Charity run in Vietnam

Interview: Naomi Runs Hanoi to Saigon for Local Charities

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Nam Runs Nam is Naomi Skinner’s personal challenge to jog the distance between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (approximately 2200km, that’s 52 marathons!) in order to raise money for five charities operating in Vietnam. Hue Grit Tour interviewed her just as she arrived in Hue and took a well-earnt few days’ break. Naomi was kind enough to give some of her free time and discuss the trials and tribulations of the run, the charities she is running for, how not to eat healthy on the road and being chased by field dogs.

nam meets grit

When are you intending to leave Hue?

On Sunday actually, so I have a nice big rest. I have a friend joining me for the Hai Van pass (south of Danang) but he isn’t coming until next Wednesday.

How many kilometres on average are you expecting to do a day?

My initial plan was 20-21km a day, which seems to not have been enough due to lack of hotels. so I have been averaging more like 25-30km a day. I say I am running but a lot of it is more like shuffling along.

How long have you been on the road for already?

I started on the 6th of October and its been about 850KM so far. But I had to take some time off because I got injured within around two weeks of it. It’s disgusting, but I grew a massive cyst on my hip. I had to go back to Hanoi and get it operated on and then I was in recovery for two weeks. That’s all sorted now and I have now been on the road for about 6 weeks.

Was the injury related to the run?

The hospital said no but, I don’t know. It’s been hot and I have had loads of insect bites. Personal research indicates it may not be to the running but maybe being physically drained. It could be an insect bite that got infected. I had been on the road at three weeks by that point. I was feeling really good but I had to stop for the injury. I couldn’t ignore it. I guess it could have been worse.

How has it been running through the rural areas? What are the difficulties?

I assumed naively there would be food everywhere. South of Saigon, it always seems to be the case. Similarly with hotels. As I have got south from Hanoi. Just north of Vinh in Nghe An province. I was running along the coast and the area was desolate. I was trying to find accommodation and it wouldn’t be until nightfall that I would find something. Similarly, food options were a lot more limited in that area. I realised I wasn’t expecting the geographical-economic challenges to have such an effect on my run. Luckily, I had a friend running with me that week which made that difficult period more uplifting.

Furthermore, while I was there, the news broke out about the 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found in the container in the UK. You can see the implications that recent events have had on the area. On reflecting with my friend, it was noticeable there weren’t any young adults around. It was a really ageing population. I can’t say it was a shock but when people don’t have rice but they’re surrounded by rice paddies, it is heart breaking.

Charity run in Vietnam
Running from Hanoi to Saigon

Have you been eating nutritiously?

Well, I probably haven’t been eating like I should have been. There have been lots of chocopie dinners! I wasn’t carrying extra food with me but after the difficulties of running in Nghe An province, I have been carrying a few packs of noodles and chocopies in case I stay in a sparse area, then I at least have something to eat. But since coming to the Dong Ha-Hue area the last couple days, there’s it has been a complete turnaround. Being in Hue is like Saigon or Hanoi. There’s food everywhere again. I am going into cafes and small food vendors and being served with full plates of rice. It’s great for me but I wasn’t expecting such a stark contrast. It feels like a validatin to what I am doing.

Before doing this run, you had been living here?

Yes, I was based in Saigon for four years working at an international school. I had been having a great time there. Through my time there, I had learnt about some of the different charities operating in Vietnam and have been working on and off with them over the past year. While living in Vietnam, I realised how privileged I was to be working at a international school and felt compelled to be doing more to give back to the country. After some thought, I came up with this crazy idea to run from Hanoi to Saigon.

 

Which charities are you running for?

There are five who I will be splitting the proceeds between. The first one is Blue Dragon. I went up to their offices in Hanoi and got to learn more about what they’re doing. They focus primarily on anti-trafficking and helping street kids.

I have definitely listened to an interview with Blue Dragon recently. They’ve been around for a while, right?

Yeah, 15 years. They began by going over the streets of Hanoi, under bridges and opening up dialogues with the children that live homeless. That extended to anti-trafficking and actually taking smugglers to court and supporting cases to prosecute them. They working alongside and cooperate with local authorities.

There’s Blossom House, which is also based in Hanoi. It’s a home for girls who have either survived trafficking or are working on the street. They also help survivors through the challenging task of getting their birth certificates to enrol them into school. The girls are fed, clothed and provided a safe environment. I think at the moment they have around 10-12 girls staying with them. There’s a really nice family atmosphere there which is something a lot of the survivors haven’t had before.

