Coming Home

A little over a year ago I woke up early to the sound of a cockerel crowing. After stepping out of bed, I walked towards my small balcony and opened its wooden doors wide. The hot morning light spread across my room. I leaned against the iron railing, looked down to the bottom of my street at the Saigon River, and took in a few deep breaths.

My beautiful white, ginger, and tortoiseshell cat rubbed up against my ankle. The only time she was nice to me was when she wanted feeding. After seeing to her needs, I got dressed for the day ahead choosing suitable clothes for teaching English to energetic children in classrooms that had one or two slow old ceiling fans, while temperatures often reached 32 degrees.

Before leaving the house, I wrapped a long skirt around my waist, pulled on a flowery face mask, a pair of long beige gloves, and a long-sleeved thick black cardigan – suntan lotion cost a fortune –strapped a helmet under my chin, and put on a pair of my favourite fake Ray Bans; preparation for the forty minute scooter ride to a primary school on the other side of Ho Chi Minh City.

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Today I woke up in my mum’s house in Kirkby. Those morning rituals are from another life. After three years living in Vietnam, I left on 24th June 2015. And, after a short period travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, I came home on 19th August 2015.

Those exact days when I left and arrived are completely etched in my mind. I remember subtle details like the sweat on my back as I stood at Vietnamese immigration and the warm eyes of the young man who greeted me at the guesthouse in Phnom Penh. I remember the car journey from Heathrow airport. The cold English rain running down the windows. The curry I ate with my mum and aunty in our B&B bedroom. Days of extreme opposing emotions.

When I returned home, I spent weeks visiting friends and family I hadn’t seen for years. Each big bear hug was a healing experience. I had actually got through it; through the painful loneliness I’d felt for so long. And coming home was my reward.

Then began the process of thinking about work. Actually, this process had been going on for some time. ‘What will I do?’ had haunted me from the moment I’d decided to return home. I knew what I’d enjoyed doing in Vietnam. I loved writing articles for two of the biggest English magazines in the country; Word Vietnam and AsiaLIFE. I especially loved writing a really controversial piece about sexism within the expat community. The then editor of AsiaLIFE, Chris Mueller, had seen me argue with a bunch of Neanderthals on some expat Facebook group, sent me a private message to ask if I was the writer of a blog post called ‘Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist’ (I was) and if I would write a version of this for the magazine.

I wrote the article and got paid $50. I was made up! Then the article went to print. What followed was probably the most transformational experience I have ever had. So much love and support came my way. Men and women sent me private messages on Facebook and Twitter thanking me that finally someone had spoken up. And how disgusting it was the way many expat men treat Vietnamese and other expat women. Thank you thank you thank you!!

Oh, and then all the really awful, nasty, abusive public comments that were written about me and the article on social media. I expected the fallout. What I didn’t expect was to not be able to physically write anything of substance for over a year. My self-confidence was shattered. It wasn’t the pathetic delusional comments like “she’s just jealous because no one wants to have sex with her,” but the comments that criticised my writing ability and poor grammar.

A year or so later, we held a party in our house for a friend’s birthday. I sat on the floor of the spare bedroom with a girl I’d just met called Njeri who had recently arrived in Saigon to teach English. By this point I’d become disillusioned, knackered, and cynical of life in Vietnam but tried, and failed, to hide my true feelings from her. I mentioned that I’d written an article the year before about sexism. She looked at me excited, “Did you write Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist?” I choked. Someone I had never met before had read my work, liked it, and actually remembered the bloody title. I realised then that I’d done something very powerful in writing that article. I’d encouraged someone. I’d empowered another woman. My shit grammar didn’t matter anymore. I’ll always treasure that conversation with Njeri.

So I was back in the UK and adamant that I wouldn’t return to 9-5. Before I’d left for Southeast Asia in 2012, I worked as an Intelligence Analyst for a law firm in Liverpool. The job had its interesting moments and I think I was good at it. What I wasn’t good at was working in a corporate environment. The only way I could utilise any creativity was by coming up with efficient and organised systems of work. It was dry and I died a little bit inside every day.

I needed to separate myself from what I thought was expected of me and instead realise what I wanted to do. Not in any selfish way. I wanted to use my skills in a pure and unhindered way. To wake up every morning enjoying the work that I do. To show others that there are other, happier ways of living. That was the goal, anyway.

