1966 – 1971 – The War Years
The Vietnam Football League
Australian Rules Football was played in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, with the first known match played in May 1966 at Nui Dat between members of the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
A fully-fledged competition with premierships was conducted in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 & 1971 in Vung Tau. In most of these years there were two seasons and thus two premierships. Most of the Australian Units based at Vung Tau during the war competed in the competition. Up to seven teams competed at any one time, with the competition fierce and of a high standard.
Units that competed in the competition over those years were:
- 2 Composite Ordnance Depot (1967, changed to 2AOD in 1968)
- 2AOD (2nd Advance Ordnance Depot)
- 17 Construction Squadron (Engineers)
- 1 Field Hospital / 8 Field Ambulance (Australian Army Hospital)
- 5 Company RAASC
- 102 Field Workshops
- 110 Signals
There may have been other units for some season as well.
The standard of football in the Vietnam Football League was very high. This was mostly due to the high quality of the “Nashos” drafted into the army! The competition was fierce! Rivalry between units was intense!
Many of the players were National Servicemen and extremely good footballers. Some of the better-known players were Wayne Closter (Geelong), Bill Thompson & Greg Perry (both Essendon), Rod Pope (West Adelaide, Norwood & SA State player) and former VFL Umpire Glenn James.
The base was closed down six years later in March ’72 when the last of the Australian soldiers returned home. Footy was last played in 1971.
1966 – The First Game
Footy first commenced in Vung Tau when one digger (Private John Heaney, a “Nasho” from 1 Transport Platoon RAASC) was in trouble with his Commanding Officer. The CO gave him an option (actually two options): organize a game of Aussie Rules Footy or face detention and other penalties!
John thought about it for a second and chose the first option. Thus the first game of Aussie Rules footy was played in Vung Tau during the latter part of 1966.
Early football in Vietnam: Vung Tau in 1966 or 1967 – Kevin Lewin
1967 – The Vietnam Football League Emerges
A full scale competition was then organized between the various Australian units based in Vung Tau. It commenced in 1967. There were two premiership seasons played most years. The competition was known as the VFL (Vietnam Football League)!
In the early days of the VFL, most games were played at what is now known as “San Van Don Lam Son” Stadium (now with a Greyhound Racing Track). Unbelievably, this is the same venue that the annual ANZAC Friendship Match is now played.
The ground was fondly known as The Lord Mayor’s Oval by the Australian diggers! As it was a soccer ground, games were played with 14 a side when playing there. No forward or back flanks! Other games were played at the Military Academy (also a soccer field) and later on at a much larger ground near the Vung Tau Airbase.
Trophy Presentation to the First Premiers of the VFL, the RAAF – Barrie Thomas Burril Ward
In 1967, the first of the premierships was won by the RAAF. Ron Vernon who with his wife Ailsa Vernon spends considerable time each year in Vung Tau helping with the orphanages at Vung Tau and Long Hai was a member of that very team. A very strong 2 Composite Ordinance Depot team was decimated before the finals when most of their players went on strike and did not play in the finals!
The second season in 1967 was won by 5 Company RAASC (Service Corp). Terry Holden and a close friend of Phil Fabbo Johns as a member of that premiership team.
1968 – The Vietnam Football League Emerges
In 1968, both Premierships were won by a brilliant Ordnance team 2AOD (2nd Advanced Ordnance Depot). On each occasion they defeated the 17 Construction Squadron. Led by their outstanding captain Bob McKenna, the late Tommy Perks, Micky Miller, Dick Johnston, Kevin Judge (cousin of Ken, former Hawthorn player and coach of Hawthorn and West Coast), Steve Costelow, George Soumilas, John Meehan (brother of Simon, ex St Kilda) and many other excellent footballers. The coach was Merv Rudd. The footballer from those teams have been the focal point of reunions held every two years since 1998. Laurie Chick (brother of former Carlton Vice Captain, John Chick) also played in some of these games.
