Last month Tracy Isaacs, Samantha Brennan and I were in Alcalá de Henares in Spain for the International Association of Women Philosophers conference. As Tracy and I ran together one morning we talked about why, in addition to wanting the exercise, we make a point to run when we travel. While running I notice things when my mind is partly occupied differently than it would be if I was strolling and talking with a friend or walking or riding about the city as a tourist. It is almost as if I have a softer gaze that helps me to see and absorb more of what is around me.
This is perhaps best captured in an essay that I wrote right after I visited Viet Nam in 2004:
Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a seductress. There is no other way to put it. Most westerners visiting Ha Noi describe the city in this fashion and it would be a cliché if there actually were a lot westerners visiting Ha Noi. But since the U.S. embargo on Viet Nam was only lifted in 1994 and Viet Nam began its full economic renovation after this period, Viet Nam and Ha Noi have only recently begun to attract westerners.
I was drawn to Ha Noi for academic reasons. I am a philosopher. I really am. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy and, unlike what most people predicted, I do have an actual career as a philosopher. I went to Viet Nam as part of an academic group to study the transformation in Viet Nam after Doi Moi, the economic renovation – the move from a communist economic system to a market economy.
I am also a lot of other things, one of which is a runner. Like most runners, one of my favorite things is to run in new cities. So as I was packing for my trip to Viet Nam I packed my normal running gear excited to get out and explore the city at something faster than a walk and slower and less confining than a car or a bus.
My first foray into Ha Noi after thirty-one hours of travel and some serious jet lag was at a walk. I stepped from my hotel in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter on to the sidewalk and was immediately intimidated by what appeared to utter and total chaotic, lawless, inconceivable driving patterns. The street was flooded with motorbikes, bike bikes, and dotted here and there with the occasional car or truck. No apparent traffic lights, no yield signs, just bikes of various sorts careening through intersections with up to five people on them or live pigs on their way to slaughter or twelve cases of beer or teenagers with cell phones engaged in one handed driving.
Crossing the street was a seeming death wish. Since I didn’t want to die I stood on the curb and slowly looked for a route that required no street crossing. I never succeeded in finding one. That evening I stared out my window with defeated, crusty, jetlagged eyes and wondered how I was ever going to run in Ha Noi.
Unfortunately crossing the street was not my only worry. My plodding walks quickly revealed to me just how thick the air was with humidity and heat — it was monsoon season—and how heavy it was with air pollution. Though the motorbikes are zippy and fuel efficient, the exhaust coming out of them was about as bad as the exhaust out of a lawn mower. My lungs burned just walking through the city. Surely in the U.S. we would have been under an “Ozone Action Alert.” Since running behind a lawn mower in 95 degrees at almost 100% humidity while being stampeded by a herd of wild bikes was not my idea of a good time nor does it seem particularly health promoting, I was beginning to rethink running in Ha Noi.
But the thought of not running for sixteen days was terrifying. I know I am not the only runner who has fears like this, convinced that her whole body is going to fall apart unless she gets to run, convinced that her whole system in every way is going to combust. I was worried. Surely in two weeks I was going to be slow, weak, and winded. Of course I was “training” for something and time off was going to ruin everything.
To make it worse, my system really was off. Viet Nam is eleven hours earlier than U.S. Eastern Standard Time. So night is day and day is night. Thus 5 A.M. Viet Nam time felt like a really good time for my body to be a wake and hankering for my 4 P.M. run. At 5 A.M. I was lying in my bed berating myself for my lack of dedication, for worrying more about my lungs than my legs, for making lame excuses. As I lie in my bed with my earplugs out I hear the honking of motorbike horns – sounds of movement and life on the street. People were up, moving about, going about their business. I looked out my window. The sun was coming up and there was row after row of people in the park across the street gracefully doing Tai Chi and Ken Do. There were groups of men and women playing badminton. Everyone is moving with the heat, with the rising sun, with grace unbeknownst to lumbering western bodies. The colors were amazing. The utter green of the park was almost overwhelming; the slow Tai Chi movements of the men and women in their bright blue with scarlet fans stroking the thick air foreground ochre buildings with colonial blue windows bathed in freshly filtered sunlight rising over the Red River. To be unaffected would be impossible.
