And the man who almost died has even bigger swimming challenges in mind.
On 1:30 a.m., January 6, five amateur swimmers with a support team of 20 gathered at the historic Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. They prepared the equipment they needed, put their phones in waterproof bags and dived into the water.
They were doing something many people would consider foolhardy. They were about to swim from Hanoi along the Red River to the Con Vanh Estuary in Thai Binh Province, about 200 km away.
The person who thought of this “crazy idea” is Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, a 34-year-old white collar worker in Hanoi. Khanh said he came up with the idea after talking to a friend, who had swam 80 km, a record for the longest distance swam in Vietnam.
Khanh set the goal to break that record by swimming nearly three times that distance. All he had under his belt then was a 70 km swim from Hanoi to Hung Yen Province.
Nguyen Ngoc Khanh during his record-breaking swimming journey. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Ngoc Khanh.
Khanh and other swimmers were expected to finish this latest 200 km challenge in around three days. The group stopped and took a break for every 10 km. In addition to the swimmers (four men and one woman), there was a boat that supported and carried medical equipment and car loaded with food and water that followed the swimmers on the shore.
Two months before the challenge, Khanh and other swimmers trained really hard by waking up at 3 a.m. to run 10 km from home to the gathering spot and swim from there to Long Bien Bridge before going to work. They also swam 30-50 km on Saturdays so that their body would get used to long distance swimming.
The basic budget for the swim was VND40 million ($1,736) per person. Khanh ordered two swimming thermal suits from overseas as well as many other items for the journey.
Rapid start, a brush with death
In the first few kilometers, the group swam really fast and quickly wrapped up the first day with excitement, glad that their training was proving effective.
However, on the second day, January 7, they started to feel tired and their muscles began to ache. Their spirit was also down, compared to the previous day.
“Everyone was losing their motivation. My body was also in pain but as the one who started this and asked these people to join me, I had to do something to motivate them. So I tried to swim faster to boost others’ spirits,” Khanh said.
A near death experience followed soon after.
Although Khanh already had experience of dealing with whirlpools on the Red River, he almost got swallowed by one during this journey. He said it was a big whirlpool in the stretch flowing through Hung Yen Province. Just a bit of curiosity and carelessness got him sucked into the whirlpool by about half a meter. Panicking, Khanh stretched his body out and his arms to push himself out. Lesson learnt, he made sure he stayed away from whirlpools for the rest of the trip.
A mermaid lesson
When his limbs were very tired, Khanh thought of a new way to move underwater. Instead of using his arms or legs, he used his hips to swim forward, like mermaids in the movies. He said this new method of swimming helped his body recover faster and gave him more stamina.
At the 90 km mark in Nam Dinh Province, the swimmers entered an area with very big waves and strong winds. Khanh and a member of the group, 25-year-old Duong Minh Quang, swam through that tough section, but the other three decided to quit because they were out of energy. The supporting boat also flipped over in that area.
“Without the supporting boat, Quang and I had to wear floaties on our bellies to guarantee safety. We surely took more breaks compared to the first day. Both of us took a break every 5 or 6 km. When our speed declined, our spirit followed,” Khanh recalled.
On the third day, with their energy restored, Khanh and Quang increased their speed.
“In this part of the journey, we got to see the sun rise and set while we were still in the water, which was pretty amazing. Sometimes I took my phone out and recorded some of these moments along the way,” Khanh said.
The Red River was also different from Khanh’s expectations. He’d thought it would be full of trash and dead trees. But instead, the water was pretty clean, which made the journey a bit less challenging, although there were some sections that were really dirty and smelly, especially when they swam past some factories in Thanh Tri District.
After 67 hours, Khanh and Quang reached the finish line. From afar, Khanh saw the team members and the supporting crew, preparing to welcome and congratulate them.
“At that time, I was extremely happy and excited. Never thought that a person who almost died in the river can get this far.” Khanh said.
Nguyen Ngoc Khanh (R) and his teammate Duong Minh Quang after finishing the swimming challenge. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Ngoc Khanh.
Another brush with death
In 2018, Khanh had joined a group that swam to a hydropower plant in Thanh Hoa Province. When the sun set, it got dark and Khanh started losing hisway. After about 15 minutes without being able to make out the way, he panicked and got a cramp. He began sinking and did not think he would survive.
Fortunately, he was able to grab a life float of his teammate in time.
“Keep calm, I will get you to shore. Just take 10 deep breaths,” his teammate said.
After that incident, Khanh decided to practice more.
In 2019, he trained with experienced coaches to upgrade his skills. He chose lakes and rivers as his practicing locations. From 10 km, he started swimming 20, 30 km and more, every day.
At the start of 2020, Khanh founded a swimming club for people who shared his passion. The club members usually swim in the Red River and several lakes. They have hosted many 40-50 km swimming contests.
With a new record under his belt, Khanh is not planning to rest. He has set sights on a much more ambitious target.
He plans to swim 3,000 km across the country.