A day in the life of pencak silat athletes in Vietnam begins at dawn and ends late at night. They pour all of their heart and soul into training in the hope of higher achievements and a better life for their families.
Their career span is short, however.
The question of what they will do to earn a living after retirement remains unanswered.
On thin ice
It is almost impossible to ignore Nguyen Thi Thu Ha, as she looks stunning at the age of 27.
After having pursued pencak silat for 12 years, Ha is among the veterans of the Hanoi Senior Athlete Training Center.
Pencak silat is a full-body fighting form featuring strikes, grappling, and throwing, alongside weaponry.
Since 2012, she has been an irreplaceable member of the national pencak silat team.
Ha won a gold medal at the 2017 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
“I was born in the northern province of Bac Giang," she recalled.
"At the age of 15, my parents took me to Hanoi to take an examination to a sports school.
"My teachers asked me which team I wanted to join – boat racing or martial arts.
"I chose the latter as I did not want to train outdoors.”
Pencak silat is divided into fighting (tanding) and performing (tunggal).
During her first year, Ha focused solely on fighting skills and then switched to the performing section the following year.
“It took me another 12 months to get used to weapons – sticks, long knives, short knives, and sickles," she said.
"It’s common to accidentally cut or beat my teammate or vice versa in training.
"In a training session before a tournament, I mistakenly cut the hand of my teammate Nguyen Thi Huyen.”
Fortunately, Ha’s blade only touched Huyen’s bones without breaking them.
“I panic whenever I injure my mates," Ha continued.
"Conversely, I was wounded countless times.
"It’s true that you cannot play with weaponry.”
Ha just got married in November 2020 to a wrestling athlete of Team Hanoi, Giap Ngoc Thoan, who trains in the same area.
Since the marriage, they have not lived together because of their training schedules.
Ha said she did not feel bad about the separation as they could focus on practicing.
“We meet once a day during dinner," Ha said.
"Only on days off can we go back to our home in Bac Giang Province together.
"My goal is to clinch a gold medal at the coming 31st SEA Games [from November 21 to December 2 in Vietnam] and the 2022 National Sports Games before retiring to have a baby and start another job.
"Finding a job as a coach in Hanoi is like finding a needle in a haystack.
"We plan to have a business or open a gym in my hometown.
"I will teach pencak silat while my husband will be in charge of wrestling."
Trieu Thi Hoai, a 22-year-old member of Team Hanoi who comes from northern province of Tuyen Quang, may look soft on the outside.
This first impression will totally change when one witnesses Hoai’s powerful strokes in the fighting ring.
She was offered to be a pencak silat athlete at the age of 16 when she was still a schoolgirl in the Dao ethnic mountainous area, despite knowing nothing but studying and farming.
After six years of practice, she pocketed a gold medal at the 2015 World Youth Championship and a silver medal at the 2019 SEA Games.
Despite high achievements, Hoai said she would not enroll in a sports university like her fellows.
“Even my coaches who have worked at the center for years could not be granted tenures, there is no way I’ll have a chance," she said.
"Whenever I pass my peak, I will go home, learn to be a hairdresser then help my mother at her small salon."
Vuong Thi Binh, a 24-year-old Cao Lan-ethnic pencak silat athlete from Tuyen Quang, has done the sport for seven years.
Showing palms covered with scars, Binh said she got used to being wounded.
Nguyen Ngoc Anh, head of the Mass Sports Department under the Vietnam General Department of Sports and Physical Training who used to lead the pencak silat discipline, said professional athletes practice with real weapons, not wood ones.
“For junior trainees, they can use wood structures to practice skills," Anh said.
"However, any athlete of the national team has to train with real weapons as incidents usually happen to juniors.”
On his visit to the Hanoi Senior Athlete Training Center in early March, Vuong Dinh Hue, then-secretary of the municipal Party Committee, was surprised by athletes’ poor living conditions.
He urged Hanoi’s Department of Culture and Sports to improve remuneration as well as create favorable conditions for the athletes to study and seek livelihoods after retirement, making sure they can pay attention and devote their efforts to training.
Despite being home to some 2,000 talented athletes, Hanoi still faces challenges to address burdens that the athletes have to shoulder.
Only a few professionals, after giving up on training, can secure jobs in the field of sports.
Others spend the rest of their lives doing different things that barely relate to their initial occupation.
The center’s director, Dao Quoc Thang, said they had pulled out all the stops to attract more sports talents.
“That is the reason why some extraordinary individuals were considered being included in the sector’s tenure including 16 athletes in 2018, 55 in 2019 and 27 in 2020,” he said.
The Vietnam General Department of Sports and Physical Training collaborates with the VNU University of Economics and Business to provide bachelor programs of economics for sports talents while working with the Vietnam Young Entrepreneurs Association to help retired athletes find jobs.
Some commodity traders and beauty companies promise to recruit them yet the number is still limited.
These efforts, however, are not inclusive considering thousands of athletes in other parts of the country.