Football fans live for moments.
Moments when their team wins a treble of trophies with two goals in injury time.
Moments when their team goes through the entire season undefeated.
Moments when their team rallies back from a 0-3 haltime deficit to win the Champions League.
Slightly more than a month ago, on 11 December 2014 to be exact, I experienced watching a football match in Vietnam’s My Dinh National Stadium. However, this was quite simply not an ordinary match. Some unexpected and unwanted events leading up to this match made it one of the most memorable football moments in my life. This is my tale of the events that transpired leading up to this epic moment in Hanoi.
The AFF Suzuki Cup is arguably this region’s most revered football tournament. On 29 November 2014, Malaysia had just came back from the brink of elimination to score two very late goals and beat defending champions Singapore 3-1 in their final group match. The victory meant that against all odds, Harimau Malaya, as the Malaysian football team is affectionately called, had just qualified for the Semi-Final stage. As runners-up in Group B, Malaysia would have to play Group A champions Vietnam whilst Group B champions Thailand would take on the Philippines in the other semi-final. The first leg of the semi-final between Vietnam and Malaysia was to take place in Shah Alam Stadium, Malaysia on 7 December 2014 and the return leg would be in My Dinh Stadium, Hanoi, Vietnam on 11 December 2014.
I was doubly excited with those developments because I had some business to attend to in Hanoi around the same time of the 2nd leg of this Semi-Final! What an opportunity of a lifetime to watch a live football match in another country cheering for your own country as the visiting team!! Wait, there’s more! There was even the possibility of watching Malaysia qualify for the final LIVE in another country! Of course, this would require Malaysia to perform well enough in the first leg first…
A Bloody Disgrace
On 7 December 2014, Vietnam came into Malaysia for the first leg encounter, totally controlled the match, made a mockery of our football and went home deservedly with a 2-1 victory. Unfortunately, this match would not be remembered for this victory.
After the final whistle, some shameless, idiotic, uncivilised Malaysians behaved like hooligans and attacked some of the Vietnamese football fans who had come to watch the match. Pictures of those bloody scenes quickly went viral and put Malaysia on the global map for the wrong reasons (again)…
Suddenly, the trip to Hanoi didn’t sound so welcoming anymore for any Malaysian, more so for any Malaysian who wanted to step into My Dinh Stadium for the second leg! I thought about it for a while (maybe about 5 seconds) before deciding I would still try to get the tickets since I would already be there anyway….
….but I soon found out that getting those second leg semi-final tickets was so DIFFICULT it might as well have been listed down as one of Hercules’ labors!
A Lesson in Persistence
Unlike the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, Vietnam didn’t have an official football ticketing hotline portal where fans could simply make their bookings in the comfort of their home. Believe me, I had been regularly visiting the AFF Suzuki Portal DAILY for updates on their 2nd leg ticket sales but there seemed to be none. The closest I found was some ‘aleale’ Vietnamese ticketing site which apparently has sold some football tickets online before. Unfortunately, the site didn’t seem to have any information on the AFF Suzuki Cup match either.
In desperation, I even started browsing numerous Vietnamese websites with the tags ‘Vietnam vs Malaysia’, ‘Suzuki Cup Semi Final’, etc. but to no avail. Many of those sites only increased my frustration by showing photos of local Vietnamese football fans queueing up to buy the tickets from outside the stadium! It was obviously hopeless to book the tickets online. Sigh. In the end, I realised that my only hope was to go directly to the stadium in Hanoi to see if they have any special tickets allocated for Malaysian fans there.
On 10 December 2014 (the day before the match), I boarded an early flight from KLIA to Hanoi. It was a pretty strange flight too. I mean, I had expected that a flight to Hanoi a day before the big game to be filled to the brim with ecstatic Malaysian fans but this one had only about 4 other fans (who also didn’t have tickets with them!) and a press reporter. Probably all the Malaysian fans were already in Hanoi. Yeah, that must be it…J
My kiasu Option A was to arrive in the early part of the afternoon, and get my airport taxi to stop by My Dinh on the way to my hotel. Thankfully, I remembered to pack some amount of sense with me for this trip. With some heavy luggage in tow, I decided to check into the hotel first before coming out again to the stadium. Besides, I might have to stand in queue for hours too. *shivers*
After I had checked into Paradise Boutique Hotel in the Old Quarters, I excitedly told the hotel staffs there that I wanted to buy a ticket to watch the football match tomorrow. With a horrified look, they all exclaimed in unison that ALL the tickets would have been sold out by now already. They continued to say that the only way I could get a ticket now was only through the black market touts, which was apparently quite an embarrassing industry in Vietnam whenever big events such as this one came up. I must have been totally stunned or speechless for a few minutes because the hotel staffs then tried their best to console me by making some phone calls to their friends to confirm the ‘sold-out ticket’ news. They even tried to call the stadium itself but there was no answer. In the end, they offered for me to watch the match on the hotel TV with them tomorrow night.