By October 2015, thanks to the kindness of my cousin Robyn at Innovators Hub, I landed a two-month internship with Wordscapes, a print and digital communications agency based in the Baltic Triangle, working with the very talented Fiona Shaw and Andrew Beattie.

During my internship I did a bit of copywriting, research, admin, interviews; basically loads of dead interesting work that I completely believed in. Halfway through I was asked by Fiona to do some research for the launch of a new initiative called The Beautiful Ideas Co. that would be funding social enterprise ideas with the aim of regenerating North Liverpool. I needed to find stories of social innovation around areas such as money, spaces, manufacturing, regenerating the docks, mobilising the workforce, and real-life social networks.

The stories I came across were fascinating; a worker-owned cut and sew textile factory in North Carolina; a community hub and market for the distribution of wholesale food and local artisanal goods in Detroit; a city-wide initiative to incubate local creative enterprises using empty shops in Newcastle, Australia; a renewed transportation infrastructure to mobilise the local workforce in Medellin, Columbia; a local city-wide currency to support independent businesses in Bristol.

Beautiful Ideas Co. launched in November through a series of events across Liverpool. What I’d researched and written about was hung on large A-frames at all of the events and used to inspire people to come up with their own beautiful ideas for North Liverpool. It was through these events, specifically a hack day at The Sandon pub in Anfield, where I met someone who would change the direction of my life.

The morning of the hack day, I walked through Anfield where I’d lived with my mum until I was 13. It had been maybe ten years since I’d been anywhere near the place I grew up and I was curious to see how much of it had changed. I walked past my old primary school on Anfield Road, along quiet streets of Victorian terraced houses, then on to Stonehill Street, and saw my old home. When I dream about it – and I dream about it often – the front door is always open and I go inside. Sometimes the interior looks completely different, but I always feel safe.

That day I saw my old house boarded up in between other boarded up empty homes. And I stood in the street with this sinking feeling in my stomach. I took a few steps back, pulled out my phone, and took a photo.

As I walked away, I burst into tears. I don’t know why. It could have been the memories of life on Stonehill where we used to regularly hold street parties. Where kids would play until it went dark and people would stand to chat at one another’s doorsteps. Where everyone knew everyone else’s business and that was fine because we were looking out for each other.

My childhood home
My childhood home

Ten minutes later, I arrived at The Sandon on Oakfield Road. As the function room filled with some new and familiar faces, I showed Fiona the photo of my old house, the windows and doors boarded up. We both agreed it was a real shame and then I got on with the job for the day.

Once everyone settled, Ronnie Hughes stood up. I’d briefly met him the night before at the Beautiful Ideas launch event but had no real idea who he was other than a well-known local blogger. Ronnie began introducing the day ahead which was to be about coming up with some beautiful social enterprise ideas that would ultimately regenerate North Liverpool. Someone shouted out “Like what?” Ronnie suggested a project could be set up that would see the thousands of empty homes in Liverpool lived in again. Fiona and I looked at each other and smiled. What a coincidence.

Later that day, I ended up interviewing Ronnie to camera for a short film. I asked him questions about social enterprise and his answers were elegant and succinct. Afterwards, we chatted about Ronnie’s work with the Granby 4 Streets community and also some with Homebaked and I knew I wanted to be friends with this kind, honest, and gentle man.

My internship at Wordscapes ended just before Christmas with a promise of partnering in the New Year. By early February, I still wasn’t working but instead kept myself occupied with a screenwriting class I’d joined. I hated being at home on my own all day so made the decision to get out the house and find a café in town where I could work on a screenplay and be around people.

I went to 92 Degrees on Hardman Street, ordered my coffee, pulled out my laptop, and scattered some papers on the long wooden table to make myself look legit. Not long into my session, I noticed Ronnie had been sitting at a table at the other end of the café. As he was leaving we had a little catch-up and that was that.

Over the next four days we bumped into each other twice as we walked in opposite directions on Bold Street. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Ronnie asked me if I had any dreams for a social enterprise. Not really, I said, although I had dreamt about my childhood home the night before. But in real-life it was boarded up and empty. He told me his idea was the one he’d mentioned at the Beautiful Ideas hack day about the empty homes.

