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Trail Running in Viet Nam

By Judete Fourie

Judete at the finish line of Vietnam Mountain Marathon

In 2018, I made the bold, solo move to Viet Nam in pursuit of an English teaching career. Born and raised in South Africa, with only a year or two's exposure of American and English culture, my Viet Nam journey was sure to meet the standard culture shock quota! 

I've always felt that the best way to get to know a new place is by exploring it on foot (or bicycle). In Viet Nam, seeing as the most common form of transportation are scooters and motorcycles, you're automatically more exposed to the open air and therefore you feel a lot more connected to your surroundings than you would if you were in say a car, bus or train. 

Viet Nam, and Ha Noi especially, is filled with sights, sounds, aromas and an overload of everything that tantalizes the senses. For this new chapter in my twenties, I decided to place a more concentrated focus on my running and fitness career. (I had always participated in running and other sports at school, even captained our High School Athletics team, but during the university years one tends to focus a little more on socializing and keeping up with studies and just, well, laundry and life in general really). 

Now was the time to jump head first into a new world; new food, new routines and a blank canvas of possibility! What's important to mention here also was that because of all the culture shock that arrived at the onset, re-lacing the running shoes and tightening the ponytail provided tremendous help with adapting to and coping with such a new, foreign environment. I took charge of my health and mental well-being by reconnecting with the sport that had always brought me so much joy and freedom in the past and looked forward to the future. 

During my time in Viet Nam, my initial goal was to complete my first ever Full Marathon, so in October of 2018 I toed the line in Hoan Kiem Lake (in the famous Old Quarter of Ha Noi) for the annual Ha Noi International Heritage Marathon! What a rush of emotion. As extra training I also decided to take up Muay Thai and kickboxing fitness to enhance my body conditioning. 

At the end of that year, I took my first ever trip to the mountains of Lao Cai, more specifically Sa Pa, where I summited the magnificent Fansipan Peak (3143m) with my friend and local guide, "Sau" in about 8 hours. Fansipan is known as "The Roof of Indochina" as it is the highest peak in the Indochinese Peninsula. On a clear day, you can expect crisp blue skies and 360 degree fluffy clouds below. 

Judete and guide Sau at Fansipan Peak

Town of Sa Pa Famous pork Bun Cha

The following year (2019) I set my sights on a fuller race calendar adding to the mix races such as the Manulife Danang Marathon, Viet Nam Mountain Marathon in Sa Pa (part of the Viet Nam Trail Series), VP Bank Ha Noi Marathon (to improve my time) and Ha Long Bay Heritage Marathon. For three of these four races, I placed in the Top 11 Females and...took the title as Champion of the 2019 VMM 21km Sunday trail race, winning by a margin of more than 30 minutes and finishing Top 10 Overall! 

Focusing on the Vietnam Mountain Marathon for the purposes of this audience, training was an absolute privilege and adventure to say the least. In the months leading up to this race, I traveled to the mountainous region of Ha Giang (close to the border of China) where the land is occupied by many ethnic minority groups and the most breathtaking valleys one could imagine. The area is a tourism jewel for the country as many travelers explore the province by doing the famous "Ha Giang Loop" by motorcycle. I felt that it was the perfect terrain for elevation gain and finding contour paths or agricultural lines as singletrack practice. Though I did have some memorable trail running training in Ha Giang, I would highly recommend contacting a local guide or expert to show you where to go; should the sport of Fell or Trail Running flourish further in this region in future, it would undoubtedly be able to host the most challenging, epic trail races in Viet Nam!

Ha Giang Terraces

To further prepare for VMM in September of 2019 I planned another trip to Sa Pa-- a sort of "recce" before the race, to once again work on my VO2 Max and chase those high elevations, as only Fansipan in the Hoang Lien National Park could offer. My guide and I took a steep run/ hike up to the summit (this time shaving off a bit of time! All my hard work with kickboxing and road running in sizzling Ha Noi was starting to pay off).

Fansipan Peak

Fast forward to race day; 22 September 2019. I was booked into an awesome hostel not far from the race venue and started the day off with a classic super-strong Vietnamese coffee and banana pancakes. The start-gun was fired and off we went! Rapidly racing over the cobblestones in Sa Pa Town and onto the dirt paths towards the rice terraces. We knew that the single-track coming up would make it difficult to overtake other runners along the way, so athletes jostled for positions leading up to this point. I don't know if it was adrenaline or just pure enjoyment but the kilometers just seemed to fly bly and I managed to grab the lead in the women's race. 

A few of us followed the wrong track during the race and so we quickly had to circle back before others could take the top spots! I had never had so much fun, falling down in the mud, waving to little village children and dodging stationary buffalo along the way. What I love most about trail running in comparison to road marathons is that there are constant challenges and obstacles (sometimes literal!) along the way. Hills so steep, you simply have to slow down and walk, river crossings or muddy rice paddies. Every sense is engaged and all cylinders are firing!

Sa Pa Buffalo in the middle of the trail

The hills in the final kilometers of the race demanded everything!-- Not knowing how far the next competitor was behind me, wondering how much further until the end... I can honestly say that I left it all on the trails! Running those last few meters to the finish, knowing I was about to win, completely overtook me with emotion; pure joy and feeling like a school kid at my first cross-country race at primary school. So grateful, joyful and lungs filled with burning oxygen!

Experiences such as these, even the races where we perhaps do not do as well as we hoped we would, are opportunities that prove to us how much we can gain from hard work and dedication. 

Judete winning the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 21km

Plans for the future? Though I am back on home soil in South Africa, I have eagerly taken back to the trails of the Western Cape and hope to revisit Asia in the near future for other amazing runs. I look up to women such as Ruth Croft, Lucy Bartholomew and Mira Rai (and many others) and hope to steadily make my way to further goals I set for myself. I have learned that it is much more important to love my body and to realize that it is the only one I have. I will always aim to stay in balance and remember why I love running. 

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