Irishman in Vietnam: Hanoi is worst place in the world to run. But I grew to love it
‘I swapped those leafy suburbs of Dublin for the smoggy and traffic-congested suburbs of Vietnam’s capital’
Gavin Brennan at the finish line of the Hanoi half marathon.
Gavin Brennan taking a break from running on the mountains around Hanoi.
Gavin Brennan running on Hanoi’s Banana Island.
“I run because if I didn’t, I’d be sluggish and glum and spend too much time on the couch. I run to breathe the fresh air. I run to explore. I run to escape the ordinary” - Dean Karnazes in Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
I don’t feel any better when I cross the finish line. I’m exhausted, in every sense of the word - mentally and physically. My head is a vacuum.
It’s just after 2.30pm and I’ve been struggling through the Vietnamese sun for the last few hours. Cramped, dehydrated and I’m not sure if I’ve eaten too much or too little. It’s probably too little. I feel alone in the mass of people waiting at the finish line. I’ve just run and walked more than 42km, up, down and through the mountains of Sapa in Vietnam as an entrant in the annual Vietnam Mountain Marathon. I started the run at 7.30am at 1,600m above sea level with a few hundred others and quickly climbed to 2,300m. Altitude affects you in those ranges.
By the time I’d finished, more than seven hours later, I’d ascended 2,000m of vertical elevation and descended even more. Many entrants walked the trail taking up to 15 hours. I feel no sense of achievement as I collapse on the grass just past the finish line. There’s no joy, no congratulations, certainly no runner’s high. I am hungry and dehydrated, yet don’t have it in me to eat or drink. I’m tired but I can’t rest or sit still. I don’t feel like celebrating or doing anything. I am truly exhausted. I am dead. Why was I here?
I’d always been a big fan of travelling by walking. This love had existed as far back as I can remember, when as young kids my father used to take us to hike the hills and mountains back home in the west of Ireland. Or, it might have come from my inability to afford a car in my 20s. You see more travelling on foot, it’s slower and safer. It’s the most personal form of navigation and you sacrifice intimacy for speed.
A few years ago I’d decided to run as conventional wisdom would have it that the exercise is good for you. Like many people I’d always hated it, not seeing the point in running unless it was after a ball, or having grown up on a farm, a stray calf. The treadmill was an option but it seemed like the definition of hell. Running around the leafy Dublin suburbs I was living in at the time seemed the option. There was fresh air and there were things to look at.
Once I was able to cover a couple of blocks and return home not entirely exhausted, somewhat alert and not only not hating life but actively seeking it out, I realised that I was travelling in a sense, exploring my neighbourhood and beyond.
Soon I was being dragged out the door by the anticipation of what I might see around me passing traffic, shops, pubs, homes, churches and gardens.
I learned what a runner’s high was, coming home and feeling not tired or just satisfied but happy, not tired, energised and focused. Through running I experienced the city being experienced in a state of heightened awareness. One day I was actually excited to get home from work to run.
The start of a run is the hardest, mentally. The last part is inevitably the toughest, physically. But there’s a wonderful space in the middle, once the body is warmed up and the sweat has started to come. You’ve started to feel the first feelings of tiredness and overcome them - mind sharpened. All of this adds to a wonderful feeling - freedom. It is a form of meditation. Superficial worries go out the window and your only concern is the road or the track in front of you. Whatever that day have been nagging that day wear off, or at least settle into something manageable. And what better thing to do with freedom than travel?
I’d been living in Hanoi for a couple of years when I signed up for the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa. When I moved to Vietnam, I continued my new love of running in the less than ideal running environment of Hanoi. I’d swapped those leafy suburbs of Dublin for the smoggy and traffic-congested suburbs of Vietnam’s capital.
Running in Hanoi was often a pain in the arse and ill-advised, but I still sought it out. The pollution was bad but it didn’t bother me as much as others. The heat, also not a feature of life in Co Mayo, was worse for me. Just walking to the end of the narrow alleyway to buy water was hard work and sweat would be pouring out of me. There were no streets to run on. The traffic in the city is a tourist attraction in its own right, and many people are amazed or terrified by the constant whizz of bikes passing by. There are few footpaths; the ones that exist are occupied with all manner of vendors and their various stalls and stools. Even once acclimatised to the heat, the streets of Hanoi were no place to navigate on foot, much less run. It’s actually safer to travel by bike.
I had always felt like I was riding my luck to an extent, vying for footpath space, and often not getting it, with local vendors, dogs, pedestrians and evening exercisers necessitating regular ducks onto the road and often on-coming traffic. The single reliable rule of the road in Vietnam is “Don’t hit anyone else,” and I relied on others’ adherence to this rule probably more often than I should have. Often times there were dangerously unlit sections of road, or sections of road would be dug up. One day I was returning home on Dang Thai Mai Street and had to swerve to avoid a large square segment of tarmac that had been removed and left open. Thankfully later someone had thoughtfully left a waist-high shrub in the offending hole - nobody would try to drive straight through a shrub.
