When Vietnam looks ahead – the incredible story of Mr Vu

Vietnam is in the limelight thanks to the talent of Nguyen Tien Minh, but very far away from the best clubs of Ho Chi Minh city, a man has been […]

Vietnam is in the limelight thanks to the talent of Nguyen Tien Minh, but very far away from the best clubs of Ho Chi Minh city, a man has been dedicating his life to badminton with hardly any means and incredible results.

By Raphael Sachetat, in Câu Chinh, North Vietnam. Photos: R. Sachetat

He could be the Nick Bollettieri of badminton…except that he doesn’t wear sunglasses. Nor does he train his kids in a million-dollar resort.

Welcome to Pham Van Vu’s home. Close to two hours away from Hanoi, Vietnam’s biggest city up North, a road cuts beautiful rice fields. In the middle of nowhere, a right turn on a muddy road takes to a very small village where cars have to yield to walking farmers rolling their chariots full of tools to work the land. Faces are wrinkled by the sun, hands are dry and strong but the smiles open up below the “non la”, the typical conical traditional Vietnamese hat when Pham Van Vu walks by. He is well known in his village for his dedication towards the children of the area. He is both the “” and the “teacher”.

The final stop is a house with a small garden with uneven red tiles on the floor and a badminton court drawn with disappearing lines. A net held between a wall and a tree – but apparently at the right height. “This is my house; This is where it all started in 1991,” says the Vietnamese veteran . No more than 50 centimetres on either side of the court before a table, a tree or the house itself. A tight badminton environment for sure. It is Sunday. A bunch of kids from age 6 to 12 are playing badminton – all with colourful outfits, some with holes in their sports pants, some with the latest shirt from the provincial team. Some with a coat as the wind is blowing and quite chilly. Four are already on court, the others are sitting on the stairs of the house, chatting and watching their friends hitting the shuttles. Sunday is no special day. Just like every day, after school – only in the mornings – they come from the surrounding villages to have their badminton session, from 4 PM to 7 PM.

The wind sometimes makes it hard to hit properly, but the technique of these children is quite astonishing. Mr Vu is sitting and watching his kids play with a warm smile, next to his wife, shouting out names to tell them who is next up on court when a match is finished. With a mixed of frown eyebrows and gentle smile. Love and authority at the same time, and the kids go as he says. No complains whatsoever. Just red cheeks and big smiles from his protégés who are, for some, coming from very modest families or dropped out of school before Vu took over.

“For the love of the game”

Mr Vu used to be a good provincial player in Vietnam. Never made it to the International limelight, but he got his share of honors in the corporation competitions where he learned how to coach. “I started out too late to play competitive badminton to make it to the very top, and I realize that one has to start from an early age if they want to become top players. But I also realize that a good player must also be someone who is serious in his studies, to make a good balance. This is why I started this project”. That’s how he built up a badminton court in his own backyard in 1991, next to a small classroom where he was teaching students maths. First, few kids from his village came as a way of spending a good time. Then more. Then parents from surrounding villages where asking if they could send their kids to Mr Vu’s academy. And School, as Mr Vu is also a mathematics teacher. This is how he gets his wages – He teaches maths to 50 kids, with a 5 US $ monthly fee for his students.

But badminton is his passion. He takes out some money from his small salary to buy shuttles, nets.  “For badminton, I don’t charge anything. I do it for the love of the game. I love to see kids making progress here, and hope that they will one day make it to the provincial team and the national team. The parents buy their kids’ rackets and I take care of the other things”. As for outside help, it’s close to none. The government has other priorities and the only money Mr Vu received was a 100 US $ from the provincial state.

50 children are taught by  Mr Vu in his classroom, only 16 have the honor of being taught the skills of badminton. “I have to take the ones with the best skills or potential, as I can’t teach more than 16 children with one court. Some are quite good and I have hope that one or two can be champions later,” said Mr Vu.

His achievement is well known in the area and in the country through some of his former students who have reached the National team. Three of them are here – just over 18 and encouraging the younger generation and playing as last guests of the evening to show their progress to the youngsters who then have someone to look up to. “We have learned a lot here and I come back as often as I can to see Mr Vu and play with his badminton students. It is like my family and it is also a way for me to give back what I was taught when I was younger,” says Nguyen Yen Phuong (photo with Mr Vu, up), who now trains with the national team.

Another famous figure in Vietnam started out in this very garden: Vu Thi Trang. The 17-year-old Vietnamese made the headlines last June when she won the bronze medal of the Youth Olympic Games, beating England’s Sarah Milne in the final for the third spot. “I knew she had something special and I was hoping she’d performed when I sent her to the provincial team when she was 12. I was very proud to hear that she had won the Bronze medal,” said Vu. “I hope there will be many more like her.

After fun matches, the kids all come on court, to practice their badminton routines. Mr Vu is standing at the back of the court. He has turned on the lights which barely lighten the badminton court and let one of the kids dictate the positions for the post training stretching session. Some parents are arriving and staying in the shadow of the house, with twinkles in their eyes.  They are obviously proud to see their kids benefit the knowledge of Mr Vu and make progress in a game which is widely popular in the country, even if academics often take over when high school is over.

They all bow and wave in a joyful manner and hump onto their parents scooters to have dinner before school the next morning. They will be back next afternoon to play again. And learn. And dream. Mr Vu and his wife will have dinner with Nguyen Yen Phuong, almost part of the family. They are proud of her and it makes up for the disappointment that their own 21 year old daughter could not make it to the national team “she was good but she had eyesight problems so she had to stop competitive badminton,” says Mr Vu’s wife with a smile, as if fate had taken over and it didn’t really matter. Others from “their” kids have made it.

My dream is that we can one day build a proper court here, an indoor court, so that I can train the kids with better conditions and give them better chances to turn them into future champions. But overall, what is more important is that they have a good life. That’s why I put as much emphasize on the academics than on the game. They have to be good in all to succeed.

With a man like Pham Van Vu, these kids have the chance of their lives. With a racket in their hands. And dreams in their minds.

Solibad – Badminton without Borders has decided to help  Mr Vu and his students and Mr Vu’s Academy has become an official Solibad project after this mission. The Foundation hopes to help these amazing kids to make their dreams come true.

Raphaël Sachetat

About Raphaël Sachetat

Raphael is the Chief Editor of Badzine International. He is the founder of the website together with Jean François Chauveau. After many years writing for the BWF and many publications around the world about badminton, he now leads a team of young and dynamic writers for Badzine.