October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

A DRIVING AFTERNOON RAIN HAD soaked the field for the varsity soccer game, and the white-clad Cardinals of Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Va., were having a tough time of it. The visitors in red were agile and wiry, and they were surefooted even on the muddy ground. They controlled the ball with swift, one-touch passes from player to player, grabbing an early 2—0 lead. But cheered on by a loyal crowd in the bleachers, the Cardinals managed to rally, and the game ended in a 2—2 tie.

In this competition, though, everyone came out a winner. The visitors, 15 of the top soccer players and brightest students from the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, were also the country’s first athletes to come to the U.S. since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The teenagers’ two-week tour of the East Coast wasn’t a government affair—it was sponsored by Intersport, U.S.A., a private, nonprofit group based in Waterbury, Conn., that organizes foreign sports exchange programs. Still, it scored big for diplomacy. Jim Fragala, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Vietnam, beamed as he watched son Jason, a Cardinal forward, exchange postgame handshakes and hugs with the all-stars from Hanoi. “Fathers can fight a war, and 20 years later their children can be on the same field playing peacefully,” he says. “It was a great idea. China was opened up with Ping-Pong and Vietnam may be with soccer.”

Members of the Vietnamese team—who are known as the Hanoi High Team—were all between the ages of 16 and 18 and too young to have lived through the war. But they did understand the historical importance of their trip. “I feel very emotional. I hope this never happens again,” said Do Manh Dung, 17, standing before the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a sightseeing tour of Washington, D.C., which included visits to the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

But the visitors’ real education was about the American lifestyle, which was more lavish than anything they could have imagined. Staying in the homes of the high school students whom they played in various towns, the Vietnamese were astonished by America’s routine domestic miracles. They marveled at microwave ovens, dishwashers, television shows, Nintendo. Dung, the youngest of eight children, noted that his family’s one-room house in Hanoi is the same size as the living room of his hosts’ in Prospect, Conn. For him the biggest treat was going to the supermarket and being stunned by the low price of chicken; at home, three birds would cost his father, a rice farmer, about $9—a whole month’s earnings. “I think the standard of life is very high but mostly very happy,” says Dung, nicknamed Smiley by American friends for his ready grin.

Nguyen Anh Tuan, 17, was awed by the sumptuous array of merchandise at a Connecticut sporting-goods store—the tennis rackets, skis and winter outerwear in colors that reminded him of the vegetables his neighbors grow. (The team members had some of their uniforms and shoes stolen from their parked van as they visited Capitol Hill.) Is anything the same in Hanoi as it is here? “The soccer field is all I can think of,” says Tuan, “But we don’t fix the grass with a machine.”

Despite all the cultural and language barriers—interpreters weren’t always available, and both sides often resorted to sign language—the Vietnamese grew close to their American hosts. Erik Borman, 17, captain of the Bishop Ireton team, says that while “a lot of kids were a little bit worried at first,” fear was quickly replaced by friendship. “It showed how kids around the world are pretty much alike.” Dung, who stayed in the home of Bishop Ireton player Ryan Strom, 16, agreed. “After this, the relationship between the two countries will be closer, like the relationship between me and Ryan.”

That made it difficult to say goodbye. “I want you to write and send pictures,” Tuan told Don and Lois McGill, his host family in Cheshire, Conn. He promised to return the favor, even though a letter to the United States would cost his father $2. “It would be an honor for our relationship,” he said. Touched by the extravagance of his gesture, Lois’s eyes misted over as she struggled for the words to answer. Then she said to the interpreter, “Please tell him I will write.”


MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, BRIAN CAZENEUVE in Connecticut

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