HANOI, Vietnam--It was hockey night in Hanoi—not street hockey, but real hockey, on the only true, sizeable ice rink here in tropical Vietnam. Most of the players were expatriates from colder climes who had been skating for years. Several glided across the ice with impressive speed, grace and agility, deftly handling their sticks and passing the puck, spraying ice with sudden stops.
Among them, playing on opposite teams, were two Vietnamese gents who’d only started skating a few months ago. When the two men got tangled in a corner, both crashed hard to the ice, with a sound you could feel.
“Oi, gio oi!” cried a woman watching through the glass walls. But both men were soon up and at it again.
Hockey—more friendly than fierce--is now a weekly happening at the Royal City Vincom Mega Mall, the capital’s newest, biggest, shiniest reason to spend money. Tucked deep amid alabaster towers with ample space for lease, the Vinpearl Ice Rink might be considered the bottom-floor icing on this pretty white layer cake for Vietnam’s growing consumer class. It’s billed as Vietnam’s first “world-class” ice rink, in contrast to the mini-rink at Crescent Mall in Ho Chi Minh City.
Skating is not cheap, but the rink attracts many absolute beginners eager to strap on skates for the first time. On a typical weekend day, dozens of skaters occupy the ice, many clinging to rails along the perimeter. For most adults, the listed price is 220,000 VND per one-hour session for most adults, and 170,000 for skaters under 130 centimeters tall, plus another 50,000 more for skate rentals and another 100,000 to rent a plastic penguin or seal that helps newbies stay upright. (Prices are lower on weekdays.) Vinpearl is counting on many Vietnamese and expats to enjoy it enough to pay extra for membership passes that provide a discount for frequent use. (My wife bought some for our children; now the schlep to Royal City has become a weekly ritual.)
Vietnamese and expats who choose not to skate, including me, may still appreciate the spectacle.
Romantics may prefer the elegance of the statuesque blonde and her partner who provide regular exhibitions of choreographed ice dancing. Who, I wondered, were these expats?
Young Vinpearl employees such as Hien and Phuong credit Eleanora Vinnichenko with teaching them to skate. Back home in Ukraine, Eleanora, 20, was a competitive singles figure skater, while her boyfriend Pasha Yaruk, 22, had a different partner for ice dancing competition. Here, they’ve teamed up to serve as their sport’s de facto ambassadors to Vietnam.
It’s no accident that they had been recruited from Ukraine. Vinpearl, after all, is the resorts and entertainment division of the vast Vincom business empire, controlled by Pham Nhat Vuong, considered Vietnam’s first billionaire. Among Vietnam’s emerging capitalist class, his connections to Ukraine are the stuff of legend. Vuong, who was born in Hanoi in 1968, was a bright math student who won a scholarship to a university in Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he and his wife moved to Ukraine to seek his fortune in its economic revolution. After opening a Vietnamese restaurant, Vuong pioneered the concept of instant noodles in the country and struck it rich. “Ukrainians were very poor–and very hungry,” he was quoted as saying by Forbes magazine, which has estimated his net worth at $1.5 billion.
As the Zamboni machine resurfaced the ice, Eleanora said she understood that a top “director” at Vincom Group had put in the call to Ukraine that attracted her and Pasha to the opportunity in Hanoi. They arrived a couple of weeks before the rink opened in July and set out to teach the employees the basics, starting with how to simply stand on skates.
Having grown up in southern California, I could relate. Hockey was foreign to a boy who preferred baseball and (American) football. I was 23 years old when I first tried on blades—and did as much falling as skating. I tried it only once or twice since since with similar results.
So now I sit in café on the side of the ice, a middle-aged dad sipping coffee, content to watch my kids skate past. . . as if life itself is just skating on by. . .
So maybe I’m not so content. Perhaps I should give it another try, with the help of a plastic penguin.