When Pulse Active launched its first event back in 2013, Vietnam’s running scene was virtually non-existent. Healthy, sporty living that involved running was not part of daily life, and for most people the concept of working out under the sun for long periods of time was illogical.
Now, four years later, the Pulse Active team put on up to 10 races each year, a range of global sporting brands have set up shop and elite runners are at the forefront of running clubs all over the country. Running as a sport and a lifestyle is well and truly alive in Vietnam, and it continues to grow.
Conquer the Bridge
Pulse Active co-founders Bady Pham and Philip Nguyen created the first HCMC Run in 2013, in response to Vietnam’s shortage of sporting opportunities.
“We saw that there was a lack of sport events and activities here,” says Bady. “We were not thinking about creating a company at the time, we just wanted to do an event.”
Following in the footsteps of the 1990s HCMC International Marathon, the run attracted 5,000 participants on its very first cycle in early 2013 after eight months of careful planning, networking and preparation. It was designed to appeal to a wide range of people, with 3km, 5km and 10km options.
“At that time, running events were a completely new concept for most people,” says Bady. “We had to find a way to introduce the idea. People questioned the reasons to participate and why they should fill out a registration form. There was little emphasis on health and wellness as no-one wanted to run outdoors — it’s hot, it’s sunny, you get tanned — all the things that the Vietnamese traditionally dislike.”
Looking for ways to change people’s understanding of the sport before they launched the race, Pulse Active helped to establish what was to become an ever-expanding host of running clubs.
“Some people were coming in jeans and flip-flops, and we had to start with the basics of running and try our best to inspire them,” says Bady. “We also held seminars and did other sessions with them like Zumba and cross-fit so it wasn’t only about running — more about a healthy lifestyle in general.”
The most important part of the running clubs campaign was celebrity involvement. “These are the heroes for the Vietnamese,” says Bady. “[Vietnamese people] are really celeb focused, so when local stars joined some of the clubs, people came along to see what it was all about.”
The logistics and organizational aspect of an event like this was also new to Vietnam. “No-one had set up something of this magnitude before,” says Bady. “Co-ordinating everything from the race kits, bib numbers and t-shirt sizes to race routes and the timing system — we had to explain the process to all the parties involved, from the volunteers to the authorities and even the team itself.”
In the years that followed the 2013 HCMC Run, Pulse Active set up a range of new running and triathlon events and expanded across Vietnam, catering to an ever-widening demand for opportunities to compete.
“We wanted to inspire young people to get involved so we came up with a Vietnam version of the Color Me Run in April the following year,” says Bady. “Then we did the Danang International Marathon — our first full length marathon event — and at the end of 2014 we set up Prisma. Then we expanded the Color Me Run to Hanoi and Danang — people were begging us to come. In 2018, we are turning the HCMC Run into the HCMC Marathon where participants will be able to run in the heart of the city.”
As more people joined the running scene, Vietnam began to embrace this sport as part of a healthy everyday lifestyle. Dutch runner and electrical engineer Marcel Lennartz joined Pulse Active’s run clubs in their early days, and over the years he has seen a huge shift in local attitudes towards the sport.
“I noticed that more Vietnamese embrace the idea of doing sports for health benefits or competition [now], especially among the female population,” he says. “Several years ago, Vietnamese people would tell me that running was not good for a woman, but over the years more and more girls have taken up running and excelled.”
One such woman, Thanh Vu, has just become the first Vietnamese female ultra-marathon runner.
“I did my first marathon in Bali in 2013,” she says. “I am impressed with how quickly running has picked up here. Three or four years ago nobody really did long-distance running. Now, not only are there international marathons in Vietnam but there are also a lot of trail ultra-races.”
This growing interest in running is also influencing people’s way of life. “As city life gets more stressful, people are starting to emphasise the importance of health and wellness,” says Thanh. “There’s a sense of overcoming your own limits, that nothing is impossible and more people are living a balanced, healthy lifestyle.”
Marcel agrees, having observed a range of changes in his workplace. “Many seem to better understand the risk of smoking and drinking,” says Marcel. “I’ve noticed that fewer of my colleagues smoke now compared to 15 years ago and that many have started doing a sport.”
As the concept of sport as a lifestyle choice grows in popularity in Vietnam, so does the popularity of some of Vietnam’s top athletes. “Besides a few of the country’s football players, there were no sporting idols back when we started,” says Bady. “At that time people did compete and do well, but it was not commercialised or promoted, and most athletes were unknown to the people of Vietnam.”
Today, this is changing, with a number of professional and amateur athletes using their success to inspire others in their community. “I enjoy sharing my stories and experience to help others pursue their own challenges, especially youth,” says Thanh. “I hope that as an amateur I can be more relatable to the masses and inspire local people who have real potential to shine.”
There has also been a significant influx of international sporting brands and sponsors to Vietnam over the years, partly engineered by Pulse Active and responding to an increased demand for sports products. “Many brands have entered the market — 2XU, Brooks, Asics, Garmin, etc.,” says Marcel. “This helps to build a stronger running community.”
