Girls attending a rugby clinic in the Kim Boi district of Vietnam's Hoa Binh Province. AFP
Barefoot and muddied, a group of youngsters sprint across a makeshift pitch in rural Vietnam, passing the ball in a game of touch rugby in a country where few people have ever heard of the sport.
They belong to Vietnam's only rugby programme for locals, rolled out for kids in a remote commune where some players have to travel by boat to training sessions often held against a backdrop of rice terraces and curious onlookers
Few knew anything about rugby when they joined the scheme, marvelling at the egg-shaped ball, but are now keen fans planning to closely follow the Rugby World Cup in Japan, which starts in September.
"I haven't watched international rugby... but if possible I will surely watch the Rugby World Cup," said 14-year-old Bao Cham, a player on the Silver Fox team in Kim Boi district.
First time on a plane
Launched in 2015, the ChildFund Pass It Back programme is aimed at teaching youngsters life skills, with lessons on health or planning for the future interspersed with rugby training sessions.
Girls taking a break during a rugby clinic in the Kim Boi district. AFP
The players aged 11 to 16 meet regularly on weekends to play touch rugby, which has none of the full-contact version's heavy tackling.
There are more than 6,100 players and coaches in the programme today, more than half of them female, in Vietnam, Laos, East Timor and the Philippines.
Some players will go to Japan in March with ChildFund — travelling by plane for the first time — for rugby training and life-skills sessions.
Rugby coach Bui Thi Lan, centre attending a rugby clinic in the Kim Boi district. AFP
Battling inequality wasn't the only hurdle.
There was no vocabulary in Vietnamese for the sport and some terms were coined on the fly.
A scrum is "mai rua" which means 'turtle shell' in Vietnamese, while the name for rugby is simply "bong bau duc", which translates to 'oval ball'.
Rugby was not always so foreign to Vietnam, though it has never been widespread among locals.
Today there are no professional Vietnamese-born players abroad — though France fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc is of Vietnamese origin — and just a small group of expatriates playing recreationally in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Now Vietnam's budding young rugby stars hope the sport will start to gain popularity.
"I really wish that Vietnam would participate in Rugby World Cup one day, and I hope to be a member of that team," coach Bui Van Nhan, said.
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