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Fan tales: A Vietnamese football experience

  • Story Highlights
  • Daniel and Clinton Rowling in Vietnam when the country wins ASEAN Cup
  • Vietnam defeated Thailand in Hanoi to claim the trophy for the first time
  • In the post-match celebrations five people were killed and dozens injured
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Daniel and Clinton Rowling
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NHA TRANG, Vietnam -- Editor's note: Football fans Daniel and Clinton Rowling were in Vietnam late December when the country won a major tournament for the first time. The event sparked wild celebrations in the South East Asian nation but joy soon turned to carnage as five people died and dozens were injured in the celebrations. They share their story.

Celebration time: Five people were killed on Vietnamese roads as football joy got out of control.

Celebration time: Five people were killed on Vietnamese roads as football joy got out of control.

After spending a month in Vietnam we can safely say that the Vietnamese are passionate about three things: Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as the locals call him; football; and the tourist dollar.

Everywhere you look you see football. The locals proudly sport imitation merchandise of their favorite European team anywhere and everywhere they can. Other than on your person, the next best place to show your allegiance is on your motorbike through stickers. Some local football teams even play in the strips of their favorite club.

While we were in Vietnam the ASEAN cup was contested. It is the premier football contest in South East Asia. Every second year the countries of the region do battle for the crown. Up until 2008, the only winners of the cup had been Singapore and Thailand with three titles each (Indonesia has been the bridesmaid three times).

After pool play, the best of two finals series was played out between Thailand and Vietnam. Thanks to the close proximity, and some historical conflict, there is a strong rivalry between these two countries. The Thais played host to the Vietnamese in the first leg, where the visiting underdogs were winners, stunning the home crowd by winning the match 2-1.

The reverse leg was played in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. After unexpectedly winning the first final, local interest was even higher than normal.

We watched the game in the coastal city of Nha Trang. The locals flocked to their TV sets and the beer flowed freely. Each TV was like a magnet for thirsty football fans.

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We quickly realized there was a pecking order and that the most hardcore fans had the best seats, whilst the "fair weather supporters" were relegated to the back benches. As foreigners we were at the very bottom of the pecking order. We were resigned to watching the match from the street kerb on small plastic seats half in the rain which refused to dampen the crowds' spirits.

Predictably Thailand took the lead and were up 1-0 (making it 2-2 on aggregate) and time was ticking away. Vietnam's tactic of playing breakaway "Kung fu" style football was looking largely ineffective against the more structured, controlled and dominant Thai approach. Still, the Vietnamese were doing enough to create the odd opportunity to gives the locals hope.

Still tied up on aggregate, and with the end of regular time looming, the Vietnamese were awarded a free kick. The unexpected happened. The kick came in and a Vietnamese player managed to find it with the crown of his head sending the ball to the back of the net and the locals through the roof.

Everyone jumped to their feet, there were hugs, high fives and toasts. As outsiders we sat stunned and could only watch the spectacle unfolding. With the game effectively over, the victors were overcome with emotion whilst the fans were overcome with energy.

The locals were eager to include us in celebrations, with the nominated English speaker communicating with us in his limited vocabulary. We replied with our full Vietnamese vocabulary of smiles, nods and numerous thumbs up.

The older men who had been doing the majority of the drinking were content sitting and enjoying each other's company, while the younger and more boisterous sections of the crowd had their own form of celebration and they swiftly brought the streets alive with a massive motorcycle posse.

Led by the rider with the biggest Vietnamese flag, they proceeded to lap the town honking their horns and generally getting excited. With the roads slick from a weeks worth of rain and the drivers impaired from a cocktail of excitement and alcohol, we wisely watched from the sidelines.

After finding out that dozens of people were injured and there were even a few deaths -- it seems we made a good choice to keep out of it. But while we did watch on, we were left wondering: How do the passengers stay on the bikes when they jump up and down? How can anyone see where they are going with all the flags? And, where were the traffic police?

We're offering a reward to anyone that can tell us what the Vietnamese supported before cable television brought top flight football to the masses. Whatever it was, we suspect it died a very quick death.

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