Last week I got an irresistible proposition: opening day of the Dong Nai Football Club.

It provided several very fun firsts: my first chance to visit a different province for fun and pleasure, my first ever FIFA soccer (no… football!) match, and my first “extended” motorbike trip.

People come and go so fast when you’re traveling… when you’re planted in one place, it’s easy to miss all the people that are spending less time there than you. The possibilities seem endless when you have a set amount of time ahead of you. The trick is to avoid that sense of complacency and make the most of every moment – something that doesn’t always come easily to my introverted nature.

Ticket office and bike parking at the Dona FC stadium.

Two of the coolest people I’ve met here left Vietnam recently, and so we were cramming in as much time together as possible. Maciek is a football fanatic (legitimately, figuratively insane about the game worldwide) and does sports writing for a Polish site.

He’s also really into Filipino basketball for some reason. Weird, but pretty neat (his next leg of the trip takes them to see the Filipino basketball team play! How exciting for him?).

Saigon to Bien Hoa on the East-West Highway.

When he suggested we take an impromptu trip to opening day of the neighboring province’s football season, it seemed unique and fun enough to not pass up. So the next day, a sunny, hot Saturday, Maciek, Erwin, and I got lunch at Lam Cafe and set out for Dong Nai province, an easy ride of an hour by bike.

Outside the stadium, inside the gates: Dona FC supporters mass together and sell flags and jerseys.

With the wind in our faces and the open road beneath our wheels, we got to Bien Hoa about 4:30 for a 5pm start time (kickoff?). We were definitely the only foreigners there, and we got a steady supply of stares, pointing, and dropped jaws – just what were these three white dudes doing in a provincial stadium?? Only one of the people we talked to spoke English, and wanted to know if we were tourists.

Maciek eyes some merch. The dirt walkway that surrounds the stadium – we were in the mass public bleachers (40k VND/~$2 USD per ticket). A short jaunt down the trail.

As for me, I was busy learning the game (it’s almost absurdly easy – still, I didn’t know much about the sport at all). Maciek and Erwin are both big soccer fans, and they were very accommodating and gave me great answers to what were probably really simple questions. So, thank you a ton, guys! I’m actually kind of digging the game now that I know what’s going on – just like experiencing the thrill of a Blackhawks game first hand made me a hockey believer! (Seriously, folks, that is one fun game.)

Erwin smiles for the bleacher beauty shot – football might be a relatively short game (2 45 minute halves and a 15 minute break), but it was far too long to sit on these bare concrete steps.

Vendors were selling banh mi, water, popcorn, cigarettes, chewing gum, and a variety of drinks. After an enormous lunch of pad thai, though, I wasn’t having any of it, besides some water. We were hoping to hear some Vietnamese soccer chants, but no such luck. Either they’re different from other fans that Maciek and Erwin are familiar with or the game wasn’t exciting enough for chanting. Too bad! I had my video ready to roll.

I wouldn’t really call it goose-stepping… more like a lazy, disinterested swagger.

There were signs that riots have been seen here – stormtroopers (police or military, I don’t know) geared up for trouble were omnipresent, and any drinks we ordered were poured into bags and tied with a straw and rubber band. No plastic or glass bottles were allowed in the stadium, which the guys said was normal for soccer matches – people will tend to throw them on the field.

We were sitting in pretty good “seats” about halfway up – it allowed a nice view of the field.

There were ‘troopers stationed every 30 feet or so around the perimeter of the field, and a group of 6 or 7 strolled in lazy formation around the field for the entire game. Two of those even had what looked like flame throwers strapped to their backs (I honestly don’t know what it was, but that’s the most hilarious/horrifying idea, so let’s go with that), and everyone had visors and long batons, presumably for beating the crap out of people. In fact, the very first thing that happened as the game started was the police escorting an inebriated man from the crowd. After this, it was pretty quiet. The ‘troopers looked pretty bored.

There were about 4,000 people at the game, give or take a thousand. Virtually all male.

dThe game was fun. The first half was a little boring, but it picked up in the second half and, with my friends’ assisting, I began noticing traits of the individual players – some were bad, but some were making smart choices consistently. Dong Nai was playing Ninh Binh, and while Dong Nai was the stronger team, Ninh Binh made good use of their most capable players. Ultimately, the score was tied 2-2 (you can end on a tie on soccer! Huh – the things you learn!).

Stadium on your right, row of trees that is a bathroom on your left.

We were back home to HCMC by 8:30pm, and I’m so glad we went. Not only to spend a little more time with Maciek and get to know Erwin better, but because life is made up of these little things, and the more little things you participate in, the richer and more rounded your life is. I could have easily stayed home and read a book or blogged solo, but being outgoing for the night helped me create a new cherished memory and strengthen two friendships. If those aren’t priorities, I don’t know what is.

So thank you, Maciek, for being so insistent! I owe you one. Maybe when I visit Poland. 😉