We met up properly a few days later at The Egg on Newington. Ronnie said he’d tried to give away his empty homes idea to someone else but it turns out he was the perfect fit for it. He’d worked in housing since the 70’s and has been heavily involved with the Granby 4 Streets; the most recent winners of the Turner Prize. I explained my background, my dreams for my future, my faith, my family story, pretty much laid out my whole life before him. For some reason, Ronnie liked what he heard and decided to put his trust in me.

Coming Home – the fitting name Ronnie gave his empty homes idea – will soon be a Community Interest Company (CIC) working to get many of the thousands of empty homes, primarily in North Liverpool, made into beautiful safe places to be lived in again. So far, the core team is me, Ronnie, and local artist Jayne Lawless. We also have a strong board of proper amazing people; a few national but mostly Liverpool-based.

I’ll be Writer-in-Residence. At a pitch for funding with The Beautiful Ideas Co. I was asked what it actually meant to be a Writer-in-Residence. I’ve never Googled it to find out or really asked around but I know what I am capable of. Since coming home to Kirkby in August last year, I’ve written a few articles and blogs, have a regular column at Ethos Paper writing about new ways of doing business, and have coordinated a grassroots business festival partnering with Wordscapes. I teach English to asylum seekers and work as a social media manager for a small local company. I am also building relationships with fascinating people who love Liverpool.

I know I’ll be writing regularly, be it blogs, tweets, bids, proposals, press releases, emails, and even a book! I’ll also be painting walls, updating spreadsheets, meeting homeowners, making tea for builders, project managing, and loads more. I’ll be using all of the skills I’ve picked up over the years. Nothing is lost. And I am dead, dead excited!

Recently, Ronnie, Jayne, and I were at a pub discussing all things Coming Home when Ronnie pulled out a book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh; the story of how a community on the Isle of Eigg fought against corporate power by organising themselves and using their collective resources. Ronnie told us that this book inspired him and others when working on Granby. The following day I flicked through the beginning pages and read this beautiful passage:

“If we can persist and sit with the reality, not running from it, a music may eventually be heard. The fetters of destructive control loosen. Life’s dance resurges. And there is joy in spite of everything.”

Yes. Joy in spite of everything. That’s what I see. That is what Coming Home is about.

How to love your lunch

Many people contact me asking how they can get involved in volunteer work when they visit Vietnam. In all honesty, until the last few months I couldn’t have answered this question at all. I was so busy, working every day, I didn’t have the time to even think about giving back to the community. Shameful indeed.

After a pretty ugly burn-out, I decided to change my schedule and outlook. It was at that point when I heard about a project called Green Bamboo Warm Shelter (GBWS).

The GBWS is a project of the NGO Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation. The project provides care, education, housing and other daily assistance to at-risk street boys aged 8-16. It is important that they have a safe and enriching environment where they can be provided with resources and opportunities to later integrate them back into the community, either back with their families or in a job. Last year, the project’s main donor pulled out their funding leaving it near to closure.

In response, a group of the oldest boys at the shelter decided to set up and run their own restaurant whereby all profits go to supporting the 15 boys who stay there.

It sits down a small allyway; an unassuming and modest restaurant. Inside Green Bamboo are four long metal tables that could each sit about 6 or 7. Diners are served homely portions by the enthusiastic and caring young waiters.

Each month the menu changes, but the food is generally in the style of com tam (broken rice) including chicken, pork, fish and beef. There are also noodle dishes and vegetarian options. One dish is 25,000 vnd per person, whilst the buffet costs between 50,000 and 150,000 vnd per person.

Green Bamboo is a very special place. A love permiates throughout everyone there; the waiters, the cooks, the staff, the volunteers. You can even taste it in the food. When I have finished my lunch and it’s time for me to leave, I don’t want to. GBWS gives more to me than I ever could to them, and when in Ho Chi Minh City I hope you  have the pleasure of being as captivated by this place as I am.

Green Bamboo Warm Shelter Restaurant is situated at 40/34 Calmette Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward,District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Open from 11:30am  to 1:30pm, Monday to Saturday. Make sure you get there as early as possible before the food runs out.

