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Organising an Ironman in Vietnam

By: Camey VanSant

By Samuel

For 3 months I lived in Vietnam, interning with a sports events company. We were based in Ho Chi Minh City and organised a Marathon event in Hanoi and an IRONMAN event in Phu Quoc. As such, I was lucky to experience 3 very different places: the bustling economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City, the traditional capital of Hanoi, and a scenic tropical island in Phu Quoc.

Soon after arriving in Vietnam, I flew out to Hanoi with the team to prepare for the Marathon. Working in the events industry was much more complex than I imagined. My mentor compared us to generals transporting a 12,000 strong army: planning the route, giving instructions, providing equipment. Not to mention the challenge of operating without disturbing the other 8 million people living in the city. My role was writing the MC script to provide athletes with race information and inject excitement into the event. The night of the race, our printer malfunctioned leaving me wandering around desperately searching for an alternative. After finally negotiating with a local hotel to use theirs, I hopped on a motorbike to deliver the paper copy to the starting line. I remember thinking to myself how farfetched the whole experience was, halfway around the world from my friends and family, zooming through the streets of Vietnam on a bike, organising a Marathon. A 17-year-old me would never have believed it. But these mundane, yet incredibly memorable adventures are exactly what I craved when I decided to take a gap year.

Starting line

The following day’s race was a great success. All our hard work gave the athletes an amazing racing experience and we were delighted with how many positive messages we received. I myself was immensely excited hearing the MC deliver his speech, knowing I had personally written it.

After the race we had a few days to explore Hanoi
St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi

Returning back to Ho Chi Minh City, we had two months to prepare for our IRONMAN event in Phu Quoc. I was with sales and marketing, planning and executing campaigns, selling tickets, and doing sponsorship proposals. While the work was engaging and a fantastic learning experience, the friendships I made were my favourite part of Vietnam. For my first time in the country, I was amazed by how warm and generous the Vietnamese were, and my friends would constantly take me out around Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks to them, I gained a more authentic experience of the locals’ way of life than any other city I’ve visited; I watched Vietnamese movies at the cinema, which were hilarious even when reading in subtitles. My friend took me to his local barber, who only charged 2 dollars for a haircut. I played every week in a local soccer league, where I found the players were less advanced technically, but made up for it in intensity and teamwork. Ho Chi Minh City embodies the idea of “organised chaos”. I loved the fast paced, exciting lifestyle and the friendships I forged during our adventures. 

Attending my friend’s graduation

Of course, I can’t write my blog without talking about the food. My new friends took me out to dinner most evenings, giving me the opportunity to explore Vietnamese cuisine, which contains unique blends of Chinese and French, reflecting Vietnam’s colonial past. My initiation started out with the classics, banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), and pho (soup). But I quickly became more adventurous, trying frog, snail, bulot (fertilized egg), and a “mystery meat” which I later found out was porcupine.

As the IRONMAN drew nearer, preparations ramped up. Phu Quoc is the perfect tropical race destination, known as the “pearl island”. I flew out the week before the event. However, there was no time for hanging out by the beach; we had a race to put on. During the preparations, I could feel the sense of mission amongst my teammates. For them, the event represented a chance to show the world that Vietnam is capable of organising a world class sporting event. Meanwhile, our IRONMAN events have had a 23x increase in local participation since the first event in 2023, demonstrating how we have grown interest in sports within Vietnam. I found it rewarding to be part of the team and creating these remarkable events that bring the sports community together.

The transition zone

I myself raced in the sprint triathlon (a distance of 750m swim, 20km bike, and 5km run) which took place the day before the main IRONMAN event. I swam and ran in high school, so our CEO suggested I compete in the sprint, both to test our preparations and allow me to have a racing experience. Though initially hesitant, I signed up. With only 6 weeks to train before the race, I immediately started an intense training regimen. 

It was my first triathlon and open water race, and I was incredibly nervous on race morning. But with the event starting at 6 am, my mental reservations were quickly cut short and the race began. Fighting choppy waters and a crowd of 250 other competitors, I emerged from the swim leg in a good position. The same cannot be said about the bike. A weak cyclist, I could only watch the other racers cruise past me as if they weren’t at all tired from the long swim. The 20km went by slowly, and as I crawled back to the transition zone, I thought about the millions of things I would rather do than running 5 kilometers. Nevertheless, I battled through the run, recovering positions to finish in a respectable 10th overall and 2nd in my age group. 

Fun fact: My dad borrowed this exact same bike for a race in New York City 25 years ago
Finish line

Vietnam was one of the most unique and enjoyable times of my life. I got the chance to explore a beautiful country, learn valuable skills, and make new connections. I’m grateful to Duke and the events company for giving me this opportunity. Thank you for reading my blog, stay tuned for more!