Postcard from Hanoi: Not the Olympics but these SEA Games have their own charm


HANOI – In a big Performance Games with a big heart, there are always unforgettable little moments. Soon we’ll be counting the medals won, but it’s a simple act of friendship from a stranger that can have unquantifiable value.

Early in our visit to Hanoi, the Straits Times team ran into Malaysian diver Syafiq Anak Puteh, who offered more than just conversation. He also insisted that we accept a large bag of halal food rations that he had brought in case it was hard to find in Hanoi. For the record, there is a sufficient quantity available, but it was the spirit of his gesture that was encouraging.

These SEA Games promise to be colorful and refined. One of the first things that caught my eye after arriving in Vietnam on Wednesday May 11 was a man on a motorbike, carrying so many straw brooms that in truth I could see more than a man or a motorbike.

It was one of many quirky and charming sites that welcomed us to Hanoi. The biennial regional multi-sport competition will officially start from Thursday May 12 and end on May 23, having been postponed from November 2021 due to the pandemic.

After waiting six months – and two years before Vietnam even reopens its borders in February – the city is certainly in a welcoming mood.

Banners and game posters line the streets, and TV ads featuring the mascot Sao La – a critically endangered forest dweller nicknamed the Asian Unicorn – have been shown on repeat. The official Let’s Shine song is already seared into our consciousness, even after just two days.

Volunteers have been strategically deployed – from the airport arrival hall to hotel elevator lobbies – to lend assistance to overseas visitors and, when not required, to simply offer a smile and a pleasant welcome.

The seemingly incessant stream of cars and motorbikes on the streets and highways – their persistent horns are an audible reminder – were also indicators that life in Hanoi has pretty much returned to normal.

As of Tuesday, the country of 98.5 million people had recorded just 2,855 new infections in the past 24 hours and more than 80% of its population is fully vaccinated.

My last work trip abroad, the Tokyo Olympics last August, was a very different experience. Working in a Games ‘bubble’ then meant that we were only allowed to travel from our accommodation to the press center or competition venues, and only with dedicated transport. Our conversations were mostly limited to fellow journalists from other countries.

The streets of Tokyo were then also sparse, even more so at night as restaurants and bars were closed by 8 p.m. due to the state of emergency the city was in. Here in Hanoi, cafes and restaurants are open until late, with their neon signs lighting up the city.

In fact, the difference between this mission and the Olympics was evident even before we left Singapore.

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