Tet – Red Flower Yellow Flower

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Today we bought a big yellow flower and a big red flower. These colourful potted plants are being sold all over Ho Chi Minh City. My assumption was that they are being sold for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet, which takes place in a few days time. Because I am totally clueless, I wanted to find out what they were called, why they were significant and what I should do with them, so I asked my Vietnamese friends on Facebook and they told me this:

“The yellow one is chrysanthemum variety. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. They can be alive a month in pots. They need more soil, fertilizer to live longer :-)”

“They look beautiful , Jen . I’m glad that you and Gareth are interested in flowers now  That is an interesting question , Jen . I never think of it . I think The yellow one is Hoa Van Tho ( Chrysanthemum ) which brings longevity and prosperity according to their names in Vietnamese . The red one is Hoa mau ga ( cockscomb flowers ) symbolizes humor, warmth and passion . …”

“Hi Jen, Lunar new year ( Tet) is the most important celebration of vietnamese cultural. The word is shortened form of (Tết nguyên đán) . The yellow one is Chrysanthemum flower ( Called “Hoa Cúc”) the red one is cockscomb flower ( called ” Hoa mào gà”). Most of Vietnamese prepare these flowers and Peach blossom ( in the North of Vietnam) apricot blossom ( in the south of Vietnam) for Tet. On the Tet, Visiting a friends’ home on the first day of new year is called ( Xông nhà), children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders ( this traditional is called “Mừng tuổi”)”

“so beautiful! The yellow one is chrysanthemum. it’s mean ” bring a symbol of life, happiness and fortune as well as adding joy to the home. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. A spring full of dreams and hope . i think so. hihi”

“These flowers always appear in my family at Tet holiday, always. Be honest, I have no idea what the meaning of them are . Every year, mom takes me to the flower market and buy couples of the most beautiful one, bring it home. Simply , we decorate the house, our grandparents graves, and the altars. It’s not because of the meaning anymore, it’s the custom, the tradition. I grow up with it and it’s my turn to bring them flowers home ”

Thank you so much to my Vietnamese friends for teaching me a little about your most treasured celebration.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!! – Happy New Year!!!

Sweet Serendipity and Seafood

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It took us 45 minutes to decide where we were going to eat our dinner. Gareth had been riding at the front, giving my friend Marie a lift on the back of his rented bicycle. I was peddling to the rear. My stomach was howling with hunger but with so many options to choose from, the task of picking a restaurant had become almost impossible.

Eventually, a bold waitress made the decision for us by standing in the road, forcing Gareth to stop. Her place was called Seafood Garden Restaurant, and would be the backdrop to an enchanted encounter.

We sat outside, overlooking the river. Across the other side was the old town of Hoi An; an historic Southeast Asian trading port in Central Vietnam, the yellow façade and dark-wood buildings stood dignified. Paper lanterns were dropped from a nearby footbridge and floated down the slow river, bobbing from the slight waves formed by small fishing boats moving through the pitch black. The deep waters reflected the town’s centuries old ghosts.

The food arrived and soon after so did an older man in his late 40’s who had been sitting a few tables away. He moved next to Gareth and began talking to him. Gareth, as polite as always, engaged him, whilst I chatted with Marie. I heard the man mention tours and then he hurried into the restaurant. I sighed. He returned, placing a couple of red notebooks and a small pile of letters on our table. Out of curiosity I picked up one of the notebooks. Dating back to 2012, every single page was filled with handwritten reviews about this man’s tours. On page one I read the most perfect introduction to the man who I would know later as Mr Trung:

“You might be wondering who this guy is who came to your table and won’t leave you alone… Mr Trung is a very lovely and genuine man… he will take you on a tour of his fishing village a couple of kilometres outside of Hoi An…”

As I flicked through the notebooks, I was humbled. I hadn’t given Mr Trung a chance. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.

I saw that the price of the trip included a sunhat, a pick up from our homestay, bottled water, a visit to a fishing village and a pottery village, fishing by boat on the river, and a cooking class at Mr Trung’s home with his family. It was $17 per person for a 5 hour tour. Possibly a little steep, we had no idea, but we’ve always preferred to give directly to the community. A small deposit was paid for myself and Gareth – Marie was moving on the next day – and we booked in for two days’ time.

At 8:30am sharp, a smiling Mr Trung arrived on his electric pushbike outside the gate. We followed behind him, cycling along the recently harvested rice paddies that bordered our homestay then onward down the quiet main road for the 4km to his fishing village; Thanh Ha.