The three down in Saigon are Thien Phuc orphanage; which is a foster home for disabled children although the disabilities are quite severe. I think quite a lot of children are there because their family can’t financially support their needs. It’s a great place and what the women are doing there is fantastic, but it just doesn’t have the funds and facilities. It’s obvious that a every little amount of funding makes a difference.

Another is Green Bamboo shelter which is also a safe house, supporting children to get their birth certificates and getting them into education. What I really like about Green Bamboo is that even once survivors have reached 16 or 18, the facilities are still open to them until they are able to support themselves. The older residents there are also encouraged to come back and help younger children there which is like putting back in the work that they have taken out.

The final one is Friends of Street Children which operates similar to the above but empathises getting the kids straight back into education. Being a teacher I have faith that education can break the cycle that a lot of these children are stuck in.

How did you reflect on which charities to choose?

Witling down the charities was really difficult and whatever will be raised on this run will be split equally between them. After the run, I hope to be able to work with the charities to understand what each one needs. Somewhere like Thien Phuc will have very different needs than Blue Dragon. Obviously, resources that can help all the children would be different. An example was when I initially went to Thien Phuc, they had these really old like 1970s exercise bikes and the straps for the feet were broken. The fact they didn’t have the funds to even replace the straps on these aged bikes was mind-blowing. That way money can be used to buy physical resources for the organisations that have very little funds. For Blue Dragon, they can house and feed a resident for 30USD a month which is an incredibly small amount to keep someone off the street. Of course I don’t want to dictate where the money goes but I do want it to have a direct impact.

I think that choosing effectively is probably one of the most important parts of any sort of mindful donation-making. You’ve already mentioned your surprise running through Nghe An, I wonder how people feel when visiting these areas and what they choose to do when they feel compelled to act. There is a lot of charity tourism which I don’t want any part of.

There have been instances where people have paid money to do an internship teaching in Vietnam only to arrive and be teaching some of the most privileged children of a city.

Yeah, it’s really tricky ground. Obviously there’s dire need in a lot of areas and what can you do? Blue Dragon has a lot of outreach locations throughout the country. So they do stem further than just Hanoi and Saigon. There was a Blue Dragon Centre in Hue but after their work here, it reduced the issue severely and they were able to close down. A lot of incredible local people work and manage Blue Dragon, it’s safe to say it isn’t led by foreign opinion and has close connections to the community. Actually, a lot of people working for Blue Dragon are also survivors that came through the charity and are the best people to lead younger people through their recovery process.

So you said you’ve been living in Saigon for Four Years. How have you found living there?

I love it. I have been teaching abroad since 2009 then I travelled a bit and worked in New Zealand for a year. Followed by 5 years in Abu Dhabi. After that, I realised I was repeatingly going to Asia for holidays so it was only natural to move to South-East Asia. Saigon was such an easy city to live in. I can integrate with people easily. Much more easily than Abu Dhabi.

Nam runs Nam

It’s funny you say that actually! Some foreigners living here often complain about the integration issue and making friends. I think my first year in Saigon it was all rather overwhelming and I it is not easy to escape that bubble…

Yeah. There’s no doubt we live in a bubble in Saigon. I lived and worked in the same district which is a little removed from the rest of the city but its conveniences are nice. One great thing about where I worked is that local staff and teachers get on really well with each other, which breaks down any cultural barriers that may exist. This wasn’t an option in Abu Dhabi as the culture was so different and the family culture was rigorous. People in Abu Dhabi were lovely but there was no breakdown of that wall. I am lucky to choose where I can live and more lucky I can afford to take time out to do this run.

I had been working in a language centre for a lot of my time in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang and what I didn’t appreciate until after I moved to Hue is actually how much commitment in terms of time and energy working at one takes. You’re in an English Language environment, working hours irregular to Vietnamese culture, which means you miss out on a lot of social happenings here. The responsibilities of the job ultimately limit your time to meeting people and exploring the culture as much as I expected.

Yeah! At my school, I guess we’re lucky we work regular hours so we were often out of work by 5pm which is lovely.

You can eat and drink at regular times! So you spent the whole 4 years in district 2?

I actually lived in district 1 for a year but it was just more convenient to live nearer to the school. District 2 is only 15 minutes away from district 1 so it isn’t so difficult for me to get back into the city centre.

Those 15 minutes feel pretty long between district 1 and 2. I guess it’s because it’s the same length as all of Hue! So when did you decide to do the run?

