The Pho Hien FC faithful. Photo courtesy of Đinh Huy
By Peter Cowan
They say you never forget your first love, and mine was Crusaders FC.
I’m still so in love with the Crues and I will be forever true, but living in Hà Nội, almost 10,000km from Belfast, makes following my semi-professional team a little difficult.
That’s because the Irish League isn’t regularly on Fox Sports, VTV, or any other TV channel known to man. There are the occasional matches on Sky, cup finals on BBC, and some streams when the Crues qualify for Europe, but for the most part I have to make do with radio broadcasts, Twitter updates, and highlights.
But honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
While it would be great to watch my team play every weekend, there’s something beautiful and pure about having to actually be at the ground to feel the highs and lows of being a fan with your fellow tribe, instead of having your weekly footie fix served up on “Super Sunday”, like it was an “Eastenders” omnibus.
I went in search last weekend of a taste of the rawer, unrefined football high I’ve been missing here in Việt Nam and found it, but not where you may expect.
While there are lots of great things about watching V.League 1 football, the last few weeks have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans.
Questionable refereeing decisions, totally false transfer rumours, unsavoury intimidation of match officials, and shady loan deals between clubs that should be rivals have all revealed the darker side of the league.
To remove that bitter taste from my mouth, I decided to try a sporting palate cleanser last Saturday and dropped down a division to catch the V.League 2 match between hosts Phố Hiến FC and Huế.
Phố Hiến’s home ground is in Hưng Yên Province, about an hour’s drive on a scooter from Hà Nội, at the Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talent (PVF) academy, which aims to produce young stars for the Vietnamese national team, so the Phố Hiến squad is largely made up of graduates.
The club was established a mere two years ago, so one could be forgiven for thinking it’s something of a “plastic” club with no tradition and therefore no passionate following, like Milton Keynes Dons FC in the UK.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Pho Hien FC flag flies ahead of kickoff against Hue. Photo courtesy of Đinh Huy
While Crusaders play at Seaview, in the heart of North Belfast amid terraced houses, the PVF academy looks more like a spaceship that crash-landed in the middle of Văn Giang District as you drive up to it.
The glittering facility may be a little incongruous with its surroundings but it means Phố Hiến have what has to be one of the best set-ups in Vietnamese football.
Orderly parking facilities (by Vietnamese standards), ticket sales direct from the club instead of a scalper, and a beautifully manicured pitch not surrounded by an athletics track made it a great place to take in a game.
The pièce de résistance for me though was the fact that there was a stand on only one side of the ground. This means that while, yes, the crowds are smaller than at some V.League 1 fixtures, all the fans are in close proximity, making for a much livelier atmosphere than in a cavernous, half-full stadium.
And what an atmosphere it was on Saturday. I sat a few rows below some of the rowdiest home fans, all bedecked in red and banging drums, symbols and blowing horns, whipping up an almighty racket and setting the pulse racing.
In true Vietnamese fashion, they quickly invited me to join them and for 90 minutes I was transported back to Seaview, living and dying with every kick of the ball.
The author has a go on a Pho Hien FC horn. Photo courtesy of Đinh Huy
Falling in love
The match finished 2-2, with Phố Hiến grabbing an equaliser in the 91st minute after falling 2-0 down, sending the home support and myself into raptures.
There’s nothing quite like your team scoring a last-minute winner or equaliser, it’s almost orgasmic. But unlike orgasms you can’t fake it, and up until Saturday I had been missing the sweet release of delirious celebration.
The match has become even more stamped into my memory since community transmission of coronavirus returned to Việt Nam and may leave local football suspended for a second time, so who knows how long it will be before fans are in stadiums again.
But when we do get back on the terraces, from Quảng Ninh to Cà Mau, why not give the lower leagues a chance and get a look at some proper football.
I can’t promise the level of play will be great or even that you’ll necessarily be entertained, but if you’re as lucky as I was last weekend, you might recapture that feeling of falling in love all over again. VNS
Pho Hien's home ground at the PVF academy. Photo courtesy of Đinh Huy