1969 – Construction Squadron Foils 2AOD (Briefly)
The first of the 1969 premierships was won by 17 Construction Squadron (Engineers). 2AOD’s run came to an end in the preliminary final or, more so the night before that final, when all of their star players in the team ignored Captain John Meehan’s instructions to keep of the grog before the big game. A number of 2AOD diggers had their send off party (before returning to Australia) on that night. Everyone got ‘blind’ except John!
In the second season of 1969, 2AOD returned to the winners’ list but not without a brutal struggle against 17 Construction Squadron. 2AOD’s Captain was Wayne Closter (former Geelong star). In the other team was a brilliant and tough Aboriginal footballer, Glenn James. Glenn later became a very popular VFL umpire and officiated in two VFL Grand Finals. As there was no trial by video in those days, Glenn was given the job of taking out Wayne Closter at the opening bounce. He did this to perfection and Wayne was useless for the first 3 quarters. At three quarter time the scores were level! Wayne finally came good and kicked 5 goals in the last quarter, to bring 2AOD home. Wayne and Glenn laugh about it now whenever they see each other but Wayne was not impressed at the time!
2AOD Premiers for the 2nd season of the 1969 VFL – Unknown Photographer.
A social game was also organised in 1969 by Captain Bill McMahon. This “Diggers” vs “The Rest” was played with Vietnamese soldiers in August 1969 at the headquarters of the Free World Military Assistance Organisation in Saigon.
1970 – 2AOD Add Another Trophy
In 1970, the 2nd Premiership was won by 2AOD. They beat 5 Company RAASC in the Grand Final.
This team was captained by John Huggins (whose son is now married to the daughter of Steve Costelow a premiership player in the second 1968 2AOD premiership team). This team included Bill Thompson who played with Essendon (VFL), Williamstown & Dandenong (VFA) and was a Liston Trophy winner in the VFA. Some other stars were Peter Maloney, Frank Reynders and many others.
Greg Perry (who played with Essendon) also played with the 110 Signals team that year. Interestingly Greg and I played cricket together at Stawell (Victoria) in the summer of 1965-66 before I was called up for National Service in July 1966. Greg was a tear away opening bowler and I was the wicketkeeper and opening batsman.
We are not sure who won the other premiership, or if there was one!
1970 – Games Also Played in Nui Dat!
There were other games played in 1970. There was at least one contest between 110 Signal Squadron and 104 Signal Squadron one being played at the Military Academy at Vung Tau and a little later another between two Nui Dat based units of 104 Signal Squadron and 106 Field Workshops on a pretty rough ground at the Reinforcement Wing at the Dat.
Lance Corporal Ian Granland of 104 Signal Squadron organised a game of Australian Football at Nui Dat in 1970, with the following description providing a good insight:
“There weren’t too many grounds of a suitable size on which the game could be played, but luckily it was learned that there was one within the Task Force Area in the area of 1 Australian Reinforcement Unit.
Lance corporal Geoff Morris and Granland did a recce and located the ground. It was big enough for Australian Football and it even had posts erected but the grass literally ranged from 20 cm to 1m in height. That meant that it would have to be cut!
In the meantime Granland organised a game against 106 Field Workshops.
Next job was to locate a slasher. Word of mouth informed the two that 105 Field Battery had an old Massey Ferguson Tractor with which they used to tow their guns around, plus a slasher.
Permission to use it for mowing the ground was given. Morris became the driver and the machine was driven over to the field and he began driving it round and round. He got the grass down reasonably short but certainly not bowling green stuff however good enough. The mowing had to be done the day before the game because any earlier and the grass would have grown significantly enough to require another cut.
This was pre centre square and 50m arcs so a hand mower was used for the goal squares, centre circle and boundary.
Lance Corporal Granland umpired the game.
The players turned up in their Land Rovers and trucks. What jumpers they wore is still a mystery but it certainly wasn’t ‘skins v shirts’. There were players of all ages, size and shape and some bloody good footballers amongst them too. A photograph of this game would be a gem today.
104 Signal Squardron won the game. The umpire copped a bit of abuse from the opposition but that was par for the course. It was in the days of the one central umpire.