As Vietnam continues to embrace running and the lifestyle that goes with it, the question becomes “where to from here?” To the Pulse Active team, it is important to keep maintaining the message that running is about self-improvement, not rivalry.
“We started Pulse out of a passion to inspire and motivate people to overcome their challenges,” says Bady. “Step by step, kilometre by kilometre. It’s about competing against yourself, and what people overcome on the race route will help them be stronger in life.”
Since their first HCMC Run in 2013, Pulse Active have seen a steady increase in the numbers of runners each year. “We believe this will continue to grow over the coming years,” says Bady. “Local runners are developing themselves, and every year we have better, faster runners competing and running longer distances. The running scene is becoming more diverse.”
This diversity is mostly down to how accessible running is as a sport. “With running you just need your feet, and you can do it anywhere, anytime, with friends, family or even alone,” says Bady. “This is a message we want to send out in all our races — be active, anytime, anywhere.”
Running is also incredibly inclusive, appealing to a wide demographic of people with different levels of fitness. “People of all ages and all walks of life are running now,” says Thanh. “More and more people want to try and test their limits.”
As running becomes a part of Vietnamese society, the standard of Vietnam’s top runners continues to flourish. “People are combining travelling with doing races as it’s always fun to see a new city or place and at the same time, gain a sense of achievement,” says Thanh.
But Vietnam’s sports tourism is not just domestic — an increasing number of international athletes are coming to the country to compete. “We are working with partners outside of Vietnam to invite more international runners here,” says Bady. “This also creates and impact in terms of a new form of tourism in Vietnam; international sports tourism.”
At the end of the day, the rise of running in Vietnam has affected everyone, from the local amateur runner to the professional athlete. The healthy lifestyle trend that has gripped much of the rest of the world has begun to take hold here, and perceptions are beginning to shift as sport becomes a part of everyday life in Vietnamese society. Change has been rapid, and if projections are correct, there’s plenty more to come.
The team behind Pulse Active: Huong, Noel, Bady and Marta. Photos by Mike Palumbo
Thuy took up running as a way to let off steam. “Before I came to the run club I was running alone,” she says. “I came to the city alone for work, so I had no friends or family here, my job was a little bit stressful and I was lonely. Running helped reduce my stress and it made me so happy.”
She was running alone in District 7 when Marcel met her and asked her if she would like to join the group. “At that time I enjoyed running alone,” says Thuy. “But when I came to the run club I met a lot of runners and they were all very friendly. It was great to run with them! We could be social and share things about our lives as well as running together.”
Now running an average of 10km per day and up to 30km on the weekends, Thuy is preparing to run the 100km Cameron Ultra Trail Run in Malaysia this July.
“I joined the club about three weeks ago,” says Bell. “I started running in November last year to train for the HCMC Run.” Before running, Bell was a boxer. This year he hopes to enter two triathlons in Danang and in Nha Trang. “When I was boxing I could feel my body growing stronger day by day,” he says, “then I started running and now I started cycling and swimming, and more and more!”
To Bell, the running club is a chance to push himself in a way that he wouldn’t be able to if he ran alone. “Sometimes you cannot improve when you run alone because you are mentally restricted,” he says. “There are no friends to motivate you or people to compete against so you cannot improve. Sometimes when I run with the group they are really fast, so I have to catch up with them and I naturally improve day by day.”
When expat Adrian first moved to Vietnam in December 2016, he began looking for running clubs. “I joined about two months ago,” he says. “I was new to Saigon and I found that there were limited routes to run around so I thought I would join a runner group and I would probably meet some people who know good places to run.”
Like Bell, Adrian also sees the running group as a way to push himself. “Having people with you is a good way to improve and run faster,” he says, “because when you run alone you have your routine, but when you run in a group you want to follow the fast guy so you run faster and faster.” Adrian is currently training for two events — the Sapa Mountain Marathon in September this year and the HCMC Run in January 2017.
Duong joined the run club at the very beginning, in 2013. “Before I started training I could not run at all!” she laughs. “I started running 2km every day and I slowly built up to my first distance — 10km.”
Living in Saigon, Duong felt it made sense to compete in the HCMC Run, starting with the 10km distance and improving every year. “The second time I did the race I ran 21km and the third time I did 42km,” she says. “That was this year — I just did the 42km this January.”
Duong decided to pick up running while she was still young and strong, looking to challenge herself and steadily improve. She joined the run club as a way to keep this momentum going. “When I run with them I must catch up to the faster, longer-distance runners,” she says. “If I stop running I will come back to 0km! So I try to run at least 10km every day.”
Here is a list of some of the running clubs that have sprung up in Vietnam over the past few years.
Bien Hoa Runners
Hoi Nhung Nguoi Thich Chay Duong Dai (LDR)
Hue Citadel Runners
Red River Runners Hanoi
SRC — Sunday Running Club (HCMC)
VietRunners & Friends (HCMC)
VNG Run Club (HCMC)