Lithe, tough as nails, and with a fierce intensity that belies her slender frame, Hoang Thi Luan locks eyes with me as she fixes my pose during a martial arts 101 session in a local Hanoi park.
“Focus. Show me the stance I just taught you. Where should your feet and arms be?” she tells me calmly but sternly, as she expertly shifts my feet to what feels like mere millimeters to the left. Her no nonsense voice lets me know she means business. It is no doubt that it is this level of precision that, at the tender age of 21, saw Luan become Word Champion in the martial art Wushu Sanda– a fusion of kung fu and boxing developed by the Chinese military.
Given her petite frame, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that this Hanoi local was recently World Champion in an intense, aggressive full-contact sport that originated in Vietnam’s northern neighbor. In Vietnamese, Luan is what we call nhỏ mà có võ: “a small but mighty warrior.”
“I started training when I was 13 years old, so it wasn’t like my family guided me towards this career or anything. I simply attended a local sport center in Soc Son for fun,” Luan says intently. “Aged 15, I somehow got whisked away for the national youth championship. It was my very first tournament.”
Luan is nonchalant about her performance at the competition. “Yeah, I got gold.” It’s clear these kind of achievements takes years of practice and a combination of inborn talent and intense hard work, though Luan believes it was a simple crossing of chance and fate. “Wushu chose me,” she says enigmatically.
Luan is still standing, barely having broken sweat, scanning the room for someone else to spar with. People aren’t coming forward in a hurry.
Perhaps it did, but over 10 years she fully committed to training and competing all over the world. “Let’s see… Turkey, Macao, Philippines, Russia, China…” she says, the list seeming to go on and on, and with it she continuously racked up prestigious awards for Vietnam, like a baby eating candy. She rarely lost.
Her rise to the top was incredibly fast, and I ask her if she was ever worried about failing, after all, the higher the climb, the harder the fall, right? “No,” she says. “It might seem fast to outsiders, but for me, everyday was hard work and discipline.”
Due to a decade long reign at the top, its easy to forget Luan is just 24 and all but retired from competitive fighting. These days she works as a trainer at Star KickBoxing and Fitness under Head Coach Mai Ngoc Phu. Though ‘under’ might not quite be the right word. When you watch Phu and Luan spar, it’s natural to assume the man might go easy on his younger, smaller female employee. He doesn’t have the chance. Luan can deliver four shin-kicks and a couple of elbows to the face in under a second. Phu just about manages to keep up with her fitness and technical prowess. After about a minute, he sits down for a breather to gather himself. Luan is still standing, barely having broken sweat, scanning the room for someone else to spar with. People aren’t coming forward in a hurry.
Gemma Dunne, co-founder of Star talks about bringing Luan into their team with fond amusement. “Well, Phu just wants to train, and I am pretty experienced on the business side so I mostly handle that,” she says. “One day I said ‘Phu, just get me a really good trainer who we can rely on, ok.’ A few days later he gets me a World Champion! Guess, I can’t complain! We are paying for her to take English lessons, and she is getting better all the time. We are honored to have her.”
When not in serious teacher-mode, Luan is as vivacious as they come, a bubbly Hanoi gal, bursting with energy and down to chitchat. “I’m scared I’m talking way too much, you can see how hyper I am,” she giggles.
Luan practically eats, sleeps and breathes Wushu, and one of the toughest parts of her intense butt-kicking, tear-inducing training is not always finding the time to eat what she wants when she wants. To qualify for her desired 48kg weight category Luan had to follow a strict diet during training . The yo-yo diet took its toll and now she struggles to gain weight. “I’m thin to the bone, don’t you see?” she laughs.
“When I hungry it’s worse than getting hurt. I think most athletes would agree with me on that. But even if I can have whatever I want I won’t go in for lobsters or some fancy delicacy– for me it is Hao Hao’s instant noodles… just the smell alone!”
“I said ‘Phu, just get me a really good trainer who we can rely on, ok.’ A few days later he gets me a World Champion! Guess I can’t complain!”
In the ring, Luan is a force to be reckoned with and known for an unpredictable style that opponents rarely prove able to handle. “My strength lies in my spontaneity, when I strike I’m fast, my blows accurate,” she says, as she showcases her signature move, a swift sideways kick. My heart briefly stops as the wind flashes past me, her foot a hairline away from my head.
“Here’s how I think about it. If they hit me once, I have to hit them back at least twice,” she laughs. “Better to not get hit at all of course, at its core Wushu is about self-defense.”
Luan has a winning mentality, both in her literal wins, but also how she responds to failures. “During my early years, I often fought against those with more years in experience. When I lost in 2013 in Quang Ngai, I knew I was capable of beating my opponent, so I went home and practiced harder,” Luan’s gaze intensifies as she reminisces. “And as luck would have it, I met her again less than a year later. This time I obliterated her.”
“People tease me and tell me to not beat him up too badly if we fight, but honestly that’s not my style. If we couldn’t stand each other anymore, well, just give me the word, and we would be on our own merry way–no point in hiding.”
Though driven by her inner strength and relentless spirit (“if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to try harder,”), Luan went through a tough time in 2014. “I injured one of my legs pretty badly in China. I thought that was it and was going to retire,” Luan says on the brink of tears. “But my teacher encouraged me to keep going, so I did. Being under medical treatment while training wasn’t easy. I had to adapt. I only practiced moves that used my left leg, my two arms, and learned more wrestling.”
When she finally announced her retirement from professional competition in 2018, she did so gracefully. “During my 10 years, I never had any regrets on my part, not even once. How many of us can say the same things about our own career journeys!”
Last year, Luan was finally able to on focus on married life (she met her partner when she was 17) and her newborn son. “People tease me and tell me to not beat him up too badly if we fight, but honestly that’s not my style. If we couldn’t stand each other anymore, well, just give me the word, and we would be on our own merry way–no point in hiding.” Perhaps it is this no-bullshit philosophy on love and life that has seen her do so well in Wushu.
“People say I’m too frank sometimes, to the point that I offend others. I can’t help it–nobody ever taught me that move during training,” Luan laughs. “Guess, I gotta learn. The Wushu school might not have taught me, university might not have taught me, but the school of life will whoop my ass if I don’t catch on fast!”
Luan’s professional competition retirement is not one of relaxation. She is always on her feet doing something–the type that simply cannot sit down in one spot–balancing university life, an online business selling Thai sportswear, occasionally training the young-uns in her old Wushu school and, of course, an ever expanding schedule of teaching personalized sessions as a coach at Star.
For this female warrior, it’s unclear what her future holds. “I’ll just let the career choose me–this tried and true method has worked out so far. Who knows, it might even have nothing to do with sports! Bring it on!” Whatever Luan choses to embark on, Chào is certain of a fruitful future for this tough independent woman with a zest for life.
“People of Hanoi” explores intimate stories and lives behind the bustle and hustle of the capital city.