The out of bounds on the full rule had only just been introduced and of course it was applied. Some of the older heads were not too happy but recognized that it had become a law of the game. Many of the blokes who had probably been pretty fair footballers in their youth but now in their late thirties or so they were no match for youth and speed. Some of these tried to slow the youngsters down by wacking them but the umpire was on top of that.
There was no function after the match or anything, just back to the units. But, it was a good relief because obviously everyone who played etc. just loved the game.”
1971 – 2AOD Claim Fifth Premiership!
We believe there was only one premiership played for in 1971, in which 2AOD, captain/coached by Bill Thompson, beat 110 Signals in the Grand Final. 110 Sigs was captained/coached by Greg Perry. Grey however won the Best and Fairest with Bill runner up. That we understand was the last VFL Grand Final played in Vietnam! Bill and Greg are both great mates now and always attend Essendon Past Players functions together.
2AOD, premiers in 1971. Photo by Bill Thompson.
More Information on the Vietnam Football League
The Vietnam Swans are very grateful for Stan Middleton’s efforts to document the history of the Vietnam Football League. For more information:
- Stan Middleton, Official History of the VFL (Vietnam Football League), http://boylesfootballphotos.net.au/article54-Official-History-of-the-VFL-Vietnam-Football-League-1966-1971#Introduction
- Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_rules_football_in_Asia#Vietnam_War_era
- To see an album of footy in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, see here – http://tinyurl.com/8lsdhug
1998 – 2000 – The Rebirth
Footy was back in Vietnam in 1998 when the Saigon Saints and the Hanoi Hawks (aka ‘the Bloody Army’) formed to play in what is believed to be the first ever Aussie Rules football tournament in Asia, sponsored by Fosters in conjunction with the opening of the Fosters brewery in Saigon.
Joined by Thailand and Hong Kong, the four-team tournament in June 1998 was played at the Saigon South International School.
Hong Kong would defeat Saigon in the final game, with Thailand beating Hanoi in the consolation final. AFL Asia legend Julian “Rooster” Clark credits himself with kicking “the first ever democratic goal on communist soil” in his appearance for Thailand in that tournament.
Mark Seymour (Hunters & Collectors) headlined the after party with free-flow Fosters being dished out along with a BBQ. A big crowd attended with much of Saigon’s expat community enjoying the day. No surprises that the Saturday night hotel rooms (also sponsored by Fosters) reportedly didn’t fare too well…
Later in the year the Hong Kong Dragons would return to Vietnam, this time to play ‘The Bloods’ in the first ever Aussie Rules International in Hanoi, which would also be the Hawks’ first and only home game in the old Hawks uniform. In a fiery encounter, the Bloods came out swinging against the Dragons to such an extent that old timers were quoted as saying, “I haven’t seen a battle like that since 1971!”
This from Hong Kong Dragon Legend “Farm”:
“Our full forward who was about 130kgs flattened one of the Hawks players. Wayne I think the Hawk was – he was one of the organizers. The ball had gone out of bounds and Wayne had followed it over and relaxed when he unexpectedly got flattened. Very unsporting from our guy, but fortunately Wayne was ok. We talked about that for years and when we went back next in 2003 it was mentioned again!”
Also not faring too well was the Hanoi Hawks: “Not only did we lose the game but we lost all the jumpers which virtually wiped the club from the pages of history. With a 0 – 2 record, support waning and a membership of 3, the new club was in trouble – all in its first year!”
Hong Kong’s successes in Vietnam prompted the Dragons claim of being Asian AFL Champions, much to the disdain of the Singapore Wombats, who according to Rooster “had been invincible in the previous 12 months, even smashing a very professional New Zealand outfit at Marrara in Darwin (the size of Waverley) by 4-1-25 to 1-18-24 whilst massively hungover.”
This added momentum to the developing idea of getting a proper Asian AFL Championships tournament, leading to the 1999 Asian AFL Championships being planned for Jakarta. However, when Australian interests in Indonesia were put on alert due to the East Timor Independence movement, the tournament moved to Bangkok and was renamed the “4 Nations Cup”.
So, whilst the Asian AFL Championships were probably going to happen anyway, that first Fosters tournament in Saigon did add a lot of momentum and interest to the idea.
