‘Breathe in, breathe out,’ I say to myself as I run over cracked roads, past faces, wondering stares, and into the beautiful depths of Vietnam. Ninety million people live in this elongated country. Ninety million hard workers, farmers, boss-ladies, street vendors, ray band sellers, jewelry makers, chefs, and survivors to run into.
As I made my way up the coast by night bus, I made it a point to run in each of the eight towns I had the pleasure of seeing. Each one so diverse and over-flowing–it felt as if I was running in different countries completely. Running in foreign countries can be intimidating–I admit my first morning lacing up my Nikes and heading straight into Ho Chi Minh traffic was terrifying. But, the risk is usually worth the reward, and the reward of running abroad is just too great. If you let it–running can transport you somewhere new– it allows you to grasp the feeling of a new place on a completely different level.
Breathe it all in, I say to myself as I inhale the smog of the neon-lit Ho Chi Minh air.
Breathe in the salty scent of the ocean air in the fishing village of Mui Ne.
Breathe in the consistent view of Russians in speedos along the beaches of Nha-Trang.
Breathe in the moist air as it gently sways the stalks of lush, carpet-like rice fields from left to right.
Breathe in the serenity in Buddhist monasteries surrounded by forests and lakes in the ‘eternal spring’ town of Dalat.
Breathe in the rich smell of leathered goods and custom tailored boots pouring out of the shops in Hoi An.
Breathe in the sweaty energy illuminating from the hundreds of locals engaged in their outdoor morning exercise routines around the Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi.
Breathe in the ancient H’mong culture, and their colorfully dressed village life in Sapa, Northern Vietnam.
Running in a foreign country is just different–it’s electrifying and new and every step is filled with the rush of running like it was the first time. The journey becomes the destination–there is never a finish line or a time limit. The running is the means and also the end. There is nothing better than physically (and literally) running into moments of lives.
In Vietnam, I ran into water buffalo killing ceremonies, school kids walking miles down dirt roads, women selling beverages in plastic bags, anti-American war propaganda, motorbikes carrying loads of materials that shouldn’t even be hauled by pickup trucks, the world’s largest cave, fishermen getting the day’s catch, and sometimes places I didn’t belong. I tripped over rocks, snakes, gravel, termites, and dirt roads–I fell in love with becoming part of the chaos.
And some days ten minutes was all the chaos I could take. After long hours of overnight travel, sometimes ten minutes was all I could give before walking. I learned that it’s enough. If you have the strength to get up and the courage to step outside your door and get moving–whatever you can give is enough for that day. You did it.
Maintaining a running routine on the road can be challenging, although that 6am alarm does sound a lot better when it’s inviting you to run into someplace new and unknown. I tried to stick to an every-other-day rule. I didn’t feel guilty for taking a day off when I was really tired, yet I was motivated to never miss two days in a row.
Running while traveling allows you to throw expectations out the window. You are not expected to run your fastest mile or look pretty or beat anybody. You are just expected to try, to learn, to fall ten times and get up eleven. The only thing to expect for sure is being stared at, and I mean really stared at. But, you do get used to it, and it just becomes another part of the scene passing by. I know this can seem threatening–especially for women–but usually people are just genuinely interested in what the hell you are doing. Most will stare until you look directly into their eyes and smile. The power of a smile still blows my mind. Smile back at the stare, acknowledge it, and it will usually disappear. Don’t be afraid of the stares, I promise you they won’t bite and neither will the people.
I have run in over 36 countries, and Vietnam has been the best. It is such a special place if you allow yourself to run into the magic. But, you can run into magic anywhere. Run into it with an open mind. If you want to add depth and texture to your travels, I dare you to try it. Try ten minutes and see where it takes you.
Phoebe Nygren is a midwestern girl from Wisconsin who left the snow for the Arizona desert. The past year she has been working as an Au Pair in Australia, getting yoga certified in India, and traveling on way too many overnight buses throughout South East Asia and South America.