Gaelic games return to action - in Vietnam

Saigon Gaels ladies football team at the weekend tournament in Hanoi, Vietnam, with coach Jonny McLoughlin.
Saigon Gaels ladies football team at the weekend tournament in Hanoi, Vietnam, with coach Jonny McLoughlin.

NORTH v South took on a different twist in the GAA at the weekend – in Vietnam.

Teams from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) travelled to the capital Hanoi to play in a multi-sports tournament as Gaelic games returned to the global stage.

Playing in temperatures of 38 degrees with 90 per cent humidity may have been testing but Jonny McLoughlin of the Saigon Gaels club continues to count his blessings, saying: “We are doing what other people wish they could do.”

The south-east Asian country may not be much associated with Gaelic games but perhaps it’s not such a surprise that competitive GAA has returned there.

The nation’s success in almost completely avoiding Covid-19 has been remarkable – with very few cases and no recorded deaths. For a population of almost 100 million with a long land border with China, that is astonishing.

Sadly one club member did die, but in an accident in Ireland. McLoughlin makes a point of mentioning Damien Lyne, originally from the Killarney Legion club in Kerry, who passed away in April: “He was a big loss to the club. He returned home to Ireland because his work dried up, had every intention to come back here… He’s very much missed but not forgotten.”

The early lockdown was a key element in keeping the Vietnam healthy, so much so that schools re-opened nine weeks ago. Dubliner McLoughlin, who coaches their ladies footballers, is a week into his holidays from his teaching job, a timely finish ahead of the tournament he helped organise.

Due to quarantine restrictions affecting the economy, some ex-pats decided to return home, with club membership numbers dropping from around 80 to less than 50.

However, among those remaining – including club president Cormac Hamill from Belfast and assistant men’s coach John Redmond from Tyrone - “the energy has really exploded,” says McLoughlin: “We’ve got two new sponsors and getting brand new kit from O’Neills brought out for the second leg of the tournament.

“I said we need to give the girls something to train for in the summer. I spoke to the captain of Vietnam Swans in the south, he was keen to get involved, then the Saigon Geckos rugby team were dead keen as well

“It turned into a north v south – there’s a rugby team in the north, Hanoi Dragons, and a Gaelic team there, Hanoi Viet Celts, and then the Vietnam Swans are actually split across the country, 30 members up north and 30-40 down south.

“The last couple of times the north had come down to us so we said we’d go and play them and they organised the first leg. The second leg is scheduled for the 29th of August. There might be a third leg in central Vietnam, in Da Nang, that’ll be all teams travelling.”

Gaelic games return to action - in Vietnam

Even though the country re-opened two months ago, McLoughlin confessed to some nerves ahead of the flight to Hanoi:

“It was my first time going to an airport, since the Lunar New Year – Tet – back in February, so I was a little apprehensive. But we followed the GAA’s ‘Return to Play’ guidelines, followed Vietnamese government guidelines as well.

“Any time we travel out of the local vicinity we track where we’re all going, so if there is an outbreak we can pinpoint where everyone has been and anyone who needs to isolate can do so.

“But once you’re into a game there was no holding back, it was absolutely great, yeah. That’s the security that the Vietnamese government have given us, they’ve done a really wonderful job. The more you read about other parts of the world the more you realise how fortunate we are to be in this country.

“We are guests in this country and it’s up to us to follow the rules as well; the population as a whole, including all the ex-pats, are reaping the rewards…

“There is a disparity between some parts of the population; it’s a growing economy. The wage for the ex-pats allows us to have a very good lifestyle: I have health care, annual flights, gym membership. The cost of living is very cheap – very example, a bottle of Tiger beer in the shop is around 20,000 dong, which is maybe 70p.”

The weekend went well, with the GAA element comprising nine-a-side games of seven minute halves. As McLoughlin points out, “38 degrees and 90 per cent humidity doesn’t lend itself to long matches.”

It was a multi-sports tournament, with ladies and men’s Gaelic, AFL for both men and women, then contact rugby at the end of the day. “Having all those sports on one field, all together, gives a real community vibe and atmosphere that we’re all looking for.”

McLoughlin’s own future remains in Vietnam, he hopes; after five years there, he and English-born wife Laura – the captain of the ladies team – want to extend their stay.

As for Saigon Gaels, they’re aiming to boost the number of locals in the club: “We’ve got a new sponsor, vsource, an Irish software company based over here for about 10 years, and they’ve got approximately 250 Vietnamese staff.

“In early August we’re going to have a Culture Day and training session at the playing field attached to their compound. About 10 players and coaches will go there, have food and drink and what-not, then the next day do some training, have a Poc Fada, really give them a taste of the GAA. Try to get them involved and enthused.”

With new city rivals in the form of Na Fianna Ho Chi Minh, the GAA appears to be flourishing in Vietnam.