While Vietnam was not represented at the 4 Nations Cup, later in 1999, the Hanoi Hawks and Saigon Saints would combine forces as the Vietnam Saints for the first ever international tour by a Vietnamese team to take on the Thailand Tigers in Bangkok. Thailand easily accounted for the tourists who were not as professional a unit as Thailand, making the most of Bangkok’s nightlife on the Friday night before the match. This time (while playing for Vietnam), Rooster was able to claim kicking “the first ever communist goal on democratic soil”.
In late 1999 the Singapore Wombats toured Vietnam once again to take on the “Vietnam Saints” in Saigon. Mark Beretta from Channel 7 would tour with Singapore, with the Wombats’ preparations, tour and match featuring on Channel 7 in Australia.
Once again from the big Rooster: “Not quite the same sized crowd as the original tournament – but plenty of support for Singapore… we had a cyclo race from some bizarre place back to the Huong Sen Hotel, and the champion endurance rider should have won it when he put the driver in the basket & took the pedals himself… he got out in front, but the driver then directed him the wrong way in order to show off to his neighborhood that he had a foreigner working for him. Anyway – the Cyclo Drivers were all paid $1 to turn up the following day & chant whatever we told them to chant… they duly turned up & chanted very well supporting the Wombats (it may have cost us more in beer than the $1 appearance fee).”
That would be the last game ever played under the “Vietnam Saints” banner.
2001 – Pepperonis Pizza Parlour / ABC Asia Pacific TV
The year was 2001, the footy was back on the TV, the beer was cold, the Hanoi Hawks had a home on the roof top. Mic Francis’ Pepperonis Pizza oven was on the ground floor – and the people came. The footy panel began, footy tipping comps mushroomed and Hanoi wanted to play again.
Andy Wall brought in some new jumpers, which happened to be those of the Sydney Swans. Rick Trewavas, a mad Bloods supporter, seized the day and named the clubrooms after his idol, “Bobby Skilton” (Skilts is still hunting him). The panel was rockin’ and the supporter base was growing. The Hanoi Swans were away!
New name, new team, new desire, and their only goal was to play in the Asian Champs.
For the next 2 years the Hanoi Swans practised eating pizza, drinking cold beer and watching footy on the tele.
2003 – Big Bucks, Big Difference
In a coup, Hanoi would recruit the Bogor “Kainey” Flyer (Dave Kainey), a Lifetime Member of the Jakarta Bintangs, to share his secrets about loyalty to one’s team and “the cause”. He instilled in the Hanoians a discipline for regular training before some of the drinking sessions.
In late 2003, the Hanoi boys would throw caution to the wind and jumped in at the deep end, finally launching the Hanoi Swans as a going concern, entering the team in a tri-nations tournament against the Thailand Tigers and Hong Kong Dragons in Thailand.
History recorded the Swans debut as a brave but plucked performance.
2003 – 2006 – Hanoi Swans on the rise – and fall?
Between 2003 and 2006, the Hanoi Swans were hosting internationals and travelling to neighbouring countries for their footy fix, even managing a few victories.
Hanoi Swans games included:
- November 2003: hosting the “Foster’s Hanoi Invitational Cup” at Thanh Long Industrial Park, a 3-way tournament between the Swans, Hong Kong Dragons and Thailand Tigers, won by the Dragons.
- May 2005: travel to Kuala Lumpur for a friendly against the Malaysian Warriors, where the Swans lost 10-6-66 to 5-7-37.
- December 2005: Narrow home loss to the Thailand Tigers at the My Dinh National Stadium training ground 7-6-48 to 8-6-54
- March 2006: Home loss to the Malaysian Warriors at UNIS
- March 2006: Home win against the Jakarta Bintangs at UNIS 6-7-43 to 2-4-16
- May 2006: Loss to the Thailand Tigers in Bangkok
- October 2006 – Night game under lights at Xuan La vs CARE AFL All-stars (inc Clark Keating and Craig Starcevich from Collingwood)
It was all good – but there were worrying signs. With a small pool of players, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get the required number of players to travel. And if they wanted to continue hosting a regular stream of home games, there needed to be returning tours.
