One of our readers reached out to us on Facebook suggesting that we interview his friend, Thanh Vu (thanks Steve Hoang!). A quick Google Search revealed nothing too insightful about her. All of the existing media was in Vietnamese and about how she became the first Vietnamese woman to become an ultramarathoner.
We quickly learned that Thanh had built up an inspiring story of moving from the corporate world to pursue her passion of setting and crushing a seemingly impossible stretch goal. Her goal wasn’t just any walk in the park: it was the 1000-kilometer 4 Deserts Race Series that took her around the globe for an entire year.
We met with her at our new cafe to learn about her background, why she was motivated to complete the 4 Deserts Race Series, and what she plans to do next.
Let’s start from the top. Where did you grow up, study, and work before moving on to pursue your goal of completing the 4 Deserts Race Series?
I was born and raised in Hanoi, later moving to study in Singapore, Canada, and the UK.
I networked a ton. Hustling my way through the fresh graduate competition to find my dream job. I wanted to travel and explore the world. Ultimately I landed in Singapore after graduating from university to work for Bloomberg. I was on the financial products team for two years, then moved over to the much-coveted traveling sales team. It was the dream job. I was hopping from one country to the next every week. I was based in Singapore but covered clients regionally. But for some reason, it got old after a few months. I felt defeated. I had worked so hard for it, but just after a few months, I wanted out. I kept telling myself that I would get used to it. That this is what I wanted.
That’s when I found out about the 4 Desert Race Series.
How did you convince yourself to quit your dream job for a new experience?
It took a long time to convince myself to do something else. I’ve never been a fitness aficionado. I’ve always enjoyed running because it’s therapeutic, but I didn’t go to the gym a lot before 2016. I don’t have a natural knack for the sport. With that said, I don’t want to be known as an ultramarathoner because it’s not my profession.
For me, discovering the 4 Deserts Race Series inspired me to overcome challenges, set enormous goals, and experience the thrill of reaching a personal goal. It was about the whole journey, rather than just the physical stress and training that it required.
What is the 4 Deserts Race Series exactly?
The 4 Deserts Race Series is held over one calendar year. The concept of the challenge is to overcome four of the toughest environments in the world: the hottest, windiest, coldest, and driest. The four deserts series are the Sahara (hottest, but due to political instability in the Middle East it was moved to the Namib, the home to the world’s tallest dunes), the Gobi (windiest), the Atacama in Chile (driest), and the Antarctica (coldest). Every desert has its own challenge and covers 250 kilometers of ground. It takes place over six stages and seven days. You run a marathon a day and on the longest day, the distance doubles to 70-80 kilometers.
What was it like training for the 4 Deserts Race Series?
You have to put your body under constant stress and trauma. Trekking is a good activity, it’s ideal to hit a benchmark of 40 kilometers a day to build the endurance that you need. Start slow and build up. Training for the series taught me a lot about perseverance, empowerment, and how to face adversity.
I traveled to a number of places to train. Northern India, Hong Kong, Toronto, Sapa. Training in Sapa actually gave me the idea of moving back to Vietnam. I noticed more people than I remembered running two or three kilometers around the lake. Now there are marathons every other month. Momentum is picking up. I’m seeing a lot of people realize the benefits of exercising, both physically and mentally.
How can we change the perception of sport in Vietnam?
Many of the questions I get from friends and family are: Why are you trying to punish yourself? Money can be used in other ways, why on this?
Right now, the perception of sport in Vietnam is that it’s a waste of time and money. The vision of most Vietnamese parents is all about studying for their kids. Outside of career or professional work, sport can help bring more to the table for individual growth. It can demonstrate characteristics of drive and ambition. It’s not just about grades and test scores. The corporate world of Vietnam doesn’t have enough jobs for all of rising middle-class in Vietnam. There are other ways to create value. Sport, even as just a part-time experience, is one way. But there are countless other ways, such as through art, design, fashion, and writing.
After crossing four of the world’s harshest deserts, what do you want to do next?
I’d like to bring the extreme racing experience to Vietnam. It won’t involve running across insane distances, it’s not for everyone. It’ll involve some sort of physical fitness. The goal is to help mold people into becoming more dynamic and confident in life. Vietnam is hitting its stride. It’s time someone shared with the young Vietnamese how to think and act differently. There’s an opening in the new Vietnam today to think outside of the box.
Is the new Vietnam a good place to motivate, inspire, and train future athletes? Overall, is the new Vietnam an environment that can inspire people?
Vietnamese athletes in taekwondo and shooting have done some amazing work to prove that Vietnam can win medals at the Olympics. They inspire and bring hope to the next generations of Vietnamese athletes in international competitions. But in day-to-day life, people still overlook the value of fitness and sport. In my experience, when people hear my stories, they are more impressed that I quit my job at Bloomberg than running across four deserts.
Overall, I think the new Vietnam is a great environment for young twenty-somethings. I’d love to inspire the new generation to defy the fear of not having a path set up and to look at all the possibilities with a sense of ambition. The learning curves can be steep and the road can be long, but just like any endurance race, as long as you don’t stop, you will find a way to reach your goal.
What’s your most memorable sporting experience so far?
My most memorable experience was in the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2015. In our trekking group was a 60-year-old man from Hong Kong with one leg prosthetic leg. If you know anything about the Atacama Desert, you’ll know that it’s one of the driest and highest-altitude deserts in the world. Oxygen is thin and the terrain is diverse: dirt, stones, sand, and river crossings. There are a lot of up and down hills to cross. Everyone was having a hard time crossing this never-ending slope with the peak heat above us in the middle of the day.
I remembered that at the start, the man with the prosthetic leg was not far behind me, but at this point, I thought I had left him behind in the dust. When I turned around, there he was. With his trekking poles slamming into the ground. Razor focused. He didn’t even see me when he passed me. His determination and power were contagious. I have two healthy legs, surely I can finish this too. I feel lucky to witness his strength in a person.
Who should we speak with next?
Tue Le. She’s a super globetrotter by any standards. She worked in corporate at P&G for a long time at a high level. She speaks eight or nine languages. Her family immigrated to the United States. She grew up always curious about her heritage. While her parents wouldn’t go back, she decided to go to Asia. She worked in Japan and Singapore, and visited Vietnam soon after. She fell in love with the country. She’s currently working as the regional director for Remote Year in Asia. She wants to put Ho Chi Minh City on the map as one of the program cities, Hanoi is included on the circuit at the moment. She’s more Vietnamese than I am now!