Earlier this spring BIP was invited to enter a team into the 12th annual Binh Dien Tournament in Vietnam in May. The level is quite high, loaded with some top clubs from around Asia; China, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Vietnam for this year. No American team had even been involved. As with many things in Asia, this was a last-minute effort, and we were lucky to find 11 athletes able and willing to participate, most committing and booking tickets just weeks prior to the event. The trip had everyone meeting in Saigon (formerly Ho Chi Minh City) and then flying to Da Nang together after a day or two of getting used to the new time zone. The following is a journal from Anna Church, a seasoned BIP-All-Star who just wrapped up a season playing professionally in Germany.
While my thanks here are aimed at Anna for taking the time to do this (and well) I would be remiss if I didn’t include thanks to ALL the girls and staff for stepping up and making this happen with almost no notice. I’m beyond impressed, but even more jealous that I’m not there enjoying the ride with this crew! – Tim Kelly
The first 72 hours in Vietnam
May 9, 2018 – After about two days of travel for most of us, and at least 20+ hours on planes and in airports, we FINALLY arrived in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam! Fun fact about four of us on the team: we are all from the Kansas City area! I played in high school at Bishop Miege with Jordan Tucker and Allison Mayfield is also a University of Kansas alumni (my alma mater). Allison and Carlyle Nusbaum are also alumni of St. Thomas Aquinas High School (though a couple years apart) in the Kansas City area. Fighting the urge to sleep after lunch at the hotel, we ventured out into the city.
Immediately, we nearly got run over by the millions of scooters that zip around Ho Chi Minh. Scooters are the preferred mode of transport for locals. They toss on some layers to protect them from the sun, a face mask for fumes (I think), and head to their next location. Traffic laws and regulations seem to be at a minimum in this city of roughly 8.6 million. Scooters merge and dart around cars and trucks. It feels like stoplights are more of a suggestion than rule and cross walks are a free-for-all. Thanks to Hailey Murray, we safely crossed our first street and headed to the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and Central Post Office.
We learned that both these beautiful buildings were built back when Vietnam was a French colony. The French brought their ideas of architecture and building techniques to the country and influenced these and many other buildings. A couple of souvenir purchases later, the group headed to Ho Chi Minh City Hall (another impressive piece of colonial architecture). Down the main walking area, we went to an Ao Dai Exhibition to learn about the traditional dresses that were being custom made for us to wear in the tournament opening ceremonies.
Following the stunning exhibition, we went to our first large market, the Ben Thanh Market. Some of us worked on our bartering skills, some just paid, but the biggest wins were for Jordan and Carlyle who bought Yeezy’s and Vans at a massive discount. Dinner back at the hotel had me literally falling asleep at the table. We all called it an early night and knocked out.
May 10, 2018 – The morning was ours to go where we pleased. Naturally, I want to see and do as much as possible in a new place. My roommate, Rachel Ritchie, and I grabbed breakfast (tried and loved passion fruit) and ventured out for a walk. We met up with Jordan and Maggie Speaks at the War Remnants Museum. The museum was a very sobering and informative trip. We began by exploring old tanks and helicopters left behind by the US, then went into an area that described the horrendous situation for prisoners, and last took a look at some of the consequences and politics behind the war. It was fascinating to see the history that we have been taught from a different perspective. After the museum, we tried traditional Vietnamese coffee on ice. It’s super strong but sweet since they mix in condensed milk. Its DELICIOUS! Rachel and I are coffee fanatics and luckily there’s no shortage of shops. Julia Brown had gotten stuck in China on her connecting flight the day before (I can’t even imagine the stress!). We were praying it all worked out so she could meet us at the Ho Chi Minh airport to head to Da Nang. Just as we were checking our bags, she showed up, and we hopped on our flight. As soon as we picked up our bags, there were several men from the tournament waiting for us. They took some video and loaded us into a bus to Tam Ky. We have the opportunity to be the first team representing the US to ever play in Vietnam. We will be competing in the 12th annual VTV9 Binh Dien Cup hosted in Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Everyone here is so supportive and excited to have us. One bus ride through the mountains later, we dropped our bags and went straight to training.