2007 – The Swans go National and become the Vietnam Swans
In 2007, the switch was on and Hanoi went to the fat side of the country to court Miss Saigon. In April the Hanoi Swans would travel south to play against a Saigon team who would play in the Saigon Gecko’s Rugby jumpers. While Hanoi would win this game 53 to 99, it provided an opportunity to create new friendships, recruit new players and build for a new future.
Soon thereafter, a new National Club would emerge, with a National Committee formed to provide the newly named Vietnam Swans with a bigger player pool and bigger possibilities. Bring it on! And they did.
It was the 2007 Asian Championships, which provided the stage for the debut of the new National Club. It was a major milestone for the Club. Finally, we were at the Asian Championships. All the big pizzas, bold plotting and pleasant beers at Pepperonis hadn’t been in vain. The Pepperonis’ Panel of Pumper, Bubbles and Potsy were proud that they had inspired us to greatness. And we had Jim Beam on board as a sponsor! How could we go wrong?
The Swans played four games through their first Champs appearance and despite leading at half time in three of the matches were unable to post the first Champs win, which was eventually won by Hong Kong. Photos Report
Fresh from their showing at the Champs, the Swans would return to Vietnam for a game against the Hong Kong Dragons and the “Tri Nations Tournament” in Hanoi, a three game series between the Swans, the newly formed Laos Elephants and the Thailand Tigers, which would become the predecessor to the IndoChina Cup. Following a narrow victory against the boys in pink 5. 2. 32 to 3. 5. 23, Thailand would take home the choccies, beating the Swans 3. 3. 21 to 13. 7. 85 in the penultimate game. Photos Report
2008 Confidence building as Fabbo moves south
The move to the National structure was a big success, greatly increasing the size of the player pool and allowing the Swans to become genuinely more active member of the Asian footy community. If only we could agree on a new jumper…
The Saigon boys were becoming increasingly more organised and in 2008 held the inaugural Vung Tau bootcamp, which would become a regular fixture to kick off the season in following years.
In April 2008, the old Swans jerseys were dusted off once again for a “Footy Circus” in Nha Trang, where the Saints would triumph against their old rivals.
May would see the launch of the new Swannies jerseys when Hanoi hosted the Singapore Wombats to the “Lou Milicevic – Mic Francis Cup”, where the Wombats proved too tough for a very smart looking Swans outfit, although the fashion police would ensure the red shorts did not last much longer.
The boys would then take time out to officially have the new jumpers launched by Miss Australia, we had never looked better!
Despite not everyone in old Saigon fully embracing the national concept, the Vietnam Swans’ growth would continue unabated in Ho Chi Minh City, spurred on by Club President and Hanoi legend Fabulous Phil Johns’ move south. Following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires, together with the Bali Geckos, the southern arm of the Swans would successfully host a Black Saturday Bushfire Match and Fundraiser in HCMC, unfortunately going down to Bali in a tough encounter 110-89. $4300 was raised and donated to the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League, where most of the devastation happened.
Following massive Grand Final parties in both Hanoi and Saigon, the first time the Swans had hosted official parties in both cities, the Swans welcomed the Malaysia Warriors to a wet RMIT Saigon in October for the “Linfox-Loscam Cup”. In a sign of the progression of Vietnam football the hosts would this time run out victors by “about 7 goals”, the fist time the Swans had defeated the Warriors in 4 attempts, with a young Nathan Milner winning best on ground honours. Photos Report
November would see the inaugural IndoChina Cup tournament held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which was also used as a send off for Hanoi and Vietnam Swans legend Scott Stacy. A first up victory to the then known Cambodian Kangas was followed up with a classic one point win against Thailand, the first ever victory against one of the Swans oldest rivals. Unfortunately for the injury depleted Swans the final game was just one too many, with the well-stocked Elephants running out comfortable winners to lift the inaugural ICC. Photos Report
In April 2009 an invitation to attend the Thailand Tigers annual Anzac Day game at Kanchanaburi was accepted. While the more experienced Tigers outfit would prevail a spirited game, with great evening of entertainment upon a riverboat on the River Kwai, the Swans would return to Vietnam with some great ideas about how to do something similar the following year.