We secured our bikes on a patch of overgrown grass lying hidden down a pathway off the main road, which ran alongside the Thu Bon River. Dozens of family-sized fishing boats rocked in the light wind as Mr Trung gave us a brief history of the area.

We wandered a little down the river bank. The air was warming. Old fishermen and their wives leaned against the steel rail smoking cigarettes, watching our movements with inquisitive stares.

We took the path to the pottery village. Two women; an older lady and a younger girl worked the pottery wheel; the girl kicked the wheel, spinning it with her foot while the lady shaped and molded the clay into teapots and bowls. We were allowed to have a go ourselves but both mine and Gareth’s attempts looked like the handiwork of an over-excited toddler.

After we paid $20 for a pale green tea set, sold to us as made by the hands – and feet – of these women themselves and thought to be a bargain coming from the so-called manufacturer (the same one ended up being much cheaper in town), we moved on to our next stop; a fishing boat. Four of us; Mr Trung, Gareth, me and a fisherman, sat low, paddling through the shallow stream. We came to an enclave and spread out a net by hand, zigzagging as the boat drifted with the current.

By order of Mr Trung, we banged our paddles against the boat with a relentless fervour to scare the fish towards the net. Pulling the fish into the boat was a two-person job. Our fledgling arms ached. The fisherman beamed. He could rest today.

Back on dry land we pushed on to Mr Trung’s home where we met his gentle wife and two children. A table for two was set up, waiting to be dined upon. Mr Trung brought out a cleaned and gutted medium-sized fish. He laid a bowl on the table filled with a selection of spices alongside lemongrass, ginger, onion and garlic, all ground up ready to mix with a pinch of sugar, salt and vegetable oil. We smoothed the savoury paste over the fish, inside and out, wrapped it in a banana leaf and some tinfoil and cooked it over a hot charcoal fire for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we prepared our own fried pork spring-rolls, and a simple dish of fried noodles with vegetables. The meal was finished with a glass of caphe sua; coffee with sweet condensed milk.

Lunch was more than delicious; a blissful satisfaction swathed us. We needed a nap after all that food, so we said a gracious goodbye, climbed back onto the saddle and hoped that we would never forget how it felt to be this whole again.

You can book a tour with Mr Trung at Viet Space Travel, 625 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hoi An or Seafood Garden Restaurant, 27 Nguyen Phuc Chu, Hoi An where he is available every night of the week.

Mobile: 0935512007

Email: mrtrunghoiantours@yahoo.com.vn

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With Mr Trung and his wife and daughter

A Dream Come True

I usually can’t hold my own water so the last few weeks have been a struggle to hold back and not explode all over WordPress with excitement. But I have some really great news that I want to share with you. And now I can.

In my very first blog post, written in March 2012 when this blog was over on Blogger and called Heading to Hanoi, I said this:

Just like most people we (Gareth and I) found ourselves in jobs that neither of us particularly wanted to do. I have personally had a dream to become a travel writer. Maybe, just maybe, this trip is the key to that dream becoming a reality.

Since then I have traveled as a backpacker through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, finally settling into city life in Saigon as a part-time English teacher and occasional blogger. Last year I met a wonderful woman, also an English teacher and blogger, called Kris Zimmer who invited me to be a contributor to her blog ZUPADream. Although Kris has now left Vietnam and is living in Canada, for her out of sight out of mind is not something she lives by. Kris was generous enough to encourage an editor of Vietnam’s biggest English language lifestyle and travel magazine, Word, to read my posts. So, to cut a long story short, the editor liked my stuff and asked me to write a piece about the HCMC Run event that I took part in on December 8th.

To revert to my Liverpool dialect; I was bloody gobsmacked! I couldn’t believe that little old me would be having my work published in an actual magazine. I have always enjoyed writing, putting the pictures in my head into words on a piece of paper or a computer screen has always come easily. Now, if I work hard and stay determined, writing will be more than a hobby, it will be my career. And that is a dream come true.

Yesterday the January edition hit the streets and with it, my article. I obviously had to get a copy immediately and photograph myself holding it.

My article and I
My article and I

If you would like to read it for yourself then click here and flick through to page 12. It’s called Conquering the Bridge. You will see my name at the end.

