How one events company is changing the face of Saigon’s running community. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.

At 6. 45am on Sunday, most of District 7 is in a slumber. Even the coffee drinkers perched along Nguyen Van Linh seem to be half-awake, relishing the dwindling peace and quiet of the weekend. But last month, while much of the city was just beginning its day, a few thousand runners crossed the finish line of the second annual HCMC Run. A sea of blue and white – the event’s colours – flooded the finisher’s chute on Nguyen Khac Vien, some jogging in, others sprinting toward the finish.

And then, in a blare of sirens, two yellow motorbikes appeared, signaling the spectators to clear the road. Security guards and volunteers ushered bystanders back to the sidewalk. In a flash of red and white, this year’s first-place half-marathon finisher strode through the crowd, arms raised, and across the line.

Think of Saigon and running isn’t exactly the sport that comes to mind. With the heat and air pollution, uneven footpaths and traffic congestion in the downtown districts, putting in a few miles before or after work can be something of an ordeal. Rather than contend with the city’s sidewalks, runners often head to their local park, navigating whatever foot traffic stands in the way, or hop on a treadmill in an attempt to replicate the experience.

“In Vietnam, it’s not easy to run,” explains Phan Thanh Binh, one of the HCMC Run’s 10k finishers. “Nowadays…there are more people who run but in Vietnam the conditions don’t really allow it.”

Binh, 40, doesn’t consider himself a runner so much as someone who is physically fit; to prepare for the race, he ran a few miles here and there but usually plays other sports to stay in shape. Still, while the small local running community may not be hyper-visible, it is certainly there. And in 2015, Phillip Nguyen is on a mission to get everyone in Saigon up and running.

Co-founder of Pulse Active, a sports event planning company, Nguyen and his business partner Bady Pham have been the minds behind several of Saigon’s larger fitness-related events, including last year’s Color Me Run and Prisma Night Run as well as Danang’s International Marathon. Little more than a year old, the company began in a small cubicle on District 1’s Phung Khac Khoan with two employees – Pham and Nguyen – and a mobile phone to serve as their wireless router.

“We were just sitting down and we were looking at each other,” Nguyen recalls. “We were [like] ‘What are we doing?’”

In a city that is not particularly runner-friendly, after all, running events are an unusual business to get into. But thanks to the pair’s own enthusiasm for
the sport and a particular knack for throwing parties, Pulse Active has made a name for itself as not simply a race organiser but a company capable of putting on a good show. For their first-ever event – the 2014 Color Me Run, which featured a 5k road race, heaps of coloured powder and a concert by American songstress Kelly Rowland and Australian act Timomatic – Nguyen and Pham hoped to have 3,000 entrants. In the final week, the company more than doubled its number of projected registrations, with 6,800 participants turning up for the run in District 7.

“We’re evolving so fast that, you know, people say that you should not spread yourself so thin across the board. Concentrate on one thing – if you’re doing sports just do sports; don’t do music. If you’re doing music, don’t do sports,” says Nguyen. “I believe in multi-tasking.”

To date, most of Pulse Active’s events have been an impressive juggling act, combining running with other add-ons, from music performances to fitness expos to runner perks like massages and beach parties. Given the positive response, Nguyen and his team plan to continue this trend in 2015 with a set of increasingly ambitious events – the company hopes to orchestrate a north-to-south run across Vietnam for charity later this year – but are equally focused on building a strong local running community.

“We’re trying to move Vietnam towards a different philosophy,” Nguyen says. “Love yourself, invest time. It’s worth spending an hour to yourself.”

Such is the mindset of Pulse Active’s latest endeavour, RunClub.vn. Online, the website compiles health, nutrition and fitness information for both beginners and experienced runners, from food and hydration to running routes and equipment reviews. Beyond the web, Run Club meets every Saturday in District 7 to bring individual runners together and has so far been a success.

“We found a guy who was overweight and very shy of himself,” says Nguyen. “He would have to take the bus all the way from District 8 or District 10 all the way to District 7. He’s lost maybe eight kgs already, and from throwing up after one kilometre he’s running 16, 17ks now after a year.”

In fact, several group members are starting their own running meet-ups during the week. This is how Nguyen Giao, 31, came to participate in the HCMC Run’s 5k race, her first-ever event. Along with 24 of her colleagues, Giao trained in the park after work
to prepare. After crossing the finish line last month, she is ready to sign up for this year’s Color Me Run.

“I wanted to do [the run] with everyone in my team,” she says. “It was an opportunity to talk, have fun and exercise.”

Elsewhere, Nguyen Van Hong Liet and his co-workers, clad in 21k finisher’s shirts, are commemorating their first half-marathon with a photo. Liet, 38, and his teammates work for a security company in Phu My Hung and, after having participated in several 5k and 10k runs, decided to rise to the half-marathon challenge. Like Binh, Liet doesn’t necessarily consider himself a runner but thinks that activities like this one will help to foster a local running community.

“In the future, I think more people will run, more people will exercise,” he says. “You don’t have to run, necessarily, but being healthy is most important.”

This is the attitude Nguyen encourages. “It doesn’t have to be scary. Slowly. Step by step, goal by goal, kg by kg,” he says. “As long as you have someone to do it with I think it’s going to be fine.”