the tradition started over half a century ago.

"We certainly connect with the expat community here in Hanoi. It’s a magnificent opportunity to meet many people and create friendships for life."

Cricket

It is estimated that over 200 million people play cricket in more than 100 countries around the world and that it is the most popular sport after football with more than two billion fans.

The most significant percentages of these figures are made up by Asian-playing nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. However, head further east in the continent and the numbers dwindle. Most Vietnamese don't know this game.

The first cricket match in Vietnam was played in the capital city in 1993 by British, Indian and Australian expats. Soon after, the Hanoi Cricket Club was set up to organize regular games and an annual tournament between teams representing Indians, Sri Lankans, English, Australian, New Zealand expats. Reports of regular and tournament games were carried in the English newspaper Vietnam News and the clubs' annual fund raiser – the Quiz and Curry Night – proved a highly popular event among most expats and many locals. The game was even featured in Michael Palin's Full Circle show on the BBC.

The winning team of the Hanoi Cricket League celebrate with the trophy.

The winning team of the Hanoi Cricket League in 2018 celebrate with the trophy. Photo courtesy of Hanoi Cricket League

After a hiatus owing to the departure of many of the most regular cricketing expats including ambassadors, military attaches and other embassy staff and the lack of a ground within the city to play the game in, the game has picked up again in Hanoi.

The revival has involved many members of the newly formed club bringing cricket kits and equipment such as helmets and pads on flights when returning to Vietnam. The protective gear is indispensable against the hard, red ball that the game is played with. They've even managed to secure a makeshift pitch in the outskirts district of Hoai Duc.

Gaurav Kumar, who plays a vital role in organizing the current games in Hanoi, said: "We are all from different nations, so the game is just one platform where we can gather together. We are not just having fun and indulging in our passion for the game, it fosters cultural exchange between different regions across the globe. The love for cricket joins us without boundaries."

Vietnamese are less familiar with the rules and nuances of cricket compared to other globally-televised sports in the country like the Premier League, NBA or NFL, but this is not preventing some from participating in a new sport.

"We are trying to develop more social gatherings, social media links to add more nationalities and enhance awareness for local Vietnamese people to join our club," said Kumar.

Hanoi is a melting pot for internationals from countries such as Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to compete together. The most recent league consisted of six teams with Hanoi Spartans becoming the eventual champions. Many are hoping for a season uninterrupted by Covid-19 as yet another foreign game makes its mark in Hanoi.

Ice Hockey

Jumping back across the Atlantic, we come at the most popular sport in Canada – Ice Hockey – a sport played across the country at subzero temperatures offered by a long winter season. Not a game that can be organized in tropical Vietnam. But that did not faze some diehard expat fans of the game. Challenge accepted, said Hockey Hanoi.

Participants from all over the world come together to play ice hockey together in Hanoi.

Participants from all over the world come together to play ice hockey together in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Hockey Hanoi

The club was originally started by two men from Catalonia and the USA and the reins taken over by the current leader, Ryan Brennan from Canada.

"From a Canadian perspective, hockey represents more than just the sport. It creates a sense of community. Since it originated in Canada, so I feel a sense of duty in representing the values that the sport has been built upon for so many years," Brennan said.

Match practice often happens at ice rinks within shopping malls such as Royal City in Thanh Xuan District.

However, with many members frequently coming and going to Vietnam (a scenario that will likely increase with the country reopening its borders), it can be difficult to secure enough players for a game.

"We occasionally post on Facebook groups and rely on word-of-mouth as our form of connecting with new players. As for those of us who have played together for many years, we feel extremely connected through our shared bond of love for the game."

Last year, the club traveled twice to Saigon to play against another team based there. The first visit ended with victory for the southern side, but more recently the Hanoi club prevailed. The greater victory, though, is the companionship and lifelong friendships forged by playing a game in a faraway land.

Gaelic football

Gaelic football, a sport akin to rugby that dates back to the 19th century, has been among the most recent imports to Hanoi.

Originally started by Irish immigrants in 2007, the Viet Celts has become a community for people from a multitude of backgrounds who come together and participate in one of Ireland’s favorite pastimes.

The club has taken the game to another next level in the capital city by taking it to underprivileged children in the local community.

Daniel Burke, who coaches the team, said: "Every Sunday we train members from the Blue Dragon Children’s foundation (a charity that helps street children and rescues people from human trafficking). They have taken it quite well, and some are already beginning to attend our senior training.

"When international youth tournaments first kicked off in Asia back in 2017, Blue Dragon members were among the first players to represent Vietnam. We also have after-school clubs in various international schools in Hanoi such as TH School and Singapore International School."

The club also organizes fundraising events for Blue Dragon, and prior to the pandemic, competed in two big tournaments in Asia, the South Asian Games and the All Asia Games.

Kids of all ages participate in a sport previously foreign to them.

Kids of all ages participate in a Gaelic football game organized by Viet Celts in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Viet Celts

Burke said: "Every Saturday, we coach children aged 4-13 in Tay Ho. We have seen our numbers grow from roughly nine on the first day, to well over 100 members. Membership is completely free, thanks to the funding we receive from the GAA and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland. This is a great help as it ensures no one is excluded due to financial restraints.

"The club is vitally important to many Irish people in Hanoi, but also to many local players. When I first joined the Viet Celts in 2017, I coached a player named Quan, who now helps out with our youth setup. Many local players have had they first trips outside of Hanoi thanks to the Viet Celts.

"For me personally, the club is one of the main reasons I returned to Hanoi after my year back in Europe. Many individuals cite it as the highlight of their time in Vietnam. For many of us, it is a chance to stay in touch with the Irish culture, a chance to share our culture with our new friends. Life in Hanoi just wouldn't be the same without it."


Source: VNE

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