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In a Schoolyard, a Close-Knit Community Spearheads Saigon's Archery Scene

Laser-focused gazes, shiny bows, colorful targets, and looking cool as hell: these are the components of a picture-perfect post one might find on the Instagram of any budding archer. But social media clout aside, there are other reasons why outdoor archery is slowly becoming a favorite pastime of some Saigoneers in the “new normal.”

It is fair to say that archery has a modest presence in Vietnam. Even the HCMC Student’s Cultural House’s Archery Club, a pioneer in introducing this sport to the larger community, has only been an entity since 2014. Many other training facilities have popped up in Hanoi and Saigon since, but few were able to gain traction among the public.

“Most people assume that it’s an elite sport that only a few can afford, or that it's dangerous,” said Quan Nguyễn Thảo Nguyên, a coach who doubles as a judge at national archery competitions.

A sport that targets all ages

That was, of course, until COVID-19 happened. Coming out of a lengthy lockdown, residents of Saigon have begun to take an interest in outdoor sports — not only to exercise their weary bodies but also to seek a literal and figurative breath of fresh air after being stuck indoors for months. Archery, among other sports, has also ridden this new wave of athletic enthusiasm. We decided to visit Trần Quan Brothers, a five-year-old archery club in Saigon, to find out more about the Saigoneers that are giving it a shot.

Quan Vân Triều is the founder of Trần Quan Brothers Archery Club. He has been practicing archery since 1968. 

Trần Quan Brothers, founded in 2016, is one of the very few archery clubs that have managed to last longer than a few years in Saigon. Situated in Trương Quyền Primary School’s campus in District 3, the club’s mainstay is its spacious yard, which can be expanded to a range of 70 meters to meet Olympic standards and ensure safety for members.

Quan Vân Triều, the club’s namesake founder, said he has been passionate about archery since 1968 when he was still an active member of the Vietnam Martial Arts Association. After five decades of learning about the discipline, he rationalizes that archery is a form of dynamic meditation (as opposed to static meditation, which mostly involves sitting still). Depending on how much practice one puts in, they can gain well-being improvements such as stress relief, or increase their concentration, attentiveness, assertiveness, patience, or physical strength.

Archers can be of all ages, but most of the people Saigoneer saw when we visited the range were in their 20s and 30s. Elementary school students and elderly seniors were also present. Because of the pandemic and the 2020 Olympics, where Asian athletes dominated in archery, the club has seen an increase in newcomers. Though not all of them are taking it seriously, Triều said about 70% of registered members intend to pursue archery in the long term.

Như Quỳnh, a 34-year-old designer who joined the club in mid-2020, said that the dynamic meditation embedded in archery has brought positive changes to her daily life. When she first picked up the bow and arrow, she only saw it as a way to improve her physical fitness. But half a year later, she began to feel a deeper connection to the sport. And now, she spends two to three hours a day practicing, as well as competing in amateur tournaments.

“The saying 'a miss is as good as a mile' is very true in archery because every movement is crucial. In a way, it’s similar to meditating, because a practitioner must have complete control over their body and their state of mind. In doing so, archers develop the endurance, composure and mindfulness to face different challenges in life,” Quỳnh notes.

Như Thuần, an architecture major, picked up archery with a very different perspective. Because he was already invested in archery and shooting, as soon as he moved to Saigon for college, he immediately joined different clubs to experience the action himself.

“I’m drawn to these sports because I’m fascinated by the technicality of the long-range weapons used in them. And from my observation, archery is more challenging than shooting because archers have to calculate the curvature of the arrows and coordinate their movements accordingly.”

Thuần said that he has tried to get many of his friends on board, but most of them don’t see archery’s potential as a professional sport. “When they see a bow, they somehow conclude it's a primitive and dangerous weapon. I think since most of my friends have stuck with more common sports like soccer and basketball, they find archery a little perplexing,” he continues.

Lý Quyên, an 8th grader, has been doing archery for three years.

On the sunny training ground, we encountered some smaller figures. Young and daring 8th-grader Lý Quyên (still not the youngest learner here) tells us: "Although most of the people around me are adults, I don't feel like I have to ‘fit in’ at all. These ‘aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters’ are very nice and welcoming to me. I’m always excited to come in to practice.”

Despite her age, Quyên is more "senior" than some of her fellow members, as she has been carrying the bow for more than three years. Back when Quyên was a 5th-grader in Trương Quyền, she was mesmerized by the practice sessions of archers next door, and convinced her parents to let her try out the supposedly risky sport. Though initially concerned, Quyên's parents are now completely assured by, and proud of, their daughter whenever she raises her bow.

According to coach Thảo Nguyên, who is also Triều's daughter, for young people, in addition to physical benefits, archery is a great way to help them hone their mental sharpness. “In South Korea, the country that dominates in archery at the Olympics, the sport is taught as part of the regular curriculum in elementary schools. Hopefully, schools in Vietnam will one day consider that possibility as well,” she says.

How to keep the momentum going?

“Archery is all about subtleness. It’s a competitive sport, sure, but no flashy combat is involved. It’s just you, yourself, and your bow. Not everyone is into that,” said Nguyễn Nhựt Minh, who formerly competed on Ho Chi Minh City’s archery team.

However, despite being an individual pursuit, archery has also brought groups of people together. Since it remains relatively unknown in Vietnam, the few archers that do exist tend to depend on one another to better their knowledge and skills, and those who share a range are always ready to support fellow archers so they can all make progress. At Trần Quan Brothers, young members are now working on a project together to uncover the origin of an ancient Vietnamese bow that was almost lost to time.

Archery clubs will provide a wide range of equipment to their members, from regular to more compound bows.

Equipment and membership fees are some other factors that can greatly impact the sport’s retention rate. “Seasoned archers might want to upgrade their gear to conquer longer distances. And doing so will definitely require some big investments because high-end gear such as compound bows can cost you anywhere between VND15 and 20 million,” says Thảo Nguyên.

“Still, it’s a broad generalization to say that archery is reserved for the upper class. If you become a club member, almost all equipment will be provided to you at no extra charge. And an archery club membership is quite affordable compared to most other sports, just about VND60,000 per hour, or VND700,000–800,000 per month.”

It will be some time before archery can become an option for everyone, especially when metropolises still lack the space for more standard facilities. However, the presence of close-knit archery clubs and communities has brought it closer to the masses, among which young Vietnamese archers belong, whom one day with these collectives' support, will be ready to shoot at more ambitious ranges, and heights.

Parks & Rec is a series on the eclectic range of pastimes and recreational activities in Vietnam. From novel sports to old board games, these communities help connect members and enrich local urban life. If you have a cool hobby to share, let us know at [email protected].

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