Warriors in Running Shoes – HCMC Run 2013 Race Report

The finish line is in sight
The finish line is in sight

Streams of sunlight crawled across the early morning sky as the sea of blue-clad participants stretched and jogged in place. During the next couple of hours, approximately 5,500 people were about to flood the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A tidal wave of runners would stretch from Crescent Mall in District 7, up to almost 4km away.

Amongst the crowd were children and the elderly, students and expats, and there were even a few hardcore barefoot runners. Some were there to have a good time and test the benefits of their healthy lifestyle, whilst others were there for the battle, warriors in running shoes. Many were embarking on their first ever competitive race, I was one of them.

Three groups awaited their respective gunfire, the 10k racers – those who were supposedly pro- or semi professional athletes, as they were expected to conquer the outrageous incline of Phu My Bridge – were up front and the first to burst the banks, at the rear was the massive pool of 3k runners and sandwiched in between both groups, a deluge of 5k-ers.

I came across HCMC Run when I was looking for a safe place to do road running in the city. In the weeks leading up to the event, free training sessions were organised to help raise interest in the race and to promote a healthy and active way of life. Straight after I ran their 7.6km route one Saturday afternoon, I signed up to this excruciating 4am start.That’s what endorphins will do to you!

Three weeks later, I stood restless, one of thousands, wearing the obligatory blue t-shirt covered in sponsors’ logos and a bib that wasn’t going to be splattered with gravy, oh no, instead it declared with pride my temporary identity, 6145, and the beast I was to combat; 5km.

5 minutes after the 10k group had departed it was our time to be let loose. The cascade of runners was soon flowing around the shore of The Crescent and pounding across Starlight Bridge (Cầu Ánh Sao). It was at this point that I noticed the sheer number of barefoot runners. Their speed was staggering to witness and it inspired me to forget my own aches and pains and to press on.

Given my newly rediscovered competitive nature, I was there for the fight. My pace was strong, my breathing was in rhythm, I was overtaking other runners more often than I was being overtaken. This was an environment I was built for. This was a natural state of being for me.

The route followed along some main roads, none of which appeared to be officially closed for the race. Traffic was effectively managed, to an extent, by the local police who stood at certain points with warm smiles, openly enjoying watching and occasionally helping the stewards to direct runners around corners. However, having to stop and wait for a dick of a lorry driver to cross a junction where the traffic was surging in both directions, wasn’t ideal. And yes, I took the opportunity of those few moments to flip the douche off.

Soon enough, I felt the roar of the finish line in my belly, then I heard it, and no matter how painful that stitch was, or how tight my calves were, I was sprinting until I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. And the awareness of my accomplishment overflowed as I made that final push across the finish line, proving that I can do anything.

I am proud to say that after nearly three weeks of somewhat intensive training, I was able to run the whole course, bearing in mind when I did the 7.6km training session I had to walk for a large part of it. My next goal is to build up my fitness to do a 10k but ultimately I want to run a marathon within two years.

And of course, the most important part: my official time was 32:19 and I came in a very respectable 24th out of 312 female 5k runners and 213th overall out of 1069*. I could get used to this.

*beating 567 blokes 😉

Jen can run too! or How I found my focus

“Running as a sport is boring. You’re on your own, no one else to play with and either stuck in one place, on a treadmill, or going around in a big circle. Really, what is the point?” Yes, this was my opinion of running not that long ago. As a child I was less analytical, taking part in cross-country and long distance events at school. I ran because it was something to do. Raised as an only child you kind of get used to doing things on your own and this was just another sport that I had a go at and forgot about as soon as the next after-school sports club came along.

Until recently I could only last at the most 10 minutes on the treadmill, wow, it was so dull, and yikes, I was pretty unfit. Now I am running 5k between 35 – 38 minutes. Not as fast as the women’s world record holder of 14:11:15 but hey, it’s a start.

I love trying out new things, mostly because I haven’t found my niche yet, you know, something that I think I can truly master, something that will keep my attention longer than a week. It seems that running could be one of those things. In the last 8 weeks I have been running on the treadmill on and off, at first just to warm up for the rest of my workout, but then the treadmill started to take over most of my time at the gym, going from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, to 25 then to 45. I somehow wanted to go faster and further every week.

