Wednesday, December 21, 2011

First impressions from Vietnam

The border crossing between Laos and Vietnam. Cold!
Vinh is not on anyone's list of places they would like to someday visit, but it's a large city on the main road between Hanoi and Saigon and serves as a bus hub for travelers in Vietnam. Most tourists try not to stay here for the night.
I came here from Phonsavan, Laos and when I arrived at 8pm there was a bus ready to go straight to Hanoi. I decided to stay in Vinh for the night because 13 hours on a cramped public bus had been enough of a day for me.
I had just spent 6 weeks in Laos, a country largely forgotten by tourism (although that is changing quickly). Laos is an incredibly laid-back place, where time doesn't exist and people are friendly but largely detached. Voices are never raised, saying no is impolite, and there is no real bargaining culture. Prices are low, the internets, as the drivers, are mind-numbingly slow. Although I didn't realize it till I left Laos, my concept of patience was radically transformed in those six weeks. I have much to write about Laos, its diverse culture and its incredible landscapes, and this will come in due time.
Invited to chiken feet and rice wine dinner outside the pool hall!
A culture shock was waiting for me in Vinh. Now I was in a comparatively huge city, with insane motorbike and bus traffic, and people who were much more direct and inquisitive.
I found a pool hall that night, called Lan Ann Billiards Club. It's right next door to another pool hall : the Vietnamese seem to love pool, and also billiards (Lan Ann has two full-size heated slate billiard tables).
Lan Ann Billiards Club storefront

I returned to Lan Ann the next day and then decided to stay for a few days more - in fact, I am there right now at a coffee table with free wi-fi.
The place is packed with shooters of all levels and ages (although almost no women save for the racker girls). Here are a few first impressions from pool and billiards culture in Vietnam :
  • It's an intensely social activity : each table has 2 to 6 players, and a slew of onlookers
  • Pool etiquette is non-existent : the spectators lean with both hands on the table, bump into the players and each other, talk loudly, put ashtrays on the tables and no one seems to mind.
  • There is no emphasis whatsoever on precision in the rules or game mechanics. I saw the same racker girls placing the head ball anywhere from below the 2nd diamond to almost the middle of the table, the rack skewed up to 15 degrees, and sometimes no where near the center of the short rail. There was no checking for tightness of the rack. Again, I was the only one apparently concerned about this.
Of course I will have to check out other places in Vietnam to verify that this is indeed the case everywhere - but what a difference compared to Germany for example, where there is very little talking, the rules are very strictly respected and enforced, and the houseman will be very vocal if an ashtray or drink gets anywhere near the table.

What is going on here? If you know please comment!
It seems that there are two main games played on the pool tables here (they are proper American 9-foot pool tables, but with tight pockets (see pic). I have not been able to figure out the names of the games, but one of them is played with playing cards (see previous post) and the other is not. This second one was the one I got familiar with here.
3-cushion anyone?
In this game, you use all 15 object balls racked randomly. After the break, one of the players will have the even balls and the other the odd balls, meaning one player has to sink a total of 7 balls and the other 8 (and I'll have a post someday about other asymetrical games that can be played on a pool table). There is no prescribed order the balls have to go in, simply the first one to finish his or her group wins. Fouls result in ball in hand. I did quite well against several players at this game, although it took some time to get used to the unusual ball groups - it was difficult at first to get the "big picture" of your pattern when some of your balls are stripes and some are solids. The game isn't bad and resembles 8-ball in many ways. The tighter pockets did cause some changes in my shot selection, mainly to make sure that the object ball would stay close to the pocket in case of miss.
The VIP room at Lan Ann Billiards Club
Billiards (as in without pockets) is quite healthy here as well - they play mostly Straight Rail, but also 1-cushion and 3-cushion billiards. I did not see any advanced Straight Rail play like I saw in Germany, and the highest scoring inning I witnessed here was 10 (I saw over 100 in Germany, and I believe the world record is over 5000!).
Although virtually no English is spoken here, it was a great place for me to start playing real pool again after the Laos lull. I am off to Hanoi tomorrow afternoon, where I am sure to find more pool!