I was on holiday about a year ago reading a book by a woman called Anna McNuff, she’s a British woman who has done some amazing challenges. She is the girl-guide ambassador. I am her complete hero-worshipper. She’s just finished running the distance of the UK barefoot. The book I am reading now, she ran the length of New Zealand. completely solo and unsupported. Her mantra is; anyone can do anything. So I thought, why not Vietnam? I have always been in my comfort zone in Saigon. I felt it was time to challenge myself. So far it’s been fantastic

Liberating? Frightening?

Yeah, sometimes I am running down a dogfield road and I am convinced I am going to be eaten alive. Then around the corner is an old smiling lady selling bread and I am saved.

What was the process up to beginning the run?

It was quite simple really. I didn’t really give it that much thought. I knew I could run…kind of. I got back to Saigon from the holiday and made sure I gave six months’ notice to the school I was working for. I didn’t really prepare. I probably should have done a bit more running before I started.

I had done a half marathon before I decided to do this trip and that was it. Between then and the start, I signed up for some more half marathons and I joined a fitness community in Saigon too. That was it really. So I just got a bit fitter for the run.

I also got one of the sixth formers at the school to help me design the website. I tried to do it on my own but I was way out of my depth. She’s done a fantastic job. I also spent some time researching the charities and getting to know the staff and people that stay there better. Then over the summer this year, I went back home for a couple of months and just ran most days while equipping myself with the things I would need; A decent backpack and breaking in my running shoes. I bought myself an emergency hammock, which I haven’t needed to use yet fortunately. Oh and my kindle which is my luxury item!

Did you plan a route before leaving?

Yeah but that went out the window after day one. When I was home over the summer. I had planned every part of the route. When I showed friends on my return to Vietnam, they told me ‘this is a crazy route to go’ and offered suggestions. So the original plan is out the bin. Now I just check online the night before and go from there. Sometimes, I will factor in hotels and get to their location to find they don’t exist anymore. There’s a few times I have had to go inland more. I intended to run the coast but since it has been off season, a lot of places are shut down. No hotel. No restaurants. So many dogs. So there has been more highway running. Purely for easier access to accommodation and food. I am hoping that after Danang, running along the coast will be easier.

I would say it will get easier once in Danang but I am not sure since I have only really travelled around Vietnam by Motorbike and that isn’t anywhere near as tiring.

Yeah. On a bike it’s easier to find stuff. The biggest day I have had so far was around 38 kilometres. I mean I could do more but that would be running the risk of exhaustion.

I met someone north of Dong Hoi who was cycling the country who is now 100km south of Hoi An and he said there seems to be more open. He’s my eyes before I get further south.

Highway running in Vietnam
Charity run in Vietnam

At this time, I think rainy Season extends down to Quy Nhon, I think after that you’ll definitely find more open

To be honest, aside from my stop in Ninh Binh and Hue, I haven’t seen any other foreigners. I know of Danang and Hoi An’s popularity, hopefully the challenges of food and accommodation will be easier.

Have you had much support in fundraising?

Sadly, I haven’t. I have been trying to drum some up but surprisingly got very little interest. Obviously, I am just one person raising money for some small charities. I did a lot of pre-run fundraising stuff where the school I worked for got actively involved and raised money. A friend of mine made a game, which is really geeky but super cool. She’s been selling them down in Saigon. She’s also came up and did a run with me over a weekend.

When I get to Danang, I will be visiting a few schools there and hopefully be able to inform people on what I’m doing and inspire some kids to get outdoors a bit more.

Have you reached your target yet?

I am 60 per cent of the way there. A lot of it has come from fund raising done by the school I work for. I have had some donations from people, a lot from my family and friends but that wasn’t really the main aim. I was hoping that it would reach more people. I did have an interview with Vietnam News and that also got me in contact with and donations from a few more people, some who said they had read about Nam Runs Nam on the plane! That means it’s getting out there slowly. I think now when I get to the main cities, I can post on Facebook groups and hopefully get some more attention through that. I would like to get support from bigger organisations but haven’t really got the response I hoped for.

When do you expect to get back into Ho Chi Minh City? Do you think you’ll make it?

Yeah! My expected arrival date is the end of March but even with the injury downtime in October, I have caught up with the planned schedule at this point. I could probably push it a bit more but I have loads of different people who have signed up to run with me on different weekends. It’s nice because it means I have always someone to run towards.

