HANOI (Reuters) - Amid a deafening symphony of motorbike horns and the sound of wooden spoons beating against kitchen pots and pans, thousands of Vietnamese took to the streets this week to celebrate victory in an otherwise little-followed sporting event: the Under-23 Asian Cup semi-finals.
The reaction might seem over the top for a non-elite football match but in Vietnam the result of Tuesday’s match was met with scenes of national celebration and unity usually seen around World Cup victories.
“When we won the semi-final, my blood was boiling. I couldn’t believe that it really happened,” said Nguyen Tung Duong, a small business owner in Hanoi who, like thousands of others, filled one of Hanoi’s many cafes and bars on Tuesday to watch the under-23 side beat Qatar in the semi-final.
“In that moment, I felt undying love for our Motherland”.
The progress of the side is seen as a good measure of where a country is likely to be in the next senior World Cup cycle and nations such as Qatar and China have invested heavily in building age-group teams as they look towards 2022.
And in Vietnam, which rarely fares well in international sports, the progress of the young team has become a national obsession.
“The atmosphere in Vietnam at the moment is as if the World Cup is being hosted here,” football commentator Truong Anh Ngoc told Reuters.
Cinemas are screening Saturday’s final against Uzbekistan for free. Companies are sending employees home early. Lists showing which of the men in the team are single are being widely shared by infatuated women on social media.
Vietnam’s prime minister has announced cash rewards for the players while celebratory top hats have been improvised from bright red buckets usually used to potty-train young children.
VietJet Aviation has promised to paint the team and its South Korean coach on the side of a plane.
“Playing and defeating regional states enhances Vietnam’s self-perception of itself,” said Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Australian Defence Force Academy and former National Secretary of the Australian Soccer Referee’s Federation.
“Winning at soccer is self-validating, Vietnam has broken out of its Cold War isolation as a member of the socialist camp and joined the Asian Confederation of soccer playing nations,” said Thayer.
The last time Vietnamese people took to the streets in massive numbers for a sporting event was when they won an ASEAN football tournament 10 years ago.
If the team wins on Saturday, the party is expected to consume every Vietnamese city into the early hours - a rare display of mass demonstration in a country where large gatherings of people are closely watched by the authorities.
“How better to thumb your nose at the local police wrapped in the national flag patriotically celebrating a victory!” said Thayer.
Additional reporting by Thinh Nguyen, Minh Nguyen and Kham Nguyen; Editing by Peter Rutherford