Delving into the world of Frisbee discs and the people who love them, Khoi Pham learns about Saigon’s latest obsession with quirky round things, after bubble tea, pizzas and Nicki Minaj’s shapely derrière. Photo by Vinh Dao.
As I sit on a patch of wilted grass watching the Baymax Ultimate Club, a paralysing, all-consuming thought runs through my mind: this is what it feels like to be a roast chicken. The searing heat of May coupled with dark jeans and windless air make a lethal combination. It doesn’t help that, not ten metres away, a barbeque party is in full swing, filling the atmosphere with raucous chatter and the actual smell of roast chicken.
Despite the sun and nearby party antics, my new friends soldier on, constantly catching, passing and maneouvring their Frisbee disc around with remarkable grace and agility. Officially founded in March, the Baymax Ultimate Club reflects just one part of the budding interest young Saigonese have taken in ultimate frisbee, or ultimate, as it’s often called.
Truong Nguyen Vu, founder of the club and a six-year veteran of ultimate frisbee, reminisces about his first experience with the game. “I started playing in 2007, when some foreigners came to RMIT to introduce Frisbee to the school,” he says. “I was one of the first few people to take up ultimate here.”
With roots tracing back to the American counterculture of the late 1960s, ultimate frisbee has long been a popular sport among university crowds abroad, particularly in the United States, but didn’t reach Asia until almost a decade later, when it first debuted in Japan. Since then, ultimate frisbee has gradually found its way into Southeast Asia through the passion of backpackers and their travel-sized Frisbee discs.
As proof of the Asian passion toward frisbee, one of the biggest regional events for the sport, the Zone Cup, is set to return to Saigon in June. This year, the tournament’s teams look promising, with top players coming from all over Asia, including Singapore, Japan and China.
Ultimate’s rules and play style share some similarities with American football, except for two key differences: ultimate games are usually mixed, with both male and female players on the same team, and there’s no referee.
The addition of female players changes the game’s spirit, as it makes for a different team dynamic. “If you ask other players, they would say that they’d prefer playing mixed because it’s such a fun environment,” explains Jillian Du, Baymax’s current coach, who has more than five years of experience in ultimate frisbee. “It’s a lot more fun, open-minded, but still competitive. If I wish to become the best player [in a female-only team], I could because it’s an even playing field where I can challenge myself physically. But the atmosphere is not as fun and dynamic as in a mixed team.”
The California native started out playing ultimate frisbee in college and has been hooked ever since. According to Du, ultimate is one of the best ways to meet new people of all ages, walks of life, nationalities, shapes and sizes. “You just need to know where to look on the internet. There’s this website that shows where all the weekly ultimate games are all over the world with a Google Maps pin, timing and contact details,” she shares. “For instance, if I happen to be in Turkey for two weeks and I want to throw some disc, I’ll just go on the website and search for a local game.”
As the sweltering afternoon runs its course, a light shower picks up, shooing the barbeque lovers from their burning pit and into the solace of the nearest gazebo. The frisbee enthusiasts, however, continue on as if the sun is still shining, and rain only aids their swift gliding across the field. Saigon’s fickle weather is apparently the last thing on their mind.
“Ultimate frisbee is still a relatively new sport in Vietnam. So there are not a lot of people who actually know what it is, let alone want to play it,” Vu, the club founder, says. However, it seems that the situation is looking up for the ultimate scene in Vietnam, judging by the enthusiastic response Baymax has received from its new members. “We only started the club with four members. Now that number has grown to more than 20 official members and 40 other occasional players joining the practice,” he shares.
Like all sports that require a great amount of commitment from their players, ultimate frisbee is not simply an easygoing pastime if you aim to succeed at the game. As the team rests in between the training session and a game, Le Hai Minh, who has been playing with Baymax for a few months, explains why some hesitate to join the sport.
“Time is one of the problems,” he says in Vietnamese. “Taking up frisbee means that you have to sacrifice the time spent doing other things to practice. That’s why we usually schedule sessions in the evening, because a lot of us have to work during the day. Even then, everybody here turns up quite frequently for practice. It’s one of the things that really shows how much passion they have for frisbee.”
According to Nguyen Huong Dieu, a four-year ultimate player from Hanoi, the explanation for ultimate’s lesser-known status among sport aficionados has to do with the attitude some young Vietnamese have towards heavy exercise.
“In recent years, some [young Vietnamese] have developed an aversion to activities that require hard work. They tend to do things the ‘instant noodles’ way, preferring stuff that has an immediate result,” says Dieu. “Frisbee is not as intuitive as other well-known sports. There are a lot of things to learn when you first start out, like how to hold the disc, how to throw the disc; it’s not like badminton or football, when you more or less know how to play from watching.”
For all the challenges that ultimate frisbee throws at its players, the sport is rewarding in several ways. When I asked what the best thing about playing ultimate frisbee was, everyone I met replied: “The people.”
“The best thing about Frisbee is the way the disc looks gliding across the field,” says Minh. “And the feeling when you score from a team effort. You may be at your full strength at the beginning of the game but it gets really tiring after a while. That’s when you truly realise the importance of your teammates’ mental support.”