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Yesterday, David arranged for a group of people to attend a Vietnamese Basketball Association game. We first learned of the VBA a few weeks ago while innocently channel surfing and stumbling across a telecast. Turns out the league is brand new, having begun only last year. Anyway, it seemed like an interesting opportunity. There are only six teams in the country-wide league. Two of them play in Hà Nội.
Having just come from Westtown School, which has emerged as a major national force in high school basketball, I have seen more games of basketball in the last three years than the rest of my life combined. Westtown’s elite team is impressive to say the least. I may not fully understand the rules of the game, but I appreciate the beauty of a dunked ball and the swish of a three-pointer. When we discussed the game ahead of time I asked David to predict if the level of play would be higher than Westtown. This is not a low bar to clear. He begged off the question.
About the Team
We witnessed the “intense” inter-city rivalry between the Hanoi Buffaloes and Thang Long Warriors. The Warriors play just a few kilometers from our house – so for us, they are our hometown team. Two teams play in Da Nẵng, and another two near the country’s largest city, Hồ Chí Minh City (the Catfish play in Cần Thơ).
As is typical in Việt Nam, the government has a fair amount of control over the VBA. The 13 player roster must include at least ten Vietnamese nationals, and can include up to two Vietnamese nationals living abroad and one foreign national. All but one team has a coach from the United States.
Basketball is not an especially popular sport in Việt Nam. Like much of the world football (soccer), is the most widely played team sport. We have also seen professional badminton and competitive swimming on the TV. So, we weren’t sure what to expect on Game Day.
We were looking forward to the game all week. When we got to the University Campus where they play, branded signs were everywhere. Curiously, many were only in English – a trend that would continue throughout the day. A photo op banner stood in front of the gym with a few slogans on signs – a great opportunity for a group picture. By far my favorite was “Be a warrior, not a worrier.” Interesting advice. The only food available was out front. David’s boss (named Dave), purchased a large drink of sugar syrup and flat 7-Up and a hot dog on a stick. It all felt so very American.
Our group of 7 included friends from David’s school, including one couple’s four year old son. As soon as we entered the concrete gym, he was struggling with the volume. Even before game time people were cheering and using large red slap sticks to create an impressive amount of sound. We took our seats behind one of the baskets and soaked it all in for a few minutes before tip off.
The main announcer provided some instructions in Vietnamese, but for all of the game cheers were in English. Most of the ads around the arena were also in English. If you removed the large Vietnamese flag billboard and didn’t look at the racial and ethnic makeup of of the players and attendees – you might have mistaken it for a college ball game at an NCAA Division 2 (or 3) school.
The quarters were only 10 minutes in length. During the first quarter, almost all the scoring came from the free throw line. For some reason that none of us understood, a player was awarded 6 free throws in a row at one point. We were all pretty confused. About half the fans were cheering for the Warriors, and the other half for the Buffalo. Someone was always excited. This fact contributed to the incredibly loud sound that raged through the room the whole time.
Jetstar, a local discount airline, sponsored the dance team uniforms. To the shock of all of us, the ladies did several very provocative dances during time outs and half time. This type of dance would not have caused any of us to pause in the US, but in conservative Việt Nam, we see very little sexual or sexualized behavior in public. The mascot got in on the dancing action as well – providing some break dancing moves. Halftime featured a dance-off between the ladies of the Buffalo and Warriors, as well as their mascots. Hip hop music blared through the loudspeakers. An oddly familiar slice of home.
After an even first half, the Thang Long Warriors took a solid lead during the third quarter that they maintained through the end of the game. In the end, the team won 80-69. The rest of our crew couldn’t handle the noise and over stimulation for the duration. We were anxious to give our ears a break at the end. The verdict – next time we will bring earplugs. For less than $3 it made for an exciting outing. I think we might just be Thang Long Warrior fans now. There is one home game left this season. If the Warriors win they may end up as league champion. Will they be warriors or worriers? Time will tell.