Henry Memories: Arsenal Legend Destroys Spurs From A Bar Brawl In Hanoi
I was in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was November 2002. I wanted a late drink for a reason.
Away from the busy lanes of the Old Quarter people drifted without the vigour or purpose I had seen all day, flickering on the edge of inactivity. It was difficult to accuse anyone of working too hard. Infused with their spirit of indolence I ambled with only a vague idea of where I was heading.
Eventually after much stumbling over non-existent kerbs I sauntered into a side street bar dimly lit with a flickering name tag dressed in neon, and cyclo drivers offering marijuana at the grubby doorway.
I navigated around my way around the faded pool table and excitable locals busy embalming themselves in alcohol. I ordered a beer.
The drunken residents around the pool table were now beginning to wail as they placed bets on who would win their Vietnamese version of ‘killer pool’, where the last man standing wins the pot. I have been in a few dodgy bars over the years and it felt like I was adding another to the list. I could feel the natives staring at me, working out what I was doing here, wondering whether I was more suited to a backpacker bar watching pirated videos, not bumbling down side streets encountering loud excitable locals. The thought had crossed my mind too.
The barman treated my intervention with mistrust bordering on hostility, narrowed his lidded eyes and with a look that demanded I ask the right question spat a ‘Yes?’ forcefully at me.
‘Football’ I ventured.
‘What?’ he asked as if he needed authentication of what I had just asked.
‘Do you have English football?’ I nodded to the archaic TV in the corner. Emboldened I continued. ‘I’m an Arsenal fan, are you showing Arsenal/Spurs tonight?’
‘Yes. You come good time. Only ten minutes. Sit down. Arsenal good team, always play football: Henry. Bergkamp’.
I smiled back in relief and no little pride.
The thought struck me that it was the first time in Hanoi that I had been asked a question by a local that didn’t involve being told, sold or shown something. Arsenal Football Club, a haven for my dad making a new life in a tough new city that was London in the 70’s and a lingua franca for his son on his travels in the 21st century. Good old Arsenal as the song goes.
The match kicked-off and I shifted from foot to foot in excitement, kept company by a group of increasingly frenzied Vietnamese delinquents and men determined to avoid familial obligation, as a bulb without shade hung over us.
The noise from the lads at the pool table became louder. After a couple of furtive glances, wads of money, previously held in their hands straight and pointing like torches are being exchanged. A tight yet passionate game is developing, and the football isn’t much better.
Tottenham have a throw in level with our penalty area. I tense up worrying about the danger to our goal, as voices oblivious to the game become more charged. Vieira heads safely away as what sound like Vietnamese accusations harden. Thierry Henry, picks the ball up 25 yards out, 25 yards out from our goal-line that is. Pool-table stares become more menacing with each frown and widened set of eyes.
Henry immediately accelerates dribbling the ball at a fast pace while simultaneously using his innate strength to jockey with a white shirt in vain pursuit of the ball. Behind me voices oblivious to the drama unfolding become louder. Everything seems to slow.
Something is said at the pool table. The man with hairless arms holding the cue suddenly aborts his shot, stands up straight with back arched and bares his teeth.
The Frenchman on the TV screen crosses the halfway line with no-one challenging him. In Hanoi a small man with a golden bracelet and black shirt juts out his chest and heads towards the man with the cue.
Still no-one challenges Thierry as he runs faster towards our opponent’s goal almost skipping to adjust his angle as three defenders in a tightly packed line assemble themselves in front of him. The man with the golden bracelet in Hanoi pulls his right arm backwards. Henry feints to go right, then left, spinning the first defender and earning valuable space. Golden bracelet man then spears his arm forward with an immediacy the man with the cue expects, but shocks me. Henry imperceptibly slows before pushing the ball further to the left, an intuitive movement you cannot coach. The man with the cue leans back to ride the punch, while swinging the cue above his head, in a surprisingly smooth action.
Our forward’s last movement again earns him a valuable fraction as the second defender’s momentum takes him out of a challenge. Behind me in the bar I hear and see the violent swish of the cue, the arc it traces prematurely stopped by the side of golden bracelet man’s head, the impact of which sends him sideways to the floor as Henry (on his weaker foot no less) drills a perfectly calibrated low shot hard past the Tottenham keeper’s despairing right hand dive and into the net as the stadium erupts at exactly the same time as the men behind me erupt in violence and I yell out an involuntary ‘yeeeeaaaarrrrrrggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhssssssss’ that momentarily confuses the fighters.
A wrathful air of vengeance overcomes the men around the pool table and a brutal fury engulfs them as they cross the line from acceptable to anti-social to downright dangerous. Henry mad with euphoria, runs the whole length of the lush Highbury pitch celebrating in a gladiatorial manner not only matching the stadium atmosphere perfectly but the bar’s, before sliding to his knees in front of the small pocket of away fans in the stadium. A worldwide audience including this bar in Hanoi has just witnessed one of the best goals in Arsenal’s illustrious history. A man and a goal they would build a statue about.
As the 20 or so Vietnamese men fight I watch as pool cues are used as weapons along with pool balls and glasses that are thrust into faces. A red pool ball, as red as a tomato, is thrown powerfully and with intent into the mouth of a man that immediately spurts blood (while I make a banal note that the force chips and breaks his front teeth.) The success of the last action prompts others to use the round objects as weapons and people throw and grab in one desperate movement. An ashtray hurled into a nose crumples the recipient backwards to the floor. A stray yellow ball narrowly misses my head, shattering the Tiger Beer mirror behind me, sending glass flying. The noise only adds to the maelstrom, which in turn feeds off the destruction so that the mob is now in a perfect frenzy.
It wasn’t a one-on-one fight that spread amongst zealous acolytes, but an ugly 20 man brawl, all the more terrifying for the throng splitting into three distinct nucleuses. At least two victims had their heads stomped on by crazed assailants whose vicious jumping motion brought to mind angry monkeys on a trampoline.
Yet amidst the surreal reality I tried hard to suppress my excitement at Henry’s goal as the adrenaline of survival took hold. I certainly didn’t stay in the bar out of bravery, there was simply nowhere for me to escape to, pinned in as I was by the fighting.
The fighting continued for an eternity, possibly a minute, the hieroglyphics of the young fighter’s frowns unreadable. Time, when you are stuck in the middle of such a thing, feels elastic. Eventually the bulk of the fighters fell outside onto the dark street, some screaming vengeance and loud empty threats, others sullen and silent. One man was so distraught he violently tugged at his own shirt as if for explanation.
The barman badly shaken as I was produced a dust-pan-and-brush immediately sweeping up the mess. Pools of blood were mopped-up with hand towels, broken glass frames and snapped pool-cues were brought behind the bar and binned surreptitiously. I saw what I thought to be a tooth on the floor and rocked back queasily, as the barman swept the molar into the dustpan, nodding at me in confirmation.
In a matter of minutes, apart from missing mirrors and fewer pool-cues, you could not have guessed such violence in the bar.
The barman anointed the events by giving me a free beer.
I thanked him graciously and noted silently that both our hands were still shaking.
‘First time?’ I asked.
‘Maybe’. I noted he said it with certainty.
I drew deeply from the bottle as we both contemplated the moment.
I drank at the bar till 4.30am, walking home drunk as a lone cyclo-driver pestered me for a fare. I occasionally think about that barfight. But I think about Henry’s goal more.