In August the Swans were saddened to hear that well known Jakarta Bintang, Craig Senger tragically lost his life in the bombing of the Hotel Marriott in Jakarta. To help celebrate Craig’s life, the Swans hosted a memorial match against the Lao Elephants on Saturday 8th August in Hanoi, honouring Craig and other victims of the Jakarta Bombings.
In October HMAS Darwin would pay a diplomatic visit to Ho Chi Minh City with a game organised against the Swans at RMIT.
In a sign of the strong relationship between the Swans and the Jakarta Bingtangs, the Swans would pack their bags once again in November to be the first team to tour Jakarta since the hotel bombings.
The “Kainey Cup”, named after life member of the Bintangs and the man responsible for getting “football off the couch and into the paddock” in Hanoi in 2001, was won by Jakarta 14.13 (97) to 4.8 (32) in slippery conditions at Buperta Park, though the event — in keeping with the ethos of the clubs — was as much about camaraderie as competition.
2010 – Inaugural Anzac Friendship Match
In 2010, the Swans would launch their biggest initiative to date, the Inaugural ANZAC Friendship Match in Vung Tau (near Saigon) under the banner “Two black armbands; one bright future”, which spoke volumes about the coming of age of the Australia-Vietnam relationship since the last game was played at this very ground more than 40 years prior, Vung Tau being the location for the Australian Logistics Base during the Vietnam/American War.
At this first ANZAC Friendship Match, the Vietnam Swans would reignite old internal rivalries to play a Heritage Round match between old friendly foes Hanoi and Saigon at the Dog Racing Track, formerly known as the Lord Mayor’s Oval, where the Australians played during the War back in 1967-68. Hanoi would win this encounter, although claims of skulduggery and player sharing remain to this day.
Through this game, the Swans would actively develop the relationship with the Vietnam Veterans and in July 2010, the Sydney Swans invited a number of Vietnam Swans and Vietnam Veterans to a pre match function at the MCG.
On 23 April, 2011, the Swans would take the ANZAC Friendship match to the world, inviting the Hong Kong Dragons to Vung Tau for the Inaugural ANZAC International Friendship Match. A big crowd attended this game, including many Vietnam Veterans some of whom will have played there during the War.
Highlights of 2011 included:
- Key role in raising $45,000 for victims of Queensland floods
- Support role in assisting Kiwis raise $100,000 for victims of Christchurch earthquakes
- Key role in establishing Annual Swing to Swim Charity Golf Day which, in its first year raised $25,000 to reduce the number of drownings in Vietnam.
- Raised additional $5,000 for other local charitable causes
- Played abroad in Malaysia, Bangkok and Lao
- Played matches at home in Hanoi, Saigon and Vung Tau
- Won the 3rd Annual ANZAC Friendship Match
- Had our most successful campaign yet at the Asian Champs, reaching the Semi Finals
- Won the Indochina Cup for the second consecutive year.
- Remain undefeated for each of the three Phoenix Cups we have played against the Royal Australian Navy
- Further developed relationships with Vietnam Veterans
- Forged closer relationships with Australian Consulate, Austrade and Australian Chamber of Commerce eg viewing of ANZAC Friendship Match video at Consul General’s residence with Consul General, Austrade Commissioner, Board of Auscham and Swans’ Committee in attendance.
- Recorded 85,000 hits on our website – up 32 per cent on 2010
- Received increased media coverage which included Channel 9 News and two separate articles in the Australian Football League’s (AFL’s) weekly Footy Record.
- Welcomed the Australia Network as the Official Media Sponsor for our AFL Grand Final Parties in Hanoi and Saigon
- Added our 600th name to our database
- Welcomed our 16th National Sponsor
- Unveiled our new club logo
- 7 minute video of the Swannies after winning our first tournament – the 2010 Indochina Cup in Saigon (Nov, 2010). Click here.
- 1 min 48sec promo video of the former Hanoi Swans (now Vietnam Swans). Click here to watch it on You Tube.