The first training was expectedly shaky, but what we weren’t expecting the lack of air conditioning. Every dive on the floor left a puddle behind to be wiped up. Despite the jet lag and excessive sweat, we started to connect as a team. Directly following our first training, and absolutely drenched in sweat, we tried on our very own cusom Ao Dai. We had sent measurements, but tweaks were very necessary. From impossible zippers to feeling like our broad shoulders would tear the fragile silk, it was a good thing that adjustments were being made. After soaking our Ao Dais in sweat, we came back to the hotel, ate more Pho, and called it a night.
May 11, 2018 – Today, Rachel and I woke up and took a walk to find our lifeblood: coffee. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by with smiles and warm “hellos”. The Vietnamese people are truly some of the kindest and most welcoming people. In the afternoon, we had our second practice. As we start to connect on the court, its exciting to see how we will measure up. Somehow this practice was even sweatier than the first. But thank God, no dress fittings after. A pool recovery session helped heal our tired bodies and we met up for the tournament’s opening dinner. Sitting with the other teams and sponsors, we looked onto a stage where the tournament coordinators, head honchos, and sponsors were presented. We received our finalized Ao Dais, lanterns to light in Hoi An, and adorable stuffed water buffalos. While we ate, we were treated to elaborate performances featuring glittering costumes and impressive vocals. As a team, we decided it was time to embrace the karaoke culture and performed a heartfelt rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High”. Jordan and Maggie absolutely killed the leads while the rest of us belted it out and danced our support from the background.
So far, it’s been a complete whirlwind in the best way. From volleyball, to trying new foods, to meeting some incredible people, it’s going to be a trip to remember. Its my first trip to Asia and I’m constantly in awe at the things around me! My favorite moments have been seeing and playing with Jordan for the first time in years, trying all types of new foods (especially passion fruit and Vietnamese coffee!), and introducing ourselves at the opening dinner via song and dance. Next up is a couple more training sessions, opening ceremonies, and our first match. Our pool includes Almaty (Kazakhstan), Jiansu (China), and Ngan hang cong thuong (Vietnam). Here we go!
May 12th – We’re starting to get adjusted and get into a rhythm. Our morning started with a training session at 8:30, followed by an afternoon nap, a 2:30 training session, and then preparations for the opening ceremony. We had received our final Ao Dai the night before, and they were fitting much better than our post-training-try-on-session. With shoes and a headpiece to match, we met in the lobby. Everyone looked stunning in the flattering traditional dress. The biggest concern about opening ceremony was the level of sweat that might show through our Ao Dai. The stadium was packed with spectators for the pre and post ceremony matches (we didn’t play either). Fans were on full blast, but it only helped so much. Photographers and other admirers all wanted a picture with the tall American team. Somehow we’re the exotic team!
The ceremony started out with some impressive dancers that in head to toe light up suits. The stadium got pitch black and they performed their red light vs blue light routine complete with a lighted “volleyball” on a string. Next was a woman who literally rode in on a boat surrounded by smoke. Opening ceremonies were no joke. She sang and performed with a group of back up dancers. Last but not least was a tall, beautiful woman rocking a yellow Ao Dai and singing a patriotic Vietnam song. After all the performances, it was our turn to be introduced.
We lined up shortest to tallest, so naturally I was in front and Sareea Freeman brought up the back. We took a full lap, smiling and waving, before lining up to stand still for speeches. The heads of the tournament made remarks to the crowd and cameras about the significance of the tournament while we tried to hide the sweat dripping down our brows. From discreetly fanning ourselves to obviously doing so, it was a pretty tough 25 minutes. After watching the video again, I was happy to see we weren’t the only team struggling with the heat. Speaking of struggling with the heat, apparently one of the flag bearers near to us completely fainted! Since I was in the front I didn’t see it happen, but was told about it after. The flag bearers were all pretty young men, poor kid. Not to worry though, he was a ball-boy the following day and seemed fine.
The opening ceremony was a surreal experience despite the heat. Being introduced in a traditional Ao Dai and representing the United States via BIP in an international tournament in Vietnam is an opportunity I never imagined I would have. Sweat dripping off of me and all, I could only think about how grateful I was to be in that moment in time with some incredible teammates and coaches.
