Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 27, 2010

Hanoi Half-Marathon

Although this trip to Laos and Vietnam was a biking trip, I still wanted to do at least one long run at some point during the trip.  Due to a fairly tight daily schedule, it was challenging to figure out when that might be possible.  When I arrived in Hanoi and saw the insane traffic conditions, I realized that a long run in the city might be difficult.  Or even deadly.  I knew that attempting to cross the street in Hanoi late in a run would be a bad idea.  One stumble, one second of inattention and I would be toast.  I started to think that perhaps I might have to (gasp) resort to running on the treadmill at the hotel.

Fortunately, one of our days in Hanoi involved what was originally billed as a 20k ride around a lake.  This, I realized, was my chance.  Instead of riding the route, I would run it.

It turned out to be a perfect choice.  It was a day where there were several different options for people to choose from, with riding offered in both the morning and the afternoon. A larger group had gone in the morning, a smaller group in the afternoon.  In fact, there were only two other cyclists plus Matt and I in the afternoon group.  Matt agreed to ride with me as I ran and carry water for me.  Nathan, our guide, rode with the two other cyclists, and because it was such a small group, he left our motorbike escort, Mr Tien, with Matt and me.

Mr Tien is a small man with a  quick smile and an expressive face.  He does not speak English, but he doesn’t need to. His smile says it all.  He rides by on his little motorbike, with a bright red cooler and two spare tires strapped on the back.  As he zips by, you always see his white teeth flashing and a big, enthusiastic thumbs-up sign.  When we are on the road, he generally goes ahead of us to the next turn, stops traffic and directs us where to go.  It is like having your own one-man police escort.

Nathan explained to Mr Tien that I was going to run the route instead of ride it.  He looked at me with his mouth ajar, raised his eyebrows, then flashed his characteristic smile with a big thumbs up. “Wow! You wow!” I knew he would take good care of me.

Of course, the weather chose to act up that day. I don’t mind running in the rain, but I did not want to force Matt and Mr Tien to accompany me in a downpour.  I had planned the afternoon based on running, and for a while there it looked like my planning might be for naught.  But luckily the skies soon cleared and we were off. It was, by far, the most interesting run in my life.

I have been lucky enough to have had some great runs over the years (see earlier post Laung Prabang 10k).  Until now, my most memorable run (short of the Chicago Marathon) was a run I took in Iceland a few years ago.  We were there in July, when daylight stretches pretty much around the clock.  I was in the habit of waking up when the sun came up, about 3:30. One morning it was beautiful, I was wide awake and energized, so I tossed on the shoes and went. It was 4 AM and there I was, taking in the stark lunar-like Icelandic landscape around me.  I ran past small cracks with steam pouring out of them, and I was careful to avoid puddles in the road lest they be from hot springs bubbling up. It was silent, it was beautiful, the streets were deserted.  I felt like the luckiest person on the planet.

Running in Hanoi, however, was a completely different experience, but no less memorable. I did a slow warmup and then started out, Matt riding next to me.  Yes, I felt conspicuous, but it was a lovely, lightly traveled road along a beautiful lake and promised to be a great run.  I had barely gone 20 steps when Mr Tien passed, thumbs up and big smile at the ready.  Then he pulled in front of me and stayed there.  And stayed there. And stayed there.  Mr Tien in front of me, Matt next to me: I had my own motorcade.  I felt famous.  Mr Tien was waving traffic out of my way, Matt was passing me water and gels when I needed them.  Everyone I passed turned to look at me.  Good lord, these people probably think I am Kara Goucher!  OK, they probably don’t know who Kara Goucher is, but they probably think I am someone famous – a real runner!  Deena Kastor, Joan Benoit, I had joined the ranks of those who run with a motor escort. Suddenly I knew what it must feel like to be winning the Boston Marathon: all eyes were on me. I simply needed a cameraman to hop on the back of Mr Tien’s scooter, maybe a helicopter overhead, and it would be just like the real thing, but with chickens in the road as an added bonus.

The route around the lake was complicated in places. The route notes said things like “turn left down a small alley between two houses.” Thankfully, Mr Tien was there to guide us every step of the way. We went on broad roads along the lake, then down small alleys and paths that appeared to go nowhere. There were so many bizarre twists and turns that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the route passed up someone’s walkway, in the front door, through the house and out the back. I passed shops, homes and cafes, with people doing double takes as I went. (“Cafes” may be a slight embellishment: a more accurate description would be “places with chairs and sometimes tables at which beverages and sometimes food are served.”) I had inadvertently worn a bright red shirt, and although we weren’t in Thailand, I wondered if any of the people I passed were making jokes at my expense. “Hey, there is a Red Shirt, she must be running away from Bangkok.”

People stared as I went by, although I did see one other runner, so it is not as if they had never seen one before. Honestly, I think it was my over-kill escort team that attracted so much attention. One of my favorite moments came when I passed a small open-air street cafe (see cafe note above).  There were six old men sitting at a long rectangular table.  Three of them faced towards me, three of them faced away.  All of a sudden, in unison and as if on cue, the three facing away from me leaned back and looked over their shoulders at me.  I can only assume that the gentleman sitting at the head of the table said something like “Well, will you take a look at this knucklehead,” or something along those lines.  I couldnt help but laugh. We exchanged greetings and smiles: “Hello, hello!”

I made good time on the run. Unfortunately, the route was a little shorter than I originally thought so I wasnt able to do a half-marathon distance. In fact, it turned out to be closer to just 15k. I wanted to try to double back to add a few more miles, but I wasn’t quite sure how in the world I was going to explain that to Mr Tien.  Besides, the rain still appeared to be looming. I had taken up enough of poor Mr Tien’s time.  Mr Tuan, our wonderful Vietnamese guide, was at the end of the route waiting for me as well.  They made me feel like a superstar. And thanks to Mr Tien’s pacing, I made excellent time. Kara Goucher, watch out.

Mr Tien and Me


  1. That was incredible to read; I can see how it would be memorable. After reading about your experience in Iceland, I was wondering how you were going to top it. =)

  2. You are my hero!!! Wow…I love reading all of your posts, love how you are having an amazing time training while also having an incredible vacation, and, well… just so damn proud! You are going to ROCK this season, Sue, with your awesome attitude and dedication! Yep, Kara better watch out.. 😉

  3. Wow Sue! I am so impressed at both the running and the blogging and of course Hanoi! So amazing! Keep up the efforts. You are awesome!

  4. Awesome! Oh, and, don’t expect a motorcade when you come back here.

  5. Sue- Reading your posts is like peeling back the most amazing onion! Memorable stories, great insights, and captivating photos. Thx for sharing!

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