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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The V-League is Vietnam's domestic soccer league and was formed in 1980, a mere five years after the nation was reunified. Like many leagues that lie in developing countries, the V-League has undergone many changes in its relatively brief history. These days, there are two separate circuits, the Super League with 14 teams and the First Division with another 14 clubs. Every season sees two teams promoted and two relegated. Given that Vietnam doesn't have an abundance of large cities, many clubs share the same stadium. Most prominent among these is the Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City, which is home to three squads, including Saigon Xuan Thanh, recently promoted from the First Division.
Thong Nhat means “unification” in Vietnamese and the stadium was rebuilt in 1975, the year the country was reunified. Although Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City (often abbreviated HCMC) at this time, much of the city still retains the old moniker, and two of the three clubs use Saigon in their official name. (For simplicity, I am using the general English spellings of these names).
This review rates the stadium based on its own merits, and does not compare it to the far superior facilities available in the West. Vietnam is still a very underdeveloped nation so expectations for anything remotely close to what you are used to should be tempered.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There was nothing inside the stadium in terms of food or drink. Outside there was a small canteen with no English menu. You could easily point to what you wanted, but I only saw a few bottles of pop and water here. Be careful doing so at halftime though. At the game I attended a fan who had gone to get some snacks had been locked out. Eventually someone guided him over to the VIP entrance and he was admitted after several minutes of pounding on the door. As you'd likely not spend much time here anyway, better to just get a bottle of water in advance and eat in one of the many fine restaurants in the downtown core. My recommendation on this end is Nha Hang Ngon, an inexpensive open-air eatery with loads of choice and every dish superb. Well worth visiting after the game.
Outside of the GA section, the stadium seemed very quiet. It was such a contrast to the madness that was taking place all around me. If I had been sitting somewhere, I probably would rate this much lower, but given that I was amongst a legion of loud and sweaty fans, I'll be somewhat generous and give two stars. There are no other distractions here during the game, which is usually the case for soccer no matter where you are.
The best thing about this stadium is that you are a few miles away from the city center, which is relatively tame and more tourist-friendly. In the area surrounding the venue though, you can see the real Saigon. I took some time after the game to walk around and really enjoyed the experience. Except for extremely high levels of air pollution, Saigon is relatively safe (except when crossing the street!) and while you might get a few stares when you are this far away from the downtown core, you are not in any danger. There are plenty of corner bars and cafes where you can stop in and grab a very cheap beer ($1) and although few people speak English here, you should be able to understand the basics on any menu, which often come with pictures.
There was little information available in English, so my research was limited, but it appeared as if Saigon was not a popular team. Their last fixture drew only 3,500 to a 25,000-seat stadium. But well over 25,000 made it out for the potential championship game. Can you say "bandwagon"? The fans were very poorly behaved in trying to enter the stadium, but that is the nature of life in Saigon where rules are seldom followed.
I'm giving three points here for the fans in the GA section, who were determined to see the game, to the point of nearly crushing everyone. Sadly for them, the game ended scoreless and Saigon ended up third (a team from Da Nang took the title).
There is limited public transit in the city and taxis are ridiculously cheap, so tourists take them everywhere. Use Vinasun as their meters start automatically and you will not get ripped off. The taxi ride from downtown to the stadium was 75 000 Vietnamese dong (VND), which is about US$3.60. Due to the throng of fans, I was dropped off a block away and from there, it was extremely slow going to get to the main entrance. This was the final match day of the season and Saigon had a chance to claim the title as did visiting Hanoi, so the game was sold out and those that couldn't get in were surrounding the stadium. The main entrance had three open doors, one with a VIP label in front of which the fans were well behaved. The other two had police in riot gear trying to prevent a teeming sea of fans from surging through the door. Most of these patrons had tickets and were waving them in the air, and one-by-one they were allowed in but it was very disorganized.
I saw a fourth entrance down at one end and ventured over to see a boisterous group pushing their way past an angry security guard. This appeared to be the general admission section, and no ticket was required. Joining the heaving mass, I was soon propelled into the stadium and up a concrete staircase. Sadly, the field was still not in view, as several thousand fans had preceded me into the area. Many of them had secured dangerous perches along railings and at the top of the roof from which to watch the game, but I was not willing to try my rusty climbing skills, choosing to push my way to the front. After the game started, the crowd began to push forward and it became difficult to actually watch the action on the field. The rest of the stadium was serene in comparison, but in the GA section, mere survival was far more important than the game.
Since the game was sold out, there was nobody at what I assumed was the ticket window. Vietnam is still very cheap for those of us used to western economies, and the tickets were regularly priced at 70,000 VND from what I saw in the hands of scalpers, who were asking 6-7 times that. That may not be a lot of money to you or me, but is far more than I was willing pay given the local conditions. Especially with no guarantee of getting in the venue. Fortunately I found a free entrance and although I didn't see the entire game, stadiums where you can see the game for free always gets five stars in this category. Next time though, I'll buy a ticket in advance!
There is nothing here that I noticed, but I'm giving one point for the hard work of the riot police who were protecting the VIP entrance at halftime.
This was certainly one of the strangest sporting events that I have ever attended. Dangerous yet exhilarating, it certainly makes the review somewhat biased toward the positive. Overall, this is a very basic third-world stadium, but once you accept that, you should enjoy yourself here.
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160 Pasteur St
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
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