I, of course, had no intention of moving slowly and gracefully. It was now 6 A.M., 5 P.M. according to my body, and I wanted to run, to run in Ha Noi. Like the motorbikes I wanted to careen through the city, taking up space, making my presence known. I wanted to be down in the street, in the thick of things. I wanted to know Ha Noi as a runner.
I worked up my courage so I put on my clothes, stretched, and went out the door, ready to conquer the streets of Ha Noi as they had been conquered over and over by imperialist nations, wanting to do things at their pace, in their way, not the Vietnamese way.
At this point knowing a little bit more about me makes the story a bit more interesting. I am a small person by western standards – a little over 5 feet, a little over 110 lbs, and have a small build. I also have black hair. By Vietnamese standards I am frighteningly average. Walking through the streets of Ha Noi I got many interesting looks. From the back and side many people assumed I was Vietnamese. Upon seeing my face, seeing my western eyes, people were struck the incongruity of what they expected and what they ultimately got. But when I ran I was utterly unmistakable. I was so incredibly western, so undeniably not Vietnamese.
So at 6:15 A.M. I was running toward Lake Ho Kiem, intent on getting in an hour run. The heat was already blistering. I worked at running on the sidewalk, trying to stay out of the threat on the street. I passed by women who had walked in from the countryside with baskets that balance on the shoulders, selling lychees and dragon fruit on the sidewalk. I moved around shopkeepers with their wares, anything from Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, to baguettes and pastries (remnants of French colonialism) to Vietnamese silk. I dodged bald chickens pecking at the sidewalk for bugs. I received indulgent look after indulgent look from the people already at work on the street. These looks reminded me of a phrase muttered by my grandmother upon seeing a cyclist riding down the streets of Baltimore: “Look at that poor fool pumping his legs like hell to give his ass a ride.” Clearly my running seemed pointless, ridiculous, a futile waste of vital energy that should be put elsewhere, as it should since all I was doing was moving for the sake of moving and moving fast at that. The only purpose to my running was to expend physical energy. In a culture in which most people are poor and food, and thus physical energy, is a resource to be rationed, running just to run is utterly and totally wasteful. Running is a luxury that comes from being able to have too much energy. I had that luxury and most Vietnamese didn’t. Their looks told me how foolish my activity seemed to them, but since the Vietnamese are some of the most generous and kind people I have met, their looks reflected a sense of humor at my seeming lack of purpose and wastefulness.
I began to find that running around people sitting down cooking over outdoor brick heated stoves was not all that convenient or safe. Nor was running past small snapping dogs or little boys walking crabs on leashes, though both of these were pretty cute in rather different ways. Without thinking I moved into the street. I began to run in the street, to do the very thing that seemed so impossible and terrifying earlier. I began to blend in. I was not invisible, but was a little more translucent than I was before. My running, my pointless, overly quick pace matched that of the moving bicycles. It became no longer pointless; my legs were my vehicle for being in Ha Noi. As I ran with the bikes it was like I was standing still, I was moving with the traffic, at their pace, on their terms. I was no longer the lumbering westerner. I became a graceful, weaving vehicle. When they came to a stop I came to stop. When they would yield I would yield. I had become part of something. Without realizing it I came to understand the logic of the streets of Ha Noi. What appeared to be chaotic was really a carefully orchestrated system of cooperative driving. What appeared to be a constant swerving in and out of lanes is really a negotiated weaving that requires a high level of awareness of one’s own place among others. What appeared to be an utter and total disregard for any traffic rules was really a complex rule-oriented system reflecting the Buddhist and Confucian values that infuse Vietnamese culture. There was kindness, order, and awareness in this seeming chaos and I was in it.
So stride after stride as I pounded the pavement I forgot the burning in my lungs, I forgot the searing heat and the oppressive humidity, I was the traffic and I began to see Ha Noi through new eyes. Experiencing Ha Noi in my new location I was thoroughly seduced. I was finally running in Ha Noi.
Nancy is a philosophy professor at Wittenberg and a runner, cyclist and horse rider. A great day in my life is one spent mostly outside riding, horses or bikes, or running, with some reading and cooking thrown in for some balance.