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Vietnam: Sun-kissed and shaggy-haired, Nguyen Thai Binh swaps his flip flops for bulky boots ahead of snowboarding practice on the sand dunes of southern Vietnam -- the unlikely training ground for the country's fledgling winter athletes with mountain-sized ambitions. Binh is one of Vietnam's top snowboarders, pioneering a push to boost winter sports in Southeast Asia where snowfall is virtually unheard of.
But it's been an uphill battle for athletes like him facing funding shortfalls, lack of public interest and few training facilities, namely snowy mountains. Though Vietnam's northern Sapa Mountains see the occasional dusting in winter months, there are no snow slopes for aspiring skiers and snowboarders in the tropical country. Instead, Binh boards on the undulating sand dunes of Mui Ne, better known for picture-perfect vistas and breakneck ATV rides on offer for tourists in the sunny southern province of Binh Thuan.
Binh made his international debut at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan in , joining Vietnam's first-ever team to compete in the tournament long-dominated by Japan, South Korea and China. It was a lifelong dream for Binh who fell in love with sports as a scrawny kid, so skinny that he was taunted by classmates for looking like a drug addict. Committed to bulking up, he tried his hand at martial arts, then kite surfing and long boarding before he started sand surfing in Like most of his teammates, the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo was his first time seeing snow.
The skiers too had only ever trained on sand using tree branches as slalom poles on the sandy slopes of Mui Ne.
It was an eventful week for the seven athletes who competed for Vietnam. Many didn't have proper winter gear and froze if they stayed outside for too long. Skier Pham Tien Dat tumbled during slalom training broke his shoulder and couldn't compete. The Vietnamese journalists covering the games got sick and were hospitalised. As for sports junkie Binh, his other hobbies served him well in Sapporo.