I was really moved by their kind gestures and efforts to help me buy my ticket and the suggestion to watch the match in the hotel. However, I just felt that watching the football match on the TV knowing that the stadium was like 40 minutes away had W-R-O-N-G written all over it. I knew in my heart that I just couldn’t give up so easily. But for that day, perhaps, I was done. Since the stadium was quite a distance from the Old Quarters and I also had a pre-arranged food tour at 5.00pm that day, I felt it was rather risky to try to go all the way to the stadium at that moment. So I decided to continue my quest for my ticket the next day, knowing very well that I would then have less than 12 hours to do it…
Early the next morning, I went out and flagged a Xe Om (motorcycle taxi) back to my hotel, where I sought the help of one of the hotel staff to translate my desire to charter his services for the next 4 hours. I calculated that I would need about one hour to get that elusive football ticket and the remaining 3 hours sightseeing around Hanoi. After agreeing on a price, the Xe Om rider suggested that before heading out to My Dinh, we could try out a ticket office at a smaller stadium in the city area first. I was glad that I had picked a rider who certainly knows where to buy football tickets!
After putting on my motorcycle helmet (which served no function because it was so thin!!), we sped off towards the inner city area. Within minutes, we arrived at the entrance of the smaller stadium where some middle-aged ladies swarmed around our motorcycle in an instant, flashing stacks of the football tickets at my face. I was shocked to hear that they were selling the cheapest seating tickets for VND1,000,000, which was equivalent to about USD50!! I politely told them no as my Xe Om rider took us away. For the next 30 minutes or so, I thoroughly enjoyed probably THE most scariest motorcycle rides of my life as my Xe Om zoomed in and out of the city streets, against the traffic, through red lights, etc. before finally arriving outside the gates of My Dinh…
Unfortunately, the situation was pretty much the same as the smaller stadium we just came from. There were some locals with a handful of tickets, offering to sell them to me for as high as VND 1.5M (USD75)! I tried my best to explain to them I was looking to buy any special allocated tickets for Malaysian fans, but it was rather hopeless since none of them spoke any English. I then motioned for my rider to take me into the stadium compounds to see if the there was any ticketing office open inside. So we rode around the stadium for a while but couldn’t see any opened counter either.
At that time, some Vietnamese high school students were either hanging out on the stadium grounds or warming up for some activity there. My rider decided to stop and asked them if they knew where the ticket counters were. When the school children found out I was from Malaysia, their tones started to change. Some chuckled and some jokingly (I hope) carried some athletics gear or staff towards us. Then one of them gave the universal call sign which struck me immediately. I should try calling the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF)! Now, why didn’t I think of that in the first place?! After a quick google, I found the website with the phone number but there was no answer on the other line! So with an apologetic wave, we left the students and was about to exit the stadium compounds when my rider proactively stopped a lady near the side of the road. After some exchanges of Vietnamese, the lady pointed her finger to somewhere across the main road from the stadium. Without delay, he took me across the main road towards the direction pointed out by the lady and before I knew it, I had arrived at the very gates of the VFF! It was just slightly after 10am that morning which led me to accept the possibility that the office may not be opened yet.