May 13th – GAME DAY! Finally! vs. Vietnam Club
I woke up early with a ton of energy to spare. So I got up and called my mom and wished her a happy Mother’s Day (6:15am for me was 6:15pm the previous day at home). She helped me calm my nervous energy for the match and I headed to breakfast with the team. First we had serve and pass in the morning then a whole stupid afternoon of sitting, napping, eating and just waiting for the match. Patience is a virtue right? Fast forward to getting to put on the USA jersey: it definitely didn’t help with my extra energy. Somehow I even got my own number (#1)! I leaned back on an old track warm-up track technique and jogged it out before warm ups. Feeling calm and focused, now all I had to do was wait for warm ups before the match started at last.
The match itself was a little up and down. It began with us up 16-8 and then dropping that lead to lose the first set. We got it together after that and took the next 3 sets 25-21, 25-20, and 25-21. It was far from perfect, but a good step in the right direction for our team. And always great to get a win!
May 14th – Very chill, this was one of the least eventful days we’ve had: morning training, pool, afternoon training, hang, dinner, then practiced our talent show dance. To explain the dance, on May 18th there is apparently some sort of talent competition taking place between the teams. We are unsure of the format, but we decided to do a choreographed dance. Hailey Murray is a superstar and took charge. She planned a fairly simple dance to Beyonce’s “Formation” that even us uncoordinated ones can handle (with lots of practice). Stay tuned to hear how it goes!
Depending on where you are in the hotel, there is air conditioning. We practiced on the third floor, sans-conditioning. One of the things that continues to surprise me throughout this trip is how much I sweat. I’ve never been a multiple-shirt-for-practice player or even close to the sweatiest person on the court. But here, I am constantly drenched. I bring two shirts to practice and at least one towel to dry off during breaks or to use on the floor after I dive. Even practicing our fairly low key dance on the third floor, I needed a cold shower after. We were also given a case of water for each room because our staff already knew the sweat situation. Its obviously incredibly important to constantly drink water when you’re losing buckets at a time.
May 15th – Game day number two!
This time, an extra early morning practice: 7:30 instead of 8:30. After training, I did some work at my favorite spot in the hotel: the 20th floor. Not only is the wifi much better up here, but there’s a bar that can supply all my coffee needs and a killer view.
In the second match versus Almaty (Kazakhstan), we really came together and executed as a team. Their style of play was much more similar to what we are used to, but our servers also really did a fantastic job. We were connecting at all levels in every skill. It was really fun to be apart of. Serve receive, defense, blocking, setting, hitting; all cylinders were firing. We won the match 3-0 and the final set was a blowout at 25-10. We are officially in the semi-finals on the 19th! It was another great day.
Watch the full match below.
May 16th – With two wins in the books, we got a full day off!
The afternoon was scheduled for Hoi An, so Rachel and I took the morning to hit the beach. About a 15 minute taxi ride from our hotel, we headed there around 9 to beat the heat. Immediately once we arrived at Tam Than (the beach), two women came up to the cab and ushered us with them. Radio, our Vietnamese guide for the whole trip, had come with us so we trusted where she told us to go. We followed the women to a covered section and paid about 20,000 (basically $1) for a covered beach chair for the day. The beach was clean and beautiful. Parked on the beach were Vietnamese fishing boats and other umbrellas for the different resorts. Since it was so early and the middle of the week, we had essentially the entire resort to ourselves.
Even in the early morning, I had to make sure I was covered in sunscreen. The UV index here (a scale of 1-10) is usually close to 11. Rachel, a California native, and a naturally tan human, is a little bit more adjusted to the sun than I am. So she laid out while I stayed covered in the shade. After a while we made our way into the perfectly cool ocean. The waves and scenery were completely relaxing. Radio is so naturally outgoing that by the time we came back to our covered chairs she had made friends with some of the workers and fishermen. She also had gotten a bag a quail eggs (apparently a normal snack?) and he biggest crackers I’ve ever seen. After a couple hours at the beach, we headed back to meet up with the team at the hotel to head to Hoi An.
Hoi An is best known for its Ancient Town in the center, preserving traditions of the Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th century. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s also one of the cutest places I’ve ever been! Erin Leaser and Joe Trinsey, our trip organizer and coach, had previously spent two weeks in Hoi An scouting out the best locations. Mixed in with Vietnamese, French, Chinese, and Japanese architecture are thousands of lanterns. Bright paint, lanterns, colors, foods and smell split up by several rivers and canals make up the city. There are hidden gems everywhere.
After more walking we were stopped by a woman who asked if we wanted a boat ride. We checked our clocks, had enough time before dinner, and carefully stepped into the boat. Sunset reflecting and the lanterns started to shine made it really peaceful and magical. In my experience, there is no better way to see a city than by boat.
