Embarking on a mission to find out what the future has in store for urban running in Vietnam, Karen Hewell laces up her neon Nike trainers and talks with ultra-marathoner Huy Mai during his morning run. Photo by Kyle Phanroy


It’s just before six in the morning, but in the balmy heat, beads of sweat are already collecting on my forehead. My muscles still feel cold and achy against the warming temperature, but as I round the corner of the Saigon Pearl parking garage exit, Huy is bouncing on the balls of his Sketchers’ shoe soles, smiling brightly and seemingly unaffected by the early hour.


“There’s a trail just behind here,” he motions towards the bridge behind the building. The already chaotic morning traffic disappears over its dauntingly steep incline, towards the Saigon skyline in the distance. “Since you’re a trail runner, I thought you might enjoy it,” he smiles again before turning on his heel and bounding forwards across the parking lot.


A few days earlier, we had coordinated via phone our “running interview”, my audacious concept designed to pick his ultra-marathoner brain about urban running while doing just that — running. During one of our previous conversations, I’d mistakenly referred to myself as a “trail runner”. In reality, my running shoes hadn’t touched anything apart from a treadmill and the odd bit of gravel for over a year. Yet, enchanted by the prospect, he’d enthusiastically suggested we follow a favourite route of his in District 2, which wound through a still undeveloped area past Thu Thiem bridge.


Now, as the sun begins to rise and I break into a jog approaching the bridge, I’m beginning to regret my optimism.


Urban Aches and Pains


“You know, even though Saigon is technically lower [in elevation] and has more oxygen in the air than my hometown, I still feel like it’s much harder to breathe [when running] here,” Huy says as we cross an intersection heading towards busy Tran Van Khe. We’re only ten minutes into our run, but I’m already gasping for air between bursts of laboured speech. He’s clearly trying to make me feel a bit better about my fitness level, but he has a point.


On our left, morning commuters buzz past on motorbikes, leaving clouds of visible pollution in their wake. We are running straight into them, sucking down the carcinogens while our lungs fight to find the oxygen they need amid the exhaust fumes. It terms of running conditions, it’s abysmal at best.


“The other day, I was running in my hometown [Bao Loc] in the mountains, at about 13 kilometers per hour. And really, I can never run that fast,” he pants. “This,” he nods toward our feet, “this is my average speed. About 10 kilometers an hour. But that day [in Bao Loc] I ran at that speed for an hour straight, with no problems. That’s something I could never do in the city.”


For Huy, urban running is a new venture, and despite his ability to knock out 30-kilometer city runs a day, he insists that it’s been a difficult transition from trail to road. He began running three years ago while living in Australia, but after returning home to Vietnam and moving to Saigon, he admits that his running shoes didn’t get much of a workout for months.


It was only when he was finally in a financial position to make regular journeys back to his mountainous hometown that he found his footing again.


Now, he bounces between the two cities, swapping soil for pavement every few days. And although he’s had enough experience running the city’s streets to consider himself well acquainted with urban running in Saigon, for Huy, pounding the pavement here is a distant second to braving the great outdoors.


“I think I’m lucky that I have the choice to run in the city or in the mountains,” he says, slowing his pace to meet mine. “Most people don’t have that choice. They still have to be here because they work here [exclusively], and they still run. I really respect those people, because they stick it out and do whatever they can [to keep active].”


As Huy drops to a quick stroll to match my continuously slowing jog, I find it hard to believe that a guy who considers a 15-kilometer sprint a mere warm-up would respect an urban runner like myself, who can hardly manage five. Yet, our conversation is making one thing clear: Huy has bigger motivations than competition.


Hazards of the Pavement


At half an hour in, we’re finally crossing into a secluded trail off of Mai Chi Tho, exchanging motorbike exhaust for a strangely refreshing cloud of dust under our feet. In the distance is Bitexco Tower, separated from us by Saigon River and a small herd of goats. For me, it’s the first time I’ve seen a borderline-rural running route since I came to Saigon.


“Running in the city is [an entirely different experience],” Huy says when I mention the eerie calm. “I prefer these little routes. [In the city], the traffic lights, the motorcycles… the road is always packed. I mean, I do enjoy running on the [asphalt road] more than I do on the pavement, but in the city, there’s too much [traffic]. It’s just not safe.”


And for Huy, the hazards are all too real. Just over a year ago, he lost his brother and running partner in a fatal traffic accident. Since then, he’s embarked on a mission to raise awareness of road safety by continuing with the pursuit that he and his brother shared.


Coming off of his previous 2,000km run from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Huy is preparing to take on a 5,000km charity run through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It’s all to get motorists throughout Southeast Asia to take notice of the dangers that urban runners and cyclists face on a daily basis.


“It’s [about] awareness,” he says. “Awareness of cyclers and runners on the road. People need to know and, more than anything, respect that there are others on the road, and that they need to be cautious [to make the city a safer place for everyone].”


Common Ground


The importance of the move towards safer roads is obvious in the final stretch of our run. At an hour in, we are back on the road to Saigon Pearl. I watch Huy come within inches of a motorbike’s side view mirrors, the driver paying little attention. The impatience of commuters is something many urban runners like Huy come to expect in Saigon, not to mention the unavoidable close calls with motorists. It is the consequence of the unbridled development of Vietnam’s cities. The effect on the lack of pedestrian infrastructure is felt acutely by urban runners.


At an hour and twenty minutes, we finally reach the bridge — the finish line for our run. As my feet drag to a long overdue halt, Huy slows to a walk, breathing easily and still with a little spring in his step.


Clearly, Huy and I have little in common in terms of physicality. But I’m beginning to realise that we have one important thing in common: we both see a day when running in Saigon will no longer be a struggle against the environment.


“So,” I pant. “What do you think we have in common?” I ask him, curious if he’s come to the same conclusion. He thinks for a moment, and then smiles. “Well, runners run. That’s universal.”


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