Other times gaping wounds in the tarmac would be left exposed. But I put up with all of this, seeing such obstacles as occupational hazards, and running continued to grow and grow on me in spite of this really being the worst place in the world for someone to run. Pollution, heat and traffic are three of the worst environmental features for a runner, and Hanoi has all of them in abundance.
Just as in Ireland I’d grown to love exploring the nature of my neighbourhood and beyond, seeing running as a wonderful means to travel once I’d built up a small bit of fitness, so too did running around and through and in front of all the wonders of as vibrant a city as Hanoi proved to be. I was getting to see the charms of the city up close. Hanoi is the most “alive” city I’ve ever been to, with the most exciting and captivating of everyday human activity.
And so I acclimatised to the toxic conditions of my adopted city and found new ways of seeing it by running through, around and over its various obstacles. Recreational running, like cycling or any other pointless activity for its own sake, is an affluent person’s sport, and in a developing city like Hanoi, the sight of anyone running was met with amusement and bemusement by many. But the Vietnamese practice of pointing and laughing at different ways of doing things was endearing, and I took it as human inspiration for what is, to an extent, a pointless exercise.
Running on the traffic-thronged road, ducking under wires, leaping over bricks upturned from the footpath; dodging past toddling children playing unsupervised in the middle of the street while their parents worked somewhere nearby; darting around crowds of workers enjoying late-night beers on tiny stools on the side of the road; all of these were potential hazards to avoid, but also the sights and parts of the city which travellers flock from all over the world to see.
Hanoi has no Eiffel Tower, no Empire State Building. Although the Old Quarter is the attraction for most tourists on their stopovers between less hectic and better promoted destinations such as Ha Long Bay, Sapa and Ninh Binh in the north, every street in the city is alive with its most arresting sight and attraction: its people.
People working, people walking (and even some crazy people running), kids playing, people eating, drinking, talking, meeting neighbours, going for a perambulation around the block. Old people, young people. Youngsters on the way to school with their parents on the way to work. Drivers delivering impossible loads which dumbfound even to this day, somehow packing up ridiculous hauls of eggs or beer or building materials and balancing them delicately on the back of a small scooter, and equally impossibly managing to navigate this traffic, and getting it to its destination in one piece, and on time, and somehow managing to navigate this traffic, and what is this guy doing running in among all of it?
I run because I’m told it’s good for me and because with experience I learned that it definitely is good for me. But whatever about the long-or-short-term benefits of it - it is what it is. If you put one foot in front of the other for an extended period of time, you get around. If you go far enough, you’ll see new things. As well as long-distance running being a personal journey, it’s also just a journey. That is how I ended up in Sapa, at the finish-line, dead. Sapa is a town in the Lao Cai region in the very north of Vietnam. It’s exploded with tourism in the last decade. It’s defined by its mountains with their steep terraced rice fields dazzling visitors with their improbability and reflective of the hardiness and traditional resourcefulness of its many indigenous tribes: the H’Mong, the Tay and the Dao. It’s popular because it has everything a traveller to Asia might want: stunning world-class scenery; native cultures still living a centuries-old existence, easy transport access from the capital city with ample travel information and tour-booking facilities online. I signed up for this race in some sort of optimistic and possibly half-mad ambition to enjoy as much travel while running as possible. I spent almost three years living in Hanoi working, travelling, living. You can do all three just by going to work as a teacher in a Vietnamese school every day. And like they say, the new experiences of travel transform you. I’d found a new way to learn about and explore this country I’d grown to love.
When I fell over the finish line I couldn’t think straight; I couldn’t think at all. I felt like I’d been turned inside out. I felt no sense of accomplishment; no joy at finishing, certainly no runner’s high.
I was dead.
In the days after I recovered, and in the weeks after I got back to “normal”. I didn’t feel different for having done the race. But in hindsight, there have been changes, certainly from that time period if not from doing the marathon itself, or from running alone. I’ve been more disciplined, I’ve had more purpose and have been more positive. My mind has been clearer and calmer. It might have been the running, it might have been the travelling. It was probably both.
It was like I’d sweated myself out through my pores. I was changed.
At the finish line I had no thoughts, no emotions. No joy, no sense of achievement, but also no sadness. It was like my mind had been painlessly removed, sieved out my ears and blown off into the gorgeous mountains and valleys of Lao Cai.
After I recovered and regrouped and got back to the real world, I was a different person.
Maybe that’s what this exhaustion of emotion was.
I was free.