Someone to shield you from the dogs…

Actually, I had a friend with me last week who loves dogs and he was standing there, chatting away to them as I was running away.

It’s great that people are taking the time out to come up and meet you.

Yeah! It’s even people who aren’t necessarily runners, putting themselves out of their comfort zone too. Some people have also signed up for rest days which gives me a familiar face during downtime and they can avoid the tough part of the challenge! I feel very well supported from the community I know here. I was worried about being lonely sometimes but that hasn’t happened at all. Even though I haven’t seen any tourists for a long time. I guess being so busy during the day running, finding food and fighting off dogs that I am knackered by the evening. I spam social media and read a little bit before crashing out. Overall, the support I get is validating and makes what I do feel more meaningful.

I know how precious that validation is. Sometimes you question what you are doing and that support means so much more when doing something on your own initiative. You were saying your leg starts to hurt and of course, the cyst…but any other issues?

I think the legs will be better after a few days. No issues mentally. For me physical and mental are intrinsically linked. If I am exercising, I feel great and if I feel great then I can exercise.

How would you describe the differences between running the country rather than travelling by public transport or a motorbike?

You’re right in it. It was further up north in Nghe An during that difficult time that the feeling in the province was unavoidable. The section I was in, you could do in a day, but running took two weeks. It was a very defining experience. So I feel that, this is going to sound cheesy, I feel that every footstep connects me with where I am but I feel that I am a part of…

Engaged with your surroundings

I guess that’s a more eloquent way to put it! Yeah, I can go into a coffee shop or I am beckoned into someone’s house for food. Because you are running past someone’s house, they will come out and say hello. My Vietnamese is awful but we will try to converse a bit. The power of google translate is brilliant. It is just a completely different experience. The generosity of strangers who have very little is overwhelming. I’ve been invited into houses; had tea, had coffee, served cake. They won’t take money in exchange. It’s difficult because that’s not why I am doing it. But it’s a side effect of this whole thing. People just want to say hi and see what’s going on and what the situation is. The underlying theme of this is kindness. Which I anticipated because its Vietnam but those experiences keep happening and are a source of inspiration.

Saigon to Hanoi

The kindness never gets tiring

No. I have had kids running beside me. A couple of days ago, an old man in flip flops ran with me too for 500m. Shouting and waving. Everyone’s response has been really positive. My website has been translated into Vietnamese, so if people ask me questions I can show them my website. People have been shaking my hand, giving me hugs, giving high fives. People understand what I am trying to do and not see this run as patronising. Which, would be the worst.

When you get to Saigon what are you going to do?

Have a good Saigonese banh my.

What’s your favourite Vietnamese food?

On this trip, anything I can get my hands on! I have had some great food on the road so far though. There have been a lot of soups which I forget the names of. My favourite dish is probably bun thit nuong. Love it. Oh and Bun cha. I thought ‘yeah I will be able to eat that every day on the road. But unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.’

Is there anything you’ve been trying to avoid eating?

No not really…

Well you’ve been scoffing choco pies!

I am just hungry all the time. I guess I am burning so much energy. I would of course want to get my carbs and vegetables in but that isn’t always easy, at times impossible. When I get to the tourist towns, I am just eating as much as I can. I am losing a bit of weight so eating as much as I can when there is food.

Are you running every day?

I am usually running every four days then taking a rest day. When I get to a big town, it makes sense just to take a few days off to refuel. I did do 12 days straight at one point because I was just running  through nothing. I was meeting a friend in Dong Hoi and I knew there was a Jollibee there which I have been eating whenever I can find them, which is terrible…I don’t eat like that in normal life! Yeah so four days on, one day off when facilities permit it.

Any plans for Hue?

Just chill out and enjoy the atmosphere. Actually, I will rent a bike tomorrow and take it to the Abandoned Waterpark. I can just spend a few days being a tourist. I have been at times, desperate to just take rest and move on in smaller places but that wasn’t the point of this. I wanted to also explore the places I go through. Obviously I wanted to do this to raise money but also to get to see more of this awesome diverse country.

Thanks Naomi for taking the time out to speak to us and good luck on the rest of your run!

Thanks very much! It’s appreciated.

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Thanks again to Naomi and we wish her the best of luck on the rest of her run! 2400km is no easy accomplishment and we encourage anyone who can to sponsor Nam Runs Nam at this link: https://namrunsnam.com/donate

You can also follow her on her instagram account and via her website where she is regularly updating her blogs.

Learn more about the charities she is running for here.

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