I reached a point when being on the treadmill, looking out over the city through a pane of hot glass, felt unnatural. I wanted to be out on the road and feel the real wind on my face, not some little fan blowing out above the computer screen.

Where I live in Ho Chi Minh City, the pavements vary outside each shop front and more often than not, you have to dodge the odd motorbike too, so I needed to find some kind of club or meet up where it was safe to run freely.

Looking online, I came across a club called HCMC Run which is also organising a race in December for a 3k, 5k or 10k. Each week they were meeting up in various locations so on Saturday, I decided to give a 3k a go at their 8th and final training session in the lead up to the race.

Courtesy of HCMC Run
Courtesy of HCMC Run

Work finished at 11:40am, and I went home for a quick bite to eat, had a power nap and then I was out again, powering through District one on my motorbike and getting lost in District 7. In the end I arrived, still early, at Crescent Mall in Phu My Hung.

I walked over to the stand to sign up. ‘Yes, I’d like to do the 3k please’ ‘No, you should do the 6k today’ ‘Erm…. ok?’ I hesitantly stuck my name tag with the red circle, not the green circle I had come here for, onto my chest and found somewhere to sit and cry inside. The 6k actually turned out to be 7.6k and as I hadn’t done any road running since I was 12, nor had I ran further than 5k on a treadmill, I wondered, very loudly in my head, what the hell I was doing. I was going to die.

The crowd was growing; runners, stewards and TV crews stood all around me and I could see immediately that I was the only western woman there. I was fairly shocked by this as I’d seen photos of previous club sessions and there were western women at those and this appeared to be the most popular run club of all of the sessions. It obviously meant that I was a target for inquisitive paparazzi and onlookers. I bashfully played up to the cameras as they rolled around the lines of attendees warming up for the warm up.

A brief intro was given to the hundred or so participants from Philip Nguyen, the organiser of HCMC Run, and then we were put through the brief warm up which consisted of a short jog about 100 metres and some stretches. After 3 metres of running I was finding myself out of breath. Really, what the hell was I doing? I was trying to keep up with the elite in the group so I had to have a word with myself to explain that I shouldn’t run too fast because then I would certainly die. Rather I was to initially go at a slower pace in order to hold onto my energy for longer.

When it was time to start we split into our two groups, the jolly green circles and the serious red circles. I didn’t want to be serious. We were to go first. Phillip did a short countdown and then we were off.

About 200 metres in there was a bloody bridge to cross. Why would they include a bridge that had to be run over 4 times? Are they that sadistic? For the first lap I challenged myself to run across the bridge. It wasn’t a long bridge, but it was a bridge nonetheless with an incline and lots of people posing for photographs, which, unless I wanted to photobomb someone’s wedding pictures, had to be sharply dodged.

Kicking arse! - Courtesy of HCMC Run
Kicking arse! – Courtesy of HCMC Run

Not long into the run, I was finding my pace, slowing down enough to keep my breath and taking the odd rest by walking. I wish I could have ran the whole distance but at this point, it is physically impossible, my heart just isn’t strong enough.

My heart maybe weak but my mind definitely wasn’t. Even though my feet, calves and thighs were throbbing, my mind was fixed in place, thinking of nothing other than the moment, a strange sensation for someone who can’t even finish making a cup of tea unless I’m reminded.

I surprised myself by how much I was actually able to do. Maybe I was fitter, stronger and faster than I realised. I was being passed by runners but I was also passing others myself and I felt like I ran more on the second lap than I had on the first.

Halfway across the bridge, for the fourth time, I could hear the crowd shouting and whooping those who were crossing the finish line. I wanted that. It filled me with adrenaline and I ran stronger than I had before. The crowd was nearing and I sprinted the final leg. As I high-fived Philip I saw my time; 51 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I finished and I wasn’t all that slow.

We did it red circle, we did it!
We did it red circle, we did it!

I decided there and then to sign up for the 5k race in December. I am going to do it and I am going to do it well.

So, if you’re around HCMC on the 8th December, come by to District 7 in the morning and watch the race. And look out for a curly auburn haired woman who looks focused and ready to give her all, that will be me.

HCMC Run

If you want to sign up for the race you have until 20th November. You can do it online, just go to their website, details below, and get it done.

website: www.hcmcrun.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/hcmcrun