My rider then got down with me here and walked with me into the VFF (yes, it was strangely very quiet and empty inside too!), to look for someone, ANYONE at all that may be able to help me. We were fortunate to run into a rather helpful officer who could speak English (yes!!!) So, I immediately enquired if there were any special allocated tickets for the Malaysian fans for tonight and if there were, how or where could I purchase them? His initial response was to request if I had any official letter from FAM or documents from Malaysia. In exasperation, I told him all I was REALLY a Malaysian! And all I had was my Malaysian MyKad with me to prove that I was Malaysian! After (finally) believing me, he told me that to his knowledge, some 1,000 tickets had been earlier sent to Malaysia or some fan club but later they were all returned back to Vietnam. So he really had no idea if there were any more tickets left…:-(
Just when it seemed that my quest would meet its gloomy doom here, the kind officer asked me to wait for a while as he disappeared into his office to contact the Secretary General or some Director on his mobile. After 10 minutes, he came out and mysteriously motioned me to follow him into the office where there was just him and one other staff. When the door had closed, he put on quite a serious-looking face, narrowed his eyes and spoke softly in a creepy bass-like tone, “So, tell me…actually, um….how many tickets do you want?” I responded in a similar serious tone, “Err..just one. For me only.” I could sense a sigh of relief written on his face as he turned and said something to his colleague in Vietnamese. His colleague then went into another room for a few seconds before coming out with ONE FOOTBALL TICKET, which they were willing to sell it to me at its ORIGINAL PRICE of VND150,000 (USD7.50)!! The officer also told me this ticket is in Section D8, which is quite close to section D10, where most Malaysians should be seated. He even offered to make a few phone calls to find out if there were any Malaysian fan clubs travelling to the Stadium later so that I could join them if I wanted. I simply thanked him for going through such great lengths to get me a ticket. I was deeply moved by the hospitality and friendliness of the officer and his colleague to entertain a simple football fan from Malaysia. On the other extreme, I probably also looked like some football fanatic in desperado mode to get those tickets at all costs…:-p
In a cheerful mood, I left the VFF and went about on my sightseeing tour of Hanoi (which shall be blogged about within the next few weeks..). About two hours later, I received a phone call from this same officer from VFF, who sounded rather distressed. He told me that he made a mistake. The section where the Malaysian supporters are supposed to be seated is C10 and NOT D10! It meant that I would possibly be the only Malaysian sitting amongst the Vietnamese that night! He then offered me a full refund if I wished to return the ticket back to him. Since I was already back in the city area, I said it was OK and I felt safe to sit with the locals there. After going through such an ordeal to get my hands on the ticket, giving it up was the last thing on my mind!
A Lesson in Determination
The match was supposed to kick-off at 7.00pm. So at 5.00pm, I suited up in my Malaysian jersey (yeah, somehow passion overwrites sanity when it comes to football…) and made my way down to hail a taxi. I t was then that I realised I had underestimated the Hanoi after-office traffic! Not many taxis were able to come INTO the Old Quarters as with heading out TOWARDS My Dinh at that time of the day! Even Xe Oms were not really keen to go anywhere near My Dinh that evening. My mind raced frantically for options. Should I pay a premium price for any Xe Om or taxi crazy enough to take me there? Should I start running there on foot like, now?
Just then, a local couple checked into the hotel. Apparently, they were from the South, probably Ho Chi Minh area and they came up to Hanoi because the husband, whom I shall refer here as Bro V, had wanted to watch the match too! With the help of the hotel staff, we both agreed to travel together and share the cost of a taxi. In my heart, I thought it could also be safer for me to travel together with a local too. Phew!
After several restless minutes waiting trying to hail taxis outside the hotel, Bro V and I eventually found a 7-seater taxi (Innova, I think) to take us there. Actually it was more like forcefully getting ourselves into the taxi and demand that we be taken to My Dinh! The ash-stricken face of the driver was like he had just been mugged by two football fanatics! Anyway, the traffic that night was simply HORRIBLE. It was as if the entire city of Hanoi was headed to My Dinh to watch the match! The taxi virtually stopped every minute and visually it looked impossible to even get to the stadium at all!
Of course, I have to salute our taxi driver for that night as well. Knowing that the both of us had a football match to catch, he practically took many shortcuts through housing areas and drove as if he rode a motorcycle! The jam was also so frustratingly long that it was already 7.00pm (kick-off time already!) when we got stuck at some roundabout along the main road where there was a continuous stream of vehicles inching their way towards My Dinh. Although we couldn’t understand each other by language, Bro V and I nodded our heads in agreement as if we were in a Vulcan mindmeld. We quickly paid the driver his fare (plus a tip too for braving himself to come this far!) and disembarked there as we proceeded on our journey to My Dinh on foot for another 2 or 3km! Determination had taken over!
Somewhere after the first kilometre, Bro V suddenly motioned me to follow him into some bushes by the side of the road. I immediately understood and followed him there to answer the call of nature. If anything, I can erm, proudly say that I have pee-d by the roadside in another country! *ahem!* Anyway, the journey on foot wasn’t all about bush stories! There were also hordes of Vietnamese trying to sell flags and headbands…. literally in your face! At the same time, there were also quite a number of Vietnamese who muttered some stuff towards my direction but I was glad Bro V was there to fend them off, although I really had no idea what he responded! From his hand language, I deduced that he was telling them that I was Vietnamese too! 😛
Although the walk was pretty far (by my flabby standards..), my legs didn’t really feel tired at all. Perhaps the brightly lit stadium acted like some beacon of light, drawing us nearer and nearer to it. As we got nearer, the stadium lights felt brighter and our bodies felt recharged as well! So it wasn’t long before we arrived at My Dinh….
