|Aiming straight: Trainees Chu Manh Khanh and Nguyen Hong Binh, who have a serious interest in learning to be sharpshooters, practice at the indoor shooting range in HCM City.
by Dat Luu Van
"Many people think shooting an air gun is a form of violence, but actually the sport is like Japanese kendo, which teaches people discipline and patience, and how to remain calm under pressure," war veteran Le Hai Vu told his trainees at a recent session of his air gun club held in HCM City.
The co-founder of the Sai Gon Sniper Club, an indoor shooting range that offers classes, rentals of air guns and pellets, has never forgotten the feeling of first shooting a gun when he joined the army after graduating with a bachelor's degree from University of Economics.
"It was really exciting," he recalled.
In the army, Vu led a military regiment based at Vi Xuyen battlefield near the northern border in 1979. The war taught him how to handle a gun, but now he encourages young people to view amateur shooting as a sport, and tells them never aim to kill, even a bird.
"Instead of investing a lot of time and money on online games, they can choose this sport for relaxation," Vu said.
Retired from the military, Vu, 60, is a teacher at National University-HCM City, where he and other veterans offer air gun training to thousands of students.
Last year, he and two other people invested VND500 million (US$23,800) in the indoor shooting range, which is located within Nguyen Binh Khiem Sport Club.
His first indoor shooting range was set up at HCM City National University in 2012. As the sport was not popular in the country at the time, Vu faced major financial losses.
However, his Sai Gon Sniper Club, the only private air gun club in Viet Nam, receives roughly 50 to 60 visitors on the weekend, bringing in enough income to pay his staff and cover equipment costs.
"My aim is to promote the sport to youth, so profit is not an issue. As long as the club does not face a loss, we're happy," said Vu. "I do this because I'm still passionate about sharpshooting."
Vu, who visits schools in the city to select teenagers with potential to become professional sharpshooters, has enrolled 60 students who receive several days of free training each week.
If the students do well at official shooting competitions, they would then have the opportunity to receive funding from the state as full-time professional athletes.
|Locked and loaded: Le Vu Hai teaches sixth grader Chu Manh Khanh and fifth grader Nguyen Hong Binh of HCM City's Tran Van On High School how to shoot properly. — VNS Photos Van Dat
Most of the trainees are girls.
"They do really well. For females, there is no physical difference between girls from Viet Nam and from other countries in the region," he said.
Recently, he recruited eight new trainees. One of them was 13-year-old Nguyen Hong Binh, whose performance at the shooting range was so impressive he asked her to make a serious commitment to train as a professional shooter.
No contract was needed, Vu said. Binh agreed to pursue the sport by hooking her little finger around Vu's.
Now in the fifth grade, Binh said her parents allowed her to attend a summer military course a few years ago. At the shooting range, she learned how to hold a gun and stand still for a long period of time.
Another recruit, Chu Manh Khanh, a sixth grader at Tran Van On High School, said that he had learned how to shoot an air gun with rubber pellets. He was one of the few students at his school who were proficient at shooting.
"It's an interesting sport. I want to become a professional," he said, pointing to his good results at target practice.
Though he has several trainees with high potential, Vu said he was concerned they would eventually quit and focus on careers with higher pay.
"I'm thinking of going to the countryside to recruit trainees from poor families. I'm afraid that trainees of wealthy families have more choices, so they can more easily quit," he said.
"We have trained several young sportspeople. Just four years after our private air gun shooting range was built, two members of my club won silver medals at a municipal competition last year. Some have been selected as members of the HCM City shooting team," he said.
Vu hopes that within three years, at least three of his recruits will be selected for the national sharpshooting team.
In HCM City, air gun shooting as a sport did not exist before 1975, when the Southern region was liberated. In the north, the sport has been popular since 1958.
The situation in the south improved when the City government decided to develop the sport, and several clubs opened in districts Go Vap, Binh Thanh, Thu Duc, 1, 5, and others.
Vu and his friends have now made the sport even more accessible. His shooting range is open to anyone physically able to handle a gun, while it also trains people who want to be professionals.
"Vietnamese are very skilled at this sport. There's nothing preventing HCM City from investing in air gun shooting. No law forbids the establishment of private shooting ranges in the country," he said, adding that the real obstacles are the paperwork required and the purchase of supplies.
As gun imports are strictly controlled by law, Vu must buy the air guns from an authorised agent in Viet Nam. A gun bought in the country costs about $4,600, but only $2,000 abroad.
"I'm willing to pay for this now from my own pocket, but there are many challenges for me in purchasing equipment such as air guns, pellets and uniforms," he said. Most of the air guns used at his club are older models.
But Vu may no longer have to be the primary supporter.
"We're encouraging the city to establish a shooting association, along with the other city sports organisations," Vu said. "With our students' achievements and increasing interest in the sport, the federation is expected to be set up soon." — VNS