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|A large crowd of football fans wave the national flag as they follow a bus carrying members of the U-23 Vietnamese national team through the streets of Hanoi after their return. (Tuan Nguyen/AFP)|
The underdogs became overnight celebrities in the football-crazy nation when they reached the finals of the Under 23 Asian Football Confederation tournament in China on Saturday.
Undeterred by their 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan, crowds massed to catch a glimpse of the players, who were expected to meet Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc later.
"I wanted my children to learn from the wonderful strong will of those young footballers," said Tran Thuy An, who had been waiting for hours on a flyover for the team bus to pass by.
Surrounded by fans and well-wishers who shrugged off light rain, the double-decker took five hours to reach the city centre from the airport, a journey which normally takes 40 minutes.
"This amazing parade has never happened in Vietnam," said state-run Vietnam Television in an hours-long live broadcast, commenting on the sea of red and gold in the city.
Vietnam defied the odds to reach the final, blowing past regional heavyweights Iraq and Qatar.
Observers praised the way the team united the country. "There have never been that many national flags in Hanoi in decades," said 77-year-old resident Ha Anh Tue.
Tue compared the outpouring to the liberation from the French in 1954 and reunification after the Vietnam war ended in 1975.
"U23 made history for Vietnam's sports," Tue told AFP.