…only to discover that there was a 500 meter queue of humans, holding and waving their tickets in the air, trying to gain access to enter the main gates….and it was already 7.15pm!! This was where I said goodbye to Bro V, who managed to conveniently squeeze himself into the queue. Of course, it was easier for him because he was a Vietnamese and also NOT wearing a Malaysian jersey! Sigh. On my own, I wandered aimlessly until I found a security personnel and asked if there was any other entrance. All I got was a shrug. *&*&^%##@ So I slowly walked along the entire queue of humans to to survey if there are any Malaysians there which I could ‘tumpang’ and queue in together. Alas! There was NONE!!!
Being the very kind and courteous visitor in a foreign land, I respectfully lined up at the tail end of the queue. As I inched closer and closer towards the gate, I could already hear deafening cheers emanating from the stadium. So close now!!! Like everyone else in queue, I then took out my ticket and waved it above my head. Then all of a sudden, it was as if the officers at the outer gate didn’t quite bother checking everyone’s tickets as the entire crowd started to barge through the gates with ease! My next challenge was then to locate my section of the Stand – D8. Unfortunately, the signboards inside the stadium were not very clear and I had to practically jog around the entire stadium (from the outside, of course!) before finding Section D. I felt my heart pounding so hard inside of me as I wiped off the sweat off my forehead after my unintentional night exercise jog as the security guard opened the gate to let me into the Section D of the stadium. This was it. I could smell the excitement as I walked up the ramp of Section D…
…right into the immeasurable thousands of Vietnamese fans blocking almost every other available inch of the opening section of the ramp! I was completely surrounded by an ocean of red-coloured local fans cheering their team on loudly. The entire atmosphere that night was electrifying. Saying My Dinh was a full house that night was an understatement. It was clearly an over-capacity crowd. Most of the fans were not only standing, some were even standing on the top of the seats! I scanned around the over-populated Section D and came to one simple conclusion: I was NEVER going to get to my seat that night, EVER. Anyway, that didn’t matter much because I had finally MADE IT there! And to make things sweeter, the score at that moment was already Malaysia 2 Vietnam 0!!
A Lesson in Survival
So all I could do was to stand, stretch out my neck and watched the game from my current position at the top of the Section D ramp. It was a good thing I am quite tall too. Local fans around me were also pushing, tip-toeing, etc. but I had no complaints whatsoever. My country was winning! And then suddenly Vietnam were awarded a penalty. Gasp! When it was successfully converted, the entire stadium erupted in a united, deafening roar of joy. I really felt like I was trapped inside a giant boom box! Malaysia 2 Vietnam 1. The score was now tied, both on that night and also on aggregate. About 5 minutes later, the exact opposite happened. Malaysia sprung an attack from left where a cross was accidentally put into the Vietnam goal by its own defender! Malaysia 3 Vietnam 1! Just like that, My Dinh became so eerily silent. Surrounded by thousands of Vietnamese, I only cheered silently in my heart, for my own good. 😛 I also felt more and more stares darting in my direction now…
This was when I bumped into Malay guy on my left, which I will name him as Bro H, who was also tip-toeing himself to watch the game. We started to exchange a conversation (something hard to come by in Hanoi!!) and I found out he was actually a Singaporean! He was also there on business with his Vietnamese counterpart (who was also quite dark skinned, by the way) and decided to come watch the match with their wives. Strangely, they only managed to get two tickets in Section D (where we were) and another two tickets in Section C, where both their wives were seated. Suddenly, as we were still chatting and watching the game, Shukor Adnan struck just before half-time to give Malaysia a 4-1 lead! The entire stadium was completely STUNNED.. At this point, I began to felt slightly restless. It was as if more Vietnamese fans just realised there was a Malaysian standing in their midst. I don’t think the bright yellow Malaysian jersey helped much too. They were still watching the match but I started to feel a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it was a little bit of paranoia but it was then that I asked Bro H if he still wanted to watch the remainder of the match or to leave at half-time. With the away goals also in effect in this competition, Vietnam would now need to score THREE goals to progress – quite daunting even by their standards. Malaysia had seemingly wrapped up the match already.
I think Bro H also sensed the same thing so we decided to go and find their wives first. Besides, he also mentioned that they have yet to eat their dinner too. Upon securing both their wives, all five of us quietly proceeded to exit the stadium. But we weren’t the only ones. Many Vietnamese fans were also leaving the stadium like a wild stampede! It was almost as if the actual match had already ended! Guess these are times where you can see the loyalty of your home fans! Heh.
