A piece of running travelogue from my recent trip to Vietnam...


There are nine million bicycles in Beijing. And possibly the same number of motorbikes in Hanoi. I’m not religious but it takes a certain Jesus-walking-on-water leap of faith to cross a busy road in urban Vietnam. The traffic is a constant six lane thick stream of motorbikes, mopeds and the occasional car. These are the rules: There are not many cars, but cars trump everything. They do not stop, including at pedestrian traffic lights or crossings. Step into the dense flow though, and somehow the rest of the traffic weaves around, like breaking water to let you through without stopping or slowing. A complicated mental arithmetic is employed to estimate where you will be in your tremulous crossing by the time they hit your latitude, and each biker adjusts their trajectory accordingly. If you stop half way across, paralysed by the wall of motors, it upsets the calculation. Keep walking. And say a little prayer, even for the atheists.

I make a point of taking runners and going for a run where ever I go on holidays. Apart from normalising the physical (running is the best counteractivity I know to the stresses of jetlag and weird bloating plane food – Prozac and Pepto-Bismol for the masses), it’s also an entertaining and efficient way to go sightseeing. Some runs I plan carefully – I did two highly memorable twenty mile riverside runs on holidays in London and Paris while training for the 2009 Dublin marathon and the memory of those runs is intertwined with my marathon experience that year. Other times, it’s just about getting a few miles in to stretch out the legs and shake down the contents of my gut to make room for dinner. It makes for a miraculous disguise. Once you start running, you are no longer a tourist. There are lots of knowing ‘hail, fellow’ nods to local runners and mutual admiring of race shirts en route. Hawkers no longer hassle, both because they can’t tell if you are local (in Western countries at least) and because you’re moving too quick for them to catch you. Also it reduces the chance of being mugged as you are likely to be both carrying very little money and to at least appear to be too fit to be caught in a chase down.

I travelled to Vietnam this December almost back to back with a fantastic trip to San Francisco where I did my first trail 50km. Between post race DOMS, travel and work stress and a threatened cold, I only squeezed in one run between the North Face run and taking off for Vietnam where I was meeting my American friend Sabrina. I was determined to get a run or two in before we headed west to spend a week cycling across the north of the country. Staying in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, it took a deep steeling breath every time I left the hotel to broach the traffic even to buy a bottle of water or grab a bowl of noodles. My lungs burned from the traffic fumes. How and where to run?

Moire O’Sullivan, the superb Irish ultrarunner and adventurer, has blogged about running in Hanoi when she lived there in 2009 and 2010 ( but the only convenient place to run from my hotel in the Old Quarter was a ten minute walk away through the streaming traffic, around the edge of Hoan Kiem lake. Hoan Kiem lake (meaning ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’) is at the heart of the city both physically and culturally, and there are all kinds of entertaining things to see around its perimeter, as well as a temple at the centre of the lake. I put on my running gear, left the hotel and marched purposefully to the lake. With the traffic and pavement activity (street cafes, fruit sellers, counterfeit clothes sellers, you name it), there was no practical way to run until I got to the lake, crossing a hair raising five way junction filled with motorbikes that would put the Dunkettle Interchange to shame on the way.

Evening was falling as I started to run. One of the few legacies left by the French colonization of Vietnam which ended in 1954 (aside from the wonderful availability of fresh baguette and the tendency of Vietnamese hommes d’un certain age to wear black berets) is the introduction of Catholicism to a still mainly Buddhist country, and an ongoing very enthusiastic celebration of Christmas by all denominations. Hence the lake was wonderfully lit up with giant brightly coloured lanterns for Christmas, an enchanting fusion of East and West. I started to run clockwise, beginning at the marker of the Highlands Cafe. It was an interesting obstacle course. The Vietnamese are a warm people, and guileless in their love of the romantic. Hence the lake is the location for young lovers to walk hand in hand, gazing into each others’ eyes, as well as a prime spot for taking wedding photos. As December and January are wedding season, there were multiple couples, some brides in the now ubiquitous Western white wedding dresses (the frillier the better), and some in the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, having their pictures taken by the lake. There were multiple food hawkers, selling everything from roasted corn on the cob and pork kebabs to tiny doughnuts on a stick. Other people made their living from little services like shoe cleaning, which made my progress even more precarious. On every lap, I would leap over a personal weigh scales carefully placed in the path by an enterprising lady who was charging for the benefit of weighing yourself (I was slightly mystified, as in general the Vietnamese are tiny, lean people).

On the far side of the lake was a favourite area for elderly groups of people to do gentle aerobics and sure enough, they were in full swing of a tai chi class as I passed. Running doesn’t appear to be a hugely popular sport in Hanoi and given the limitations of the traffic and pollution at least in the centre of the city, I can see why. Lots of the local motorcyclists wear face masks to keep out the worst of the petrol fumes and I wished I had one as my chest started to burn from the smoggy air. I kept an eye out for other runners. One or two other Western runners passed in the opposite direction, then the odd Vietnamese runner. One was moving at a fine pace. I admired his fast progress, and then noted that he was pounding the pavement wearing the equivalent of €3 plimsolls.

As I completed my first lap I realised that the lake was only about a mile in distance around the perimeter. Given the amount of weaving and mental energy required to get around, I was slightly dismayed. At my start/ end point was an ice-cream parlour with a particularly fetching snow scene made of cotton wool, which was a local favourite for taking Christmas pictures of your kids. This proved particularly obstacle-filled, and my blurry shape now features, ghost-like, passing through the edge of a number of family holiday photos. Both the jet lag and the smog were taking their toll, and after only two miles I felt like I had run much further, but I kept soldiering on. After five laps (and possibly after ageing about five years) I decided to call it quits. I ran (or walked) the gauntlet of traffic back to the hotel.

A week later, after our cycling trip up north, we were back in Hanoi for an evening. After a couple of turgid days on a boat I was longing to stretch my legs again. Our very nice hotel had a tiny (and I suspect almost never used) gym. I knew what was out there on the streets for a runner and I couldn’t face it. I ran a couple of miles on the treadmill, bored, gazing out over the rooftops of Hanoi, thinking about the twinkling lights and the twinkling brides, and knowing I had taken the easy way out.