Dinner was next at Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School. Along with a massive menu, we got to see some of the crazy dishes being made. Some of the dishes included: Silk Worm Salad, Spicy Snails, Jellyfish Salad, whole chickens, and tons of other exciting dishes. For our meal, we started with appetizers.
“With Vy’s Market Restaurant, Ms Vy wanted to recreate the atmosphere and ambience of the local markets as she remembers them when working at her parent’s restaurant as a child. With a central courtyard surrounded but individual food stalls, guests are invited to see how dishes are prepared and cooked in the traditional way. From grilling rice crackers and roasting peanuts to making fresh ‘bun’ and ‘cao lau’ noodles, the restaurant offers guests a unique culinary experience. A tour of the individual stalls also forms part of her world-renowned cooking class. Guests can tour the stalls before ordering from the tablet-based photo menu and dishes are prepared and served to order. To really enjoy an authentic Vietnamese dining experience Ms Vy encourages guests to order in the Vietnamese way, selecting a few dishes to share with your fellow diners.”
I have never had better Crab Wonton in my entire life! I ordered Cha Ca fish and got to watch it be cooked directly in front of me. It had a bit of kick, but was so delicious. Happy and full, we explored Hoi An’s night market for about 20 minutes before heading back to our hotel for the night. It was such a full and wonderful day.
May 17 – Game Day!
Gameday number 3! This game was the last of pool play versus China’s Jiangsu. This team again played in another completely different style. They were strong on all sides and did a good job of capitalizing on their strengths. We had a couple of players out sick and overall just weren’t working together as well as we could have. Everyone had their different ups and downs. It was a grind of a match and we took it all the way to five sets. We fell apart a little bit in the fifth, and ended up losing. This puts us up against the home team, VTV Bình Điền Long An for the semifinal match on May 19th.
May 18 – The Vietnamese Volleyball Federation sponsored another day off, this time for every team in the tournament. We left bright and early for Hoi An, treated to a guided tour. We started at the Japanese bridge, the oldest bridge in Vietnam. From there, we moved on to learn about an old Chinese temple. Hoi An is a coast city with a rich global tradition. This temple was bright and full of so much color and art. Intricate woodcarvings decorated every crevice. The last official stop on the tour was the Tan Ky house. This house is over two hundred years old and has been in the same family since it was built, 8 generations. The family actually still lives in the house, but holds it open as a museum for historical purposes. The house is like a microcosm of the architecture of the city, holding Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese influences. One of the other especially interesting pieces of the house is the lines that mark the different water levels over the years. The rivers flood and locals are so used to it that they simply move all the important belongings to the second floor of the house. Some of the water lines showed flooding at least 6 feet high!
The Tan Ky house was the last stop on the guided tour and we had about an hour to do our own thing. Erin and Joe had previously been to Hoi An and stumbled into an incredible photographer’s gallery and museum. Once they got to know me a little better, they told me it was someplace I HAD to go. They loved it so much the first time, that they headed back with me today to check it out! The Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum featured the photography of Rehahn from France. Basically, he explored Vietnam from the countryside to the cities and took incredible pictures documenting the different cultures and people that lived there. He is most well known for his portraits. Accompanying the beautiful portraits was a traditional costume of the person’s culture and a story of how he discovered them, what he learned from them, and their history. With many of the old cultures in Vietnam disappearing, Rehahn has potentially documented some of the last of these people. I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time there (maybe I’ll head back sometime?!) but I did purchase a large book featuring the photographer’s work, specifically of the Quang Nam province (where we were staying).
We all met back up at our buses and were chauffeured to the next location: the Hoi An Silk Village. The Village is another World Heritage Site and surrounded by tropical greenery. It also continues a 300-year old tradition of hand-spun milk on the Maritime Silk Road. It includes different areas where you can meet the worms behind the famous fabric and see for yourself how their cocoons are spun into beautiful silks. There is also a small shop where you can purchase a beautiful piece for you or a loved one. After learning how the silk is made and buying some for ourselves, we were treated to a traditional lunch in Village’s restaurant.
