Playing badminton in Vietnam: The unlikely game that brings tourists and locals together

The Vietnamese man standing next to me shrieks, leaps into the air and then high-fives me, with a grin as wide as the Saigon River flowing beside us.

"Good, good!" he shouts. "We win! We win!"

Then he grabs my hand and pumps it with a vigour that belies the half-hour we've just spent running madly around the pedestrian thoroughfare, sweating buckets under the blistering sun, playing a game of early-morning, pre-work badminton.

On the other side of the court painted onto the pavement, the losing players – all three of them in this weird, anything-goes game of (very) mixed doubles – laugh at my fellow victor's excitement, nod good-naturedly and duck under the net to come and shake my hand, too.

The lone woman confers with her two partners, and then turns back to me, beaming. "You come tomorrow!" she demands. "Same time. Then we win!"

When you are a tourist, it can be hard to meet and make friends with the locals on a more-or-less equal basis. But sport offers a great pathway; taking part in a sporting event, however informal, is invariably a wonderful way of connecting.

In Vietnam, for instance, it is simple. As a country full of badminton players, all you need is good humour, a fair dose of humility and preferably a modicum of skill to be welcomed into any game.

When I first visited Ho Chi Minh city 16 years ago, I looked out of my hotel window early one morning and was startled to see the streets below full of people whacking shuttles to and fro over nets. I went down, stood on the sidelines looking longingly at the play and was eventually handed a racquet and invited to join in.

Proving an unexpected asset to my side – I've played the sport for years – I found myself becoming one of the most popular players on the strip. And whenever a game was interrupted by local lottery ticket-sellers or peanut-kids marching onto the court to sell to the foreigner, they were quickly hustled off by my team-mates.

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These days, I take along my own racquet and get up early on weekday mornings to wander over and join any street games. Our only interruption this morning is when a street-sweeper strolls onto our court mid-volley and ignores our entreaties to go away. Instead, we have to halt for three minutes until he finishes and, when I start laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, everyone else joins in.

It is another demonstration to me of how sport can be such a great way of connecting, even when you share very few words of language.

While badminton in Asia has proved my most successful sporting venture, others haven't worked out too badly, either.

In Maputo, Mozambique, a country that is soccer-mad, having given birth to one of the greatest footballers of all time, Eusebio, I joined in a mixed game of football in an empty car park. Being pretty hopeless at that only seemed to add to everyone else's enjoyment.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where running is the lion of sports, I went for a jog in Meskel Square, a vast maze of running tracks in the city centre, and ended up having a number of breathless (from me, at least) chats with local runners who would run beside me for a while to see where I was from, and what I was doing.

In Cambodia's Phnom Penh a few of us started kicking around a hacky sack – a "keepy-uppy" kind of shuttlecock – and were soon joined by a crowd of locals keen to show off their own skills.

I have also played basketball with teenagers in Atlanta, Georgia; netball with a group of mums in Auckland, New Zealand; skipped with kids in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa; and played the run-and-tag game of Drop the Hanky with youngsters just outside Dili in East Timor, for playing games is a great way of connecting with kids, too, especially in poorer places when you buy the balls and leave them behind afterwards.

And that can be the magic of sport – as a traveller, everyone wins.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Qantas, Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific all fly regularly to Vietnam's Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

STAY

Saigon's The Myst Dong Khoi is a boutique hotel designed to mirror the character of the city, with corridors inside like laneways off the streets, and is centrally located near the river. Phone (+84) 28 3520 3040, see themystdongkhoihotel.com

TOUR

Old Compass Travel runs a heritage walking tour of Saigon focusing on history, architecture and the contemporary life of the city. Phone (+84) 90 390 0841, see oldcompasstravel.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/Vietnam

saigontourism.com.vn

Sue Williams travelled at her own expense.

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