British expat HANNAH SULLIVAN heads to Hoi An, Vietnam, for a holiday with a difference – one that makes the usual idea of the perfect getaway seem very indulgent indeed.
“There is no way I’m going to be able to swim in that.”
These were my thoughts as I stood nervously on the start line for the Vietnam International Triathlon in August. The state of the sea looked very different to the calm, crystal-clear conditions promised on the race website that had encouraged me to sign up for my first Olympic-distance triathlon.
The other reason I chose the Vietnam event was its location, close to the picturesque town of Hoi An, a delightful place to explore.
Our hotel for the first three nights was the triathlon venue, the Swiss-Belhotel Golden Sand Resort & Spa. It’s in a perfect spot on Cua Dai Beach, five kilometres from the World Heritage site of ancient Hoi An town, and with a huge pool to keep non-triathletes occupied.
A flat tyre en route to the hotel by taxi from Da Nang International Airport caused us some concern about the state of the roads and made me realise I urgently needed a puncture-mending lesson from my husband that afternoon.
By the time we arrived, the ballroom of the hotel had been turned into a bike room; it was a hive of activity as equipment was unpacked and pieced back together. Clearly there is an art to bike assembly: those with a well-honed routine were out enjoying lunch by the pool while we were still trying to figure out which bits went where. The 5pm race briefing took us through the course and the Tribob doctor gave helpful tips on hydration, expected to be one of the biggest challenges of the event.
The day kicked off with the children’s race in the morning. Participating in the 200m swim and 1.5km run were some local children from Hoi An who’d received instruction as part of Tribob’s Learn-To-Swim charity programme.
The Olympic-distance race started at 2.30pm – unusual for triathlons, which normally start in the early morning to beat the heat. Although I was sceptical about the later time, when I woke at 5am to find it was already light and the temperature was soaring quickly, I understood why there was no rush for a dawn start.
The swimming leg caused me the most concern. Luckily, all my early morning training at the British Club in Singapore saw me through the choppy sea and big waves. Seasickness was a problem for some and at times I almost felt as though I was moving backwards in the water. And difficulty in spotting the marker buoys in the swell meant I swam further than the 1.5km course.
Next it was on to the bike for 40km through traditional Vietnamese villages and vast rice-paddy fields. We had been warned in the pre-race briefing that, although the roads were officially closed, this did not necessarily mean that they would be empty. How true. Village life seemed to continue as normal, despite the presence of Lycra-clad athletes on strange-looking bikes, wearing round metal hats rather than the traditional Vietnamese conical variety. Dodging motorbikes was just part of the challenge.
By the time it came to the run (three laps totalling 10km), the sky had clouded over, providing some respite from the blazing sun. Local children were keen to exchange high-fives and it seemed they had their own competition to see who could collect the most empty water cups and sponges.
For the serious competitors there was a spectacular sprint finish between the overall male and female winners. Despite being a race, the event had a collegiate atmosphere – everyone who crossed the finish line felt a real sense of achievement. As darkness fell, it was time for a celebratory drink at the beach bar.
Held simultaneously with the triathlon was a duathlon race, consisting of a 3km run and 10km bike ride. While I didn’t get to see any of this, I did hear a funny story from one competitor whose pedal broke on the bike leg – he had to cycle the remaining 7km using only one pedal and holding the broken one in his mouth. A sign of real dedication!
Vietnam Heritage Ride
The following day we opted to do the “recovery” bike ride of 60km out to My Son Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site. Luckily the legs weren’t feeling too sore. In any case, Tribob organised three different groups according to how fast each participant wanted to ride. Regular water-stops along the way ensured that everyone stayed hydrated on what was another very hot day. The ride passed through villages and out into the countryside. Upon arrival in My Son, we all enjoyed lunch then walked down to view the ancient ruins.
For the return journey, I opted to admire the scenery from inside the minibus but there were seven keen men who took on the challenge of riding (or perhaps I should say racing) the 60km back to Hoi An.
For the last two nights of our trip we moved to The Nam Hai, having been tempted by the promotional rates for Singapore residents. An all-villa resort set on the beach, The Nam Hai is managed by the same group as The Datai in Langkawi.
Hoi An is somewhere you can easily pass the day strolling around the shops and sampling wonderful Vietnamese food. At Mango Mango, chef Duc Tran cooked up a modern take on the local cuisine. I had the “Hunt for Red Snapper”, a delicious fillet encrusted with cashew nuts, coriander seeds and roasted peppers, grilled and served with pineapple salsa and steamed coconut rice. The setting on the river, opposite the Japanese Covered Bridge, is perfect for enjoying cocktails and watching the world go by.
It’s difficult to visit Hoi An and not be tempted to stop by one of the many tailors. We were recommended Yaly Couture (47 Thai Hoc Street). The staff were very patient as I wandered around the shop, not quite sure what I was after, and they provided cool water and a seat when the heat and decision-making all got a bit too much! We ended up with a suit for my husband and a casual dress for me, all made within 24 hours at a very reasonable price.
When I got back from Vietnam, friends asked me how the triathlon went. Some looked slightly bewildered when I answered, “I loved it!” One of my goals at the start of this year was to complete an Olympic distance triathlon, and I saw the Vietnam race as the culmination of that goal. In fact, it has only fuelled my enthusiasm. Since getting back, I’ve been busy thinking about which regional race to do next.
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