For many, a vacation signals a time to take a break from all of life’s routines, including running. I’m all for checking out on occasion. But running is one of my favorite ways to experience new places and revisit old favorites. When my daughter and I went on the trip of a lifetime to Vietnam this summer, it was a vacation, pure and simple, well, as simple as it can be when visiting such an intricately nuanced country. Of course I packed my running shoes. But, as I quickly discovered, it wasn’t quite as simple as lacing up and hitting the road.
For starters the streets of Hanoi are a veritable maze of twists, turns and narrow alleyways. Not understanding the language made navigation all the more confusing. Of course I hadn’t purchased an international cellular plan, meaning phone mapping was useless (I highly recommend getting an international cellular plan) and the map provided by the concerned concierge at the hotel quickly became a pulpy, sodden mess.
Traffic was another obstacle to logging long miles. Streets and sidewalks are choked with mopeds, motorbikes, bicycles, cars, trucks and pedestrians. Yet they all move with a surprisingly harmonious rhythm. Adding a non-native runner to the mix was jarring and incongruous, proving unpredictable to the flow.
Depending where you are, much of life in Vietnam also happens on sidewalks—eating, cooking, markets, bathing. But walking or running, well, not so much. This was definitely true for Hanoi. Once I set aside my mileage and destination goals, it was easier to see and feel the beauty and strong community in the seeming chaos.
And as Robin Williams’ character said in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” it was truly “Hot, damn hot!” I don’t mind exercising in the heat, but the humidity was extra special. And the cause for the paper map I was palming being soaked in sweat within minutes.
But, there was simply too much to see, and I wasn’t about to cave on the idea of a run. A 3 a.m. Google search (the jet lag was real!) and chat with the concierge revealed the best time to run was between 4 and 6 a.m. Streets were as quiet as they were going to get, it was as cool as I could hope for, and, at least in July, I didn’t need a headlamp.
I waited to 5 a.m. to set out: 1) to quell the alarm of the front desk staff and 2) so that I didn’t feel too bad about awakening my 18-year old daughter to join me. The trip was her high school graduation present. And I was fairly certain a sunrise run wasn’t on her agenda. She was game though and came to enjoy our pokey, pre-dawn explorations as much as I did. But, as anxious as we were to run, it took a while to figure out the best way to go about it.
We found a large lake nearby that was ringed by a pedestrian pathway. It only took navigating a few blocks of city streets before we were able to find our stride. Yet those blocks were rich with sights, sounds and smells. We passed multiple groups of people practicing early morning T’ai Chi, markets opening for the day, burners with pots of boiling broth and water on stoops, street sweepers and plenty of dogs and chickens out greeting the new day.
Even with the traffic chaos, smells were the most jarring, all the more so because we were breathing hard. It took me more than a week to officially label the thick, somewhat rancid odor of durian fruit. The scents of still alive seafood, freshly butchered meats, stacks of pineapples, ginger and shallots, bundles of lemongrass and vibrantly hued vegetables wafted together to create an umami smell, I’ll never forget. While the savory nose of broths and fried spring rolls signaled it was time to pick up the pace and make it back for breakfast. On our first morning though, we fell in step behind a lady strolling along selling fragrant blossoms. The scent was literally a breath of fresh air, yet it didn’t last long, as she was understandably disturbed by the close presence of two oddly dressed, sweaty Americans who just wanted to smell her flowers.
In Hue, we ran through time and history as we logged miles inside the thick walls and city-within-a-city of the citadel. Running outside the walls, would have been an easy 10K, but we chose the more circuitous inner route passing by ruins, restored structures and a captured U.S. tank. Local street merchants, usually elderly women with smiling eyes and heavy loads on their backs, were very concerned about how much we were perspiring, and constantly tried to sell us young coconuts or bottled water.
Hoi An was more compact, requiring a circuitous route to cobble together a 5K run. But those 5 kilometers were so culturally rich and sensory heightened that I stopped almost every few steps to take photos: a woman happily washing laundry in the murky river, crowing roosters, the measured chaos of early morning market, men playing Mahjong with their morning coffee, subtle temperature changes when crossing a bridge, slowing down and tuning in made the miles covered secondary to the things I experienced.
By comparison, Ho Chi Min (aka Saigon) was more modern with numerous wide boulevards and a big-city feel. We stayed near Tao Dan Park and Independence Palace, making for easier running, except for the unavoidable hair-raising street crossings. The winding path through Tao Dan was the closest we came to hitting a track. Set amidst tall trees and stately buildings, the setting was a fitness fanatics oasis, with the path full of walkers and a few runners (including us), T’ai Chi classes, aerobics, salsa dancing, badminton, sword work (seriously) and an array of more than two dozen fitness machines, all full between 6 to 8 a.m.
The most poignant observation for me was watching my daughter take in the scene. As a three-season high school athlete, she enjoys sports, but, like most of us, is very focused when it comes to gear, training and competition; sometimes to the point of her focus on the details taking precedence over love of sport. We were surrounded by more than a thousand, people, all moving solely for the appreciation of movement. Some were kitted out like a standard American showing up for an agro track workout. Others sported sandals, flats, work clothes and traditional Vietnamese attire. People were going hard, but for the enjoyment of it. I didn’t get the sense that a “perfect” body or reaching a specific number of steps were the goal. Instead, it was more the understanding that movement, specifically movement in nature, is an essential part of life. It was a good lesson for both of us. And is a lesson that transcends language, place and age.
Tips for Running in Vietnam
As with running any place unfamiliar to you, a little research and preparation will make the experience all the more enjoyable.
-Research options for international cellular plans before you go. Wifi is widely available, but not always to the point of being able to use mapping functions on the go.
-Run early. Traffic is lightest early in the morning. Chances are you’ll have jet lag, so log some miles before breakfast if you can.
-Ask the people at the front desk of your hotel for suggestions. They are eager to help. Even if they don’t have a specific running route, they may be able to provide a map and direct you to sightseeing routes or pathways.
-Check your expectations. My runs in Vietnam were a method for sightseeing and maintaining fitness. I wasn’t trying to increase my mileage or do workouts. Instead my goals were to run enough to offset all of the delicious food I was eating and enjoy the scene.
-Always carry your hotel’s business card with you. If you happen to get lost, turned around or tired, all you have to do is flag down a cab and show them the address on the card. It’s much easier than trying to communicate a complicated address in a unfamiliar language or attempting to recognize your hotel in the maze of traffic and streets.
– Ho Chi Min has a few running groups, including a MeetUp group and a Hash House Harriers group. As with any place you travel, check in at local running stores for possible running groups and route suggestions. You can also find more groups online and on social media. Running groups can be great sources of information when it comes to running routes and special events.
-Wear light, breathable and fast drying clothing. Also know that many hotels have a laundry service, meaning you don’t need to bring as many clothes. It was so reasonable that we went home with all clean clothes! That was after I tried the sink washing method only to discover it was too humid for anything to dry.
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