Exhaust, Water Buffalo, and Ye Olde Lakeside Gentility: Stories of Running in Vietnam

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Vietnam was my first really far-flung trip, and my bravest one – not because of the near-antipodal distance or the language barrier or the constant ribboning rush of motorbikes, but because it threatened, and sometimes succeeded, to fuck with my daily exercise.

In the fall and early winter of 2007, I lived in Paris. If someone had told me, before I got on the plane, that treadmills would be a non-entity in my new home, to say nothing of ellipticals, I would have blanched, and applied to the London campus. Thankfully, I was coy with my exercise fanaticism, and nobody told me, and I got to go to Paris and run in plein air, pearly grey and chockablock with postcard vistas.

I did not do much planning before I left for Vietnam, but I did try to find tips for running there. Most of the tips went something like “ABANDON ALL HOPE OR RUN AT 3AM.” The tippers were especially vehement about this with regards to running in Ho Chi Minh, the country’s largest, loudest, and most chaotic city.

Attempt 1: Ho Chi Minh (or, 10 million motorbikes produce a lot of smog, batman)

I didn’t abandon all hope, but, if you happen to be reading this as a guide, do note that running in Ho Chi Minh is pretty unpleasant. For one thing, you can’t run on the sidewalks, as they are well and thoroughly occupied by food, drink, and sundries vendors. Certainly, you can’t run in the road – even crossing it is a tricky game of frogger. I ended up running approximately 60 laps around the left-hand portion of the rectangular park by Benh Thanh Market. Ten minutes in, I felt like a lifetime pack-a-day-er – the exhaust in Vietnam’s capital is no joke. The one nice thing about that run was that none of the Vietnamese in the park paid me any mind, even though I must have looked ridiculous, and, by the end, terrifyingly red-faced.

If you’re going to Ho Chi Minh and you want to run, do try to find a hotel with a working gym. Our second hotel had the semblance of a gym, but there was no electricity nor a visible means of obtaining any. Which isn’t to say you need electricity to exercise in HCM: in that same park I made a fool of myself running around, you can while some minutes on a variety of free, manually-powered exercise equipment. The ab machine made me feel like a champion moguler.

Attempts 2-4: Hoi An

Hoi An was, in many ways, my least favorite of the three cities we visited, but in terms of outdoor running, it’s leagues above the other two. It’s not really a city; compared to Ho Chi Minh, it’s a hamlet, and a clean, orderly one. The motorbike traffic is constrained to the road, and there are sidewalks extending for several kilometers out of the city center, and the sidewalks are almost always reserved for you, dear pedestrian. Past the old city, the views from them may not be spectacular – this is a dreamer’s territory, the land scraped raw by trucks and dotted with empty poles and outlines of paths that, for now, lead to nowhere, and the sea, at least in the morning, is a foamy olive grey, the beaches not particularly wide and largely cordoned off by yet more construction. Still, the weather is mild, the mornings soupy with a fog that generally burns off by noon, San Francisco-style. And if you dare go off the main road, you have your pick of rice paddy grids. Some of them are even paved, and a few may contain a placid water buffalo, grey and bristly to the touch, like a scrub brush.

I did the same, safe, one-road running route during all three of my Hoi An runs, but on bicycle, I covered much more interesting, and often sparklingly pretty grounds, including plenty of the aforementioned rice paddies, a 500 year-old communal herb and vegetable farm, and the leftmost of the two small islands accessible from the old city via footbridge.

Attempts 5-6: Hanoi

We designed our itinerary starting in the south and ending in the north because it seemed like a logical progression, but it ended up being a smart move pacing-wise as well. Fresh off 25 hours of traveling, we were thrust into the whirl of Ho Chi Minh, where we learned to cross the streets without screaming, panicking, or getting hit. Then we recuperated in easy breezy Hoi An before heading to Hanoi, which was dense and bustling and smoggy, but not on the level of Ho Chi Minh. More pertinent to the subject of this post, in Hanoi, there are two lakes encircled by pedestrian-only paths, Hoan Kiem, in the old city, and West Lake, further out on the way to the airport.

I only ran around Hoan Kiem, as it was closer to my hotel, but it was a solid pick. It’s not a large lake – about a kilometer in circumference – but it’s large enough to get 4-6 miles in without getting bored, thanks to its wonderful old weeping willows and famous red footbridge and young women in silk ai dong posing for wedding photos and so many wonderful old women exercising to boom boxes. As a bonus, after your run, you can buy unripened avocado, brilliantly green and dusted with a sugary chili powder, to eat on the walk back to your hotel.

My sixth run happened the morning of my flight back to New York. Hoan Kiem was misted over, little Turtle Tower just peaking through. Despite the crowds, the lake felt serene. I ran eight, maybe ten laps and listened to Alt-J’s “Something Good” two, maybe three times and felt tempted to photograph a massage conga line some of the old ladies had formed. I would have kept running and listening and feeling tempted to sneak photographs had I not run out of time.

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Exhaust, Water Buffalo, and Ye Olde Lakeside Gentility: Stories of Running in Vietnam