After lunch we went back to the hotel. We immediately practiced our talent show dance one last time and then went our separate ways to relax before the night’s festivities. Not only did the pre semis/finals dinner include musician performances and the talent show, but it also included essentially a beauty pageant modeling the Ao Dai for two women from each team. It was on a volunteer basis. We elected Holly to participate and then, since no one else wanted to do it, I said I’d do it with her. So in the afternoon we had a rehearsal where we were taught how to walk and pose. Feeling a bit like we had entered the twilight zone, Holly and I had a hard time taking it seriously. We are first and foremost athletes, but tried to take it as good-natured fun. We also knew that when the time came, our intensely competitive natures would take over. Not to mention a $700 prize for the victor.
Come the evening, Holly and I were decked out in our Ao Dais and the rest of our team was dressed up and looking great. Even with the air conditioning, I was trying not to nervous sweat in my Ao Dai. I’ve never taken part in any kind of beauty competition and couldn’t wait to get it over with. We sat with the team through the opening performances by different artists and then it was time for the Miss Ao Dai beauty competition. It ended up being a lot more fun than I thought! I don’t think that I would’ve been able to do it alone, but doing it with Holly was great. The team screaming for us was also a big help! Sabina from Kazakhstan, bearing a resemblance to a porcelain doll, ended up winning. However, we ended up getting $100 just for participating! Worth it for that and for the experience.
May 19 – Back to our game day routine, we started with serve and pass after breakfast and then had the middle of the day to hang out, nap, and prepare ourselves for the match. The night’s match was vs. the home team: VTV Bình Điền-Long An. We had the primetime slot: 7pm, but thanks to some other games running late, we didn’t start until around 8.
The first set started off rough, especially for me personally, but we were able to restart moving into the second set (first set: 18-25) . We won the second (25-17) and third set (25-23) after coming together as a team and really executing well. The fourth set was another dip in our play and lost 18-25. So, we were headed into another fifth set. We went into the fifth extremely calm and sharp. Our hitters killed it, and we won 15-8! It was a really exciting game. I was proud of us for going through our ups and downs and ultimately pulling it together in the end. Not to mention, we were headed to the finals!
Watch the full match below.
May 20 – The last day, time for the championship match!
Thankfully we got to sleep in a little bit. Personally, my body was feeling it from two five set matches in three days and sweating out gallons during the matches. I can’t even imagine how the hitters were feeling! Vanessa, our trainer, took great care of us throughout and helped us with all our aches and pains. Daydreaming about some good old American food (pizza and burgers), we shared our last meals together and waited for our rematch vs. Jiangsu.
Another packed stadium greeted us for the championship match. Warmups were a bit strange since they had some speeches and things planned for television pre-match. I had been continuing my tradition of jogging before the matches. Normally I like to do this outside, but the heat had been keeping me indoors. So, I just did laps around the entire court as my warm up. Before this match, there was no net and smoke machines being tested. I found myself completely alone on the court, random smoke machines going, and a full crowd of about 3,000 people staring at me and occasionally cheering as I jogged in circles. My trusty iPod classic helped me block out the distractions and get focused on the coming match. Definitely it was the most memorable pre-match jog that I’ve ever had.
We had to wait to be introduced and the net didn’t get set up until just before official warmups started. But I have to hand it to them, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a net go up quicker. We started the match completely in the zone and ready to take revenge on Jiangsu. We immediately went up the first two sets and were playing really well together. Somehow, we lost the third set after being up 21-18 ☹. The final two sets went to Jiangsu as well, so we ended in second place after losing the championship 2-3. Both our team and Jiangsu played well, the match was a real battle. I am so proud of my team and how we fought. It has been such a privilege to step foot on the court with them for the last ten days.
After the match we were presented flowers, another stuffed water buffalo, and silver medals. Individual awards were also presented. Allison won best Outside Hitter and Holly won MVP of the entire tournament! Well-deserved awards. Sareea sadly had to leave right after the match, her flight out of Da Nang was at 1am so didn’t get to participate in the awards. One last dinner and party together was waiting for us back at the hotel. We celebrated our silver medal and new friendships.
A massive thanks to Bring It Promotions for putting together this team, Joe, Val, and Bou for coaching, Erin for all the organization, Vanessa for taking care of us, and Radio for being the best guide we could have possibly asked for! It was an unforgettable adventure in volleyball and travel that I’ll never forget. And, again, the privilege of my life to compete with my team and represent my country.
Watch the entire match here.
Article originally published by Anna Church on her blog at: http://www.annamariechurch.com/vietnamdayone.html