Inner-city youths bob and weave for fortune and fame
The fighters from the District 4 Boxing Club are straight out of a Tony Jaa movie: 1 percent body fat, frighteningly fast, and ruthless - they view boxing as a way out.
Nowhere was this ambition more evident than at the recent citywide HCMC boxing tournament at the Rach Mieu Athletic Center in Phu Nhuan District.
The participants were children (of both sexes) and adult men (some of Vietnam's best boxers) who competed for gold, silver, and bronze medals, in addition to cash prizes.
In the course of three days and nights, they dodged, danced and wove their punches with a grace reminiscent of New York City's Golden Gloves. It was thrilling for the spectators, but grueling for the fighters, and at the end, two members of the District 4 club brought home silver medals.
Their journey to victory began eight weeks ago in a cramped, bare-bones gym in a gritty neighborhood that was, even recently, home to gangs, but is now home to the cranes and construction crews building luxury towers for a new middle class.
Thwack, thwack, thwack with rhythmic, hypnotic thuds, two gloved fists made the speed bag spin, and the heavy bag stagger.
It was a dry January evening with a wan moon. Nineteen-year-old Cao Tien Luan was, as usual, training late.
His sinewy torso was shirtless all he was wearing was a pair of boxing shorts and his mop of thick hair glistened with sweat.
Luan's day had begun at five in the morning, and he was still at it. Even in the boxing world, which is fueled by obsession, Luan's work ethic is exceptional.
Since moving to HCMC from the northern Thanh Hoa Province, he has quickly progressed under the vigilant tutelage of veteran coach Son Sa Ly.
Does he ever tire? "Never, not even once," Luan boasts.
One might be a bit skeptical about such bravado if one did not have the opportunity to watch him train.
When most of the District 4 boxers are resting on the sidelines of a local basketball court after an hour-long sparring session, he pushes onward shadowboxing relentlessly, not even taking a water break.
Luan's candor about his motives is as sharp as his uppercuts: "Boxing is more interesting than every other sport, and it's a quick route to fortune."
Ho Vinh Hai has a similar story. This twenty-six year old southerner, from Ba Ria-Vung Tau, has been training for about six years, first learning "the sweet science" at a sandy boxing club near the burgeoning beach town of Vung Tau.
In the cool of a recent morning during the Tet holiday, Hai was practicing combinations at breakneck speed on the roof of his family's café in a rural village, while the locals, unaware of his footwork over their heads, sipped iced coffee or salted lemon drinks at the tables below.
The driven Hai compares himself to a Vietnamese Manny Pacquiao. "I box for glory, money, and fame," he said one late afternoon, nibbling at a fruit plate.
Driving through the streets of Saigon with friends from the gym, sharing cigarettes and jokes, it becomes apparent that the camaraderie of boxing makes up for the absence of family"”an essential part of Vietnamese life.
These boxers are, like soldiers, homesick "orphans" who have enlisted in the service of a cause that has drawn them away from home.
Like soldiers, their loyalty to one another is absolute, and so is their fraternal love, however cautiously they express it.
On a recent Friday night, after an exhausting training session, the District 4 team drove out to Nha Be District, a ramshackle cluster of shops and houses on the outskirts of HCMC.
Over beer, hotpots, and fried frog, their conversation focused on life, boxing, and women, in no particular order.
Usually talkative and lighthearted, that night, Hai's mood was pensive, and he picked like an ascetic at the communal lamb hotpot. "Boxing helps me to expand, it helps me grow," he said.
On the way back to the city, the team rode through a landscape of barren fields and building lots strewn with rubble where cranes are parked like giraffes sleeping on their feet, and of monolithic white stone and glass buildings.
The metropolis and modernity is inexorably spreading outwards.