Good Morning Vietnam

At dawn, residents of Hanoi head for the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake and some early-morning exercise

In the coolness that lingers after dawn, swarms of shuttlecocks are propelled aloft.

With pings and thwacks, with air-slicing swooshes and nearly silent taps, Hanoi's badminton players swat their feathered projectiles back and forth, part of the burst of exercise that begins the day in Vietnam's capital.

Around the city's Hoan Kiem Lake, a Central Park in miniature, thousands of Hanoi residents of various ages and athletic inclinations seize the hours before the sun asserts itself to work up a sweat. Ladies wearing blouses and black, pajama-style pants practice the slow-motion martial art called tai chi. Badminton devotees clog the sidewalks, some playing noisy games that draw crowds, and others batting the shuttlecock back and forth without the benefit of a net or a court painted on the pavement.

"Sport is the joy of life," booms an elderly Vietnamese man in flawless French, pausing in what he called his "promenade Chinoise." To the unsophisticated eye, it seemed as if he was merely pushing his bicycle around the lake. He explained that the activity was a prelude to his daily swim.

As in many countries, soccer is the king of sports, and young men take to the streets in shorts and sneakers for a morning match. As the traffic picks up and the field of play is interrupted by too many scooters and bicycles, the athletes break for breakfast - often a bowl of noodle soup prepared by a sidewalk vendor. Here and there groups of young people play hacky-sack, keeping a homemade bean bag aloft with kicks of their feet. Others perform calisthenics, and some practice that more intellectual form of exercise known as reading the morning paper. (In recent years, the state-monitored media have offered a more energetic read - criticizing official corruption in ways that would never have appeared before the country adopted a more free-market approach in the late 1980s. But last month, party elders warned journalists against "deviations.")

Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake might seem like Vietnam's badminton central, but the sport first appeared in the southern city of Saigon (renamed after national founder Ho Chi Minh in 1975) in the early 1950s. At the time, the country was run by France.

"The first badminton book I had was in French," says Duong Van Ung, an executive board member of the Ho Chi Minh City Badminton Federation.

The sport grew during the 1950s and 1960s, but had to take a break during the fiercest years of the Vietnam War, known here as the "American War." National competitions resumed in 1980, and in this decade Vietnam's badminton organizers have rejoined international associations and hosted tournaments. But promoters complain their sport does not draw the sort of corporate backing that it deserves.

"A sport without sponsorship is difficult to develop," sighs Huynh Ngoc Lien, vice president of the federation. Ms. Lien is a tough woman who wrestles with the burdens of Vietnamese badminton: low-grade racquets, a paucity of people who can teach the sport, and few courts that meet international standards.

Many Vietnamese want to know who will replace the country's new president and prime minister, decisions being ratified this month by the national legislature. But badminton boosters have a special interest, because the sport's most prominent player - Deputy Prime Minister Pham Van Khai - is is the front-runner to become premier, according to political analysts. Not only would he bring new cachet to the game, he is considered likely to encourage the economic reforms and foreign investment that could help Lien with her sponsorship problems.

Still, the charm of the sport, Vietnamese-style, is not in the quantity of prize money offered in international competitions.

"I play with my grandson every afternoon when I get home from work," says Huynh Van Trinh, a former diplomat who now directs the foreign relations department of the Veterans Association of Vietnam in Hanoi. "All it takes is two players and a small park. It's really popular."

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