Our immediate challenge was to find a taxi. Strangely enough, this seemingly simple task was made more difficult amidst the chaotic scenes outside the stadium grounds with so many people leaving too! The numerous taxis which we saw parked outside the stadium were quickly snapped up. Bro H’s Vietnamese friend also tried to make a few phone calls to get a taxi to come to our location but no taxi seemed to show up! For the next few minutes, we tried to remain calm as we patiently waited for any taxi to stop for us. Bro H’s wife (who was in tudung) also shared her humorous experience where she had to regularly flash her Singaporean passport to many curious Vietnamese fans who kept staring and apparently asking if she was Malaysian!
However, things didn’t felt quite right when the clock ticked close to half an hour already! During that time at least 4 or 5 EMPTY taxis had ignored our hails and zipped past us without stopping. We began to question if it was something we wore (read: Malaysian jersey and Mrs H’s tudung..) or we forgot to wait at the taxi stand? Hmmmm. We even started to walk further and further away from the stadium gates to a more open space where taxis would have more room to stop for passengers. Same sad result. Bro H then suggested that I put on his jacket to cover my jersey whilst we hail the taxi. Before I took up that we offer, we worked out another strategy in tandem. Mrs H and I stood a couple of meters away as Bro H’s friend walked in the opposite direction to hail a taxi on his own. Almost immediately, a 5-seater sedan taxi stopped for him! The rest of us stealthily made quick steps towards the taxi as Bro H’s friend told his wife to get into the car first. With the front door of the taxi open, ALL of us made a sudden lunge towards the taxi, swung open the passenger-side doors and squeezed ourselves into it. There were five of us so a 7-seater taxi would have been more comfortable but considering the circumstances, I would have breathed a sigh of relief even if a trishaw had stopped for us that night! 😛
The next stage of my adventure inside the taxi was quite awkward too. The taxi driver, who seemed to grumble a bit when all of us packed ourselves into his taxi, was completely on mute button for the rest of the journey. The radio inside the taxi was on and it was broadcasting the live commentary for the semi final match (what else?!)! Everytime the very excited commentator screamed out something colourful, we would turn to Bro H’s friend and ask what happened or was it a goal? And his deadpan reply was a classic “No. Nothing. No Goal.” And even when Vietnam did score their second goal of the match much later, there weren’t any cheers inside the taxi. I was actually more relieved that Vietnam had scored. Made the overall scoreline more erm, palatable? 😀
Although I would have loved to have dinner with my new found friends, I politely declined because I also thought that the first thing I should do upon making out of My Dinh was to get myself out of my Malaysian jersey. Certainly didn’t want to provoke any more anger or hostility on foreign soil! So we got the taxi to drop me off in my hotel first before it continued on to the French Quarters where their hotel were. Of course, we did manage to exchange contacts and goodbyes as I came down at my hotel on that night, capping one of the most memorable football nights I’ve ever experienced in my life!
About an hour later, as I slowly sipped a cup of freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee in the chilly streets of Hanoi, I reflected on the entire episode of my experience in My Dinh again and observed three key lessons I have learnt here:
#1: Never Give Up!
Getting my ticket was already an adventure that was almost as exciting as the experience inside My Dinh itself! My unbelievable and crazy persistence in pursuing the ticket all the way to the VFF is proof that if we continue pursuing something with our whole heart, we will eventually get it!
#2: God Looks After His Children
With the euphoria toned down a bit, my senses began to kick back in and I realised that going to My Dinh under the current circumstances that night was already insane! But wearing a Malaysian jersey and getting into the stands surrounded by thousands of local fans? Downright irrational. What was I thinking? Apparently not. Anyway, I am thankful that God continues to protect me despite my idiocy. The presence of Bro V and Bro H are perfect examples of God’s amazing timing and provision of relevant people to surround me in my time of need.
#3: There’s Still Love in Football
From personal observation inside My Dinh itself, I can say that whilst Vietnamese really love their football, I don’t think they would resort to any violence that would tarnish their country. At half-time with the score of 4-1, the Vietnamese were really witnessing a TRASHING in their very own backyard. A loss of focus or an emotional discharge could have easily been triggered here. But the fans remained calm and continued cheering their team on. My fullest respect to the Vietnamese fans here. There’s still hope that LOVE still overcomes all forms of violence in football. Seriously I don’t want to know how would Malaysians respond back home had the situation been reversed? Hmmmm.
Mmmmmmm. Yes….the hot Vietnamese coffee was definitely good. But it doesn’t even come close to My Dinh. Now that football moment I experienced was something special. Something memorable. A football MOMENT that I will remember FOREVER!