David Owen: Why I cheered for Hanoi's Asian Games victory

Tuesday, 13 November 2012
David Owen ITGNot many press releases make me cheer.

But last week's announcement that Hanoi is to host the 2019 Asian Games had exactly that effect.

No, I didn't have a bet on; and I have nothing against Surabaya, the Indonesian city Hanoi beat in the vote at the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA)'s general assembly in Macau.

My excitement had more to do, first, with what the Vietnamese capital represents for many of us who came of age in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s and, second, with what I found in the country, particularly the grey, damp, chilly north, when I spent a couple of weeks there in 1996.

The OCA vote was on November 8.

Forty-five years earlier – to the day – Hanoi's battered residents, awoke to find the faces of 15 captured United States airmen staring out from the morning newspaper to mark what, according to The Times, was "claimed to be the 2,500th shooting down of a United States aircraft over North Vietnam".

Another short Times article from Saigon cites American sources as stating that the total of American aircraft shot down over North Vietnam had risen to 730 "after the loss of three more bombers in the past 24 hours".

Phan Thị Kim PhúcEstimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from fewer than one million to more than three million

Regardless of whose statistics you believe, the northern half of this elongated, cobra-shaped country took a fearful pounding during that cruel, misguided war.

It seems to me a matter for the most heart-felt celebration that the theatre of these hostilities should be judged ready, half a century later, to provide the playground for one of the planet's foremost pageants of peaceful competition.

What is more, Nha Trang, once home to a well-known air base, is set to host the 2016 Asian Beach Games.

Given that 16 years have slipped by – somehow – since I visited Hanoi, it is pointless me attempting to pontificate on sports facilities, or the state of transport and tourist infrastructure; too much will have changed.

However, I am confident that one priceless asset will not have changed since our plane departed Ho Chi Minh City's airport: the spirit of the people.

Hoi An PeopleThe people of Vietnam had an undemonstrative, but unshakeable, sense of self-belief

I know this sounds corny, but wherever we went down to about Hoi An, we kept noticing the same character trait in those we encountered.

I would describe it as an undemonstrative, but unshakeable, sense of self-belief.

The language barrier was a daunting one, but it seemed to say, "We stood up to a superpower and – do you know what? – we got our way".

Those with direct experience of the war would no doubt rather they had not had to endure what they went through to acquire this mindset.

But now that it has been acquired, it strikes me as a pretty formidable national, or semi-national, quality.

Their experience seemed also to have left the Vietnamese with a resourcefulness which meant that, though nominally ruled by Communists, this was one of the most business-minded societies you could experience.

vietnam businessVietnam was one of the most business-minded societies you could experience

Personal computers, then few and far between in the north, appeared to be in use 24/7, by friends and neighbours when not their actual owner; minibus drivers, who provided the most efficient long-distance transport service for backpackers, routinely struck deals with hoteliers in destination-cities for depositing foreigners (ie custom) at their particular hotel.

Especially in the north, and in spite of that language barrier, we found evidence too of a quirky sense of humour many Europeans would empathise with.

Soldiers at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, for example, no doubt under orders to remain stony-faced, were clearly trying to make each other laugh as they escorted gawping tourists during their visit.

Unexpected incidents like that helped to build a picture of a nation capable of getting through most things with dignity and a smile.

Laying on the 18th Asian Games ought to be well within its capabilities.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
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