A Very Vietnamese Workout

It’s hot. Like oppressively, I kinda can’t breathe hot. I’m lying on the floor watching a family of geckos dart back and forth across the dingy ceiling, contemplating what the upside down world must seem like to them, intensely aware of the enormous amounts of sweat pouring off of my body and drenching the towel onto which I’ve collapsed. There’s a fan on the wall, but for some reason it’s not on. It’s just sitting there, mocking my ever-rising temperature.

For weeks my body has been begging for a good workout. I’ve been missing my favorite classes, from Aura Cycle to Bar Method, and have been getting antsy at my lack of physical activity. But now here I am, the newest member of the Anh Hoang Fitness Center, having just finished my first workout and, despite the sauna-like atmosphere, my endorphins are definitely flowing.

There’s no doubt, I’m a long way from the sparkly, temperature-controlled gyms of Los Angeles. There are no disco balls hanging from the ceiling, no multi-colored lights flashing in time to the music. But I love it here.

I would have eventually gotten around to finding a place to work out, but as luck would have it, Anh Hoang found me (sorta). On my second day in Hoi An, Mrs. Flower (the woman I’m staying with) asked me if I’d like to go to the gym with her. Um, yes! And the best part was that she negotiated the local friend rate for me…about $9 for the month. Definite score.

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In many ways, fitness is fitness, no matter where you are. There are dumbbells, weight machines, treadmills, group exercise, yoga mats…. But then there are the fun little quirks or the things that would never happen at home. These are the things that make working out while traveling so much fun. Here’s a collection of the gym randomness I’ve experienced so far:

The obstacle course of dumbbells littering the floor – I guess the whole “put the weights back when you’re done” thing hasn’t gotten here yet. Give it time. For now though, you just step over and around until you make your way to one of the benches. It’s good agility training. The weight amounts are also rubbed off, so you just look for two that are the same size and try them out. If they’re too heavy (or light), discard randomly (never putting the matching set in the same place) and find slightly smaller (or larger) ones.

Those vibrating belt machines and shaker plates are still a thing here – I’m pretty sure these went out of style in the US somewhere around the 1950s when we determined that you actually have to do a bit of work to burn fat and tone muscles. And while we still have a billion dollar industry for quick-fix remedies that claim to turn you into a supermodel while you sit on your couch and eat chocolate all day, none of them work (for real, don’t waste your money). If there was a machine that allowed you to just stand there while a vibrating belt melted fat from your body there would be one in every single Los Angeles residence. Apparently no one told the Vietnamese ladies though.

The women here spent 20-40 minutes on these machines, moving the belts from their waists to their upper backs and shoulders, then back again. To be fair, this isn’t all they do. Most move on to other exercises afterwards, but the vibrating belts have a prominent place in the local workout routine.

And so, being the fitness connoisseur that I am, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to give this a go, effective or not. The machines themselves are pretty basic; you stand on the little platform, put the belt around yourself, and turn the one knob to ‘on.’ The vibration is actually a bit more intense than I expected and you have to lean into it a bit so the belt doesn’t flop around, which tightens it around your waist in a corset-like fashion. The cinching does make you feel thinner, so I guess I can see why someone might think it’s melting fat. It’s also a bit of a massage, so not a total waste of time. There is that moment though when you stop the belt and everything feels weird for a second, like when you jump off a trampoline onto solid ground and nearly fall over (or is that just me?). I only lasted about two minutes before I got bored.

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Coming in as a second favorite no-effort workout is the vibrating plate machine (it probably has a more official name, but I don’t know what it is). Basically, you stand on the machine and the plate under your feet vibrates (thus the clever name). If it was more of a wobble I could get on board with it as a core exercise, especially if you threw in some squats or something. But no. You just stand there and vibrate, which gets even better (in my opinion) when you lean on the rails, which accentuates your shaking butt, turning the whole affair into a poor man’s twerk. I am highly entertained by this “exercise,” particularly when the older ladies do it. I desperately want to film it so others can truly appreciate the awesomeness, but that could definitely be taken the wrong way and I don’t want to be rude.

On your feet, lose your seat – I have now twice had a machine swiped right out from under me. Once I got up to adjust a bench position from sitting to laying (quads to hamstrings) and, literally while the seat was moving, someone sat down on it, adjusted the weights and started their reps. Never mind that there was an unoccupied version of the same machine right next to me…I apparently had the good one and had been on there long enough.

The second time was on the vibrating belt machine. I’d just turned off the vibration and was getting myself out of the belt. Before I was out, someone else was half in. She apparently had some love handles to work on and wasn’t going to let a silly foreigner get in the way of her jiggle session. You’ve gotta be fast around here.

The treadmills are mainly for walking – Pretty much no one runs on the treadmills. They use them, for sure, but mostly for walking. Sometimes speed walking approaching a light jog. But not running. Probably because it’s too stinkin’ hot to run. But look, I’m a cardio girl. I might not be able to run for an hour in these conditions (I got to 30 minutes before I turned into that heap on the floor), but that’s why someone invented intervals. The first time I hit 15 kph several ladies sent thumbs up my way while simultaneously seeming slightly confused as to why I was doing such a thing. Now I just catch them watching in the mirror, occasionally complimenting me for being “so fast,” and probably hoping I don’t pass out from overexertion with all this nonsense.

Fitness videos – I love a good group exercise class. I like the accountability, the energy, and someone to make sure I don’t get to five reps and decide that’s good enough. So when one of the girls put a fitness video on the tv, I decided to get in on that (only partly because I had been stretching right under the tv and I needed to get out of the way). Within a few minutes, about ten others had joined and somehow I’m in the front of this class trying to follow along with the girl on the screen and getting a thumbs up from other exercisers for my willingness to try this out.

The workout videos here consist mostly of constant thrusting (or “tucking” in bar terms) with a variety of arm movements. I’m not sure it’s a very effective or comprehensive workout, but every bit counts I suppose. I made it through two videos (they’re only about 10 minutes each) before I decided to get back to my stretching.

There’s a very casual, fluid attitude to these videos. They aren’t played at predetermined times, instead being turned on whenever someone feels like it. Anyone around is welcome to join for as little or as long as they’d like before drifting off to something else. You can follow the girl in the video or just rock out with your own version of a thrusting arm workout. It’s all cool here.

My favorite part

One thing that seems to be missing from this gym is judgement. It’s filled with people of all ages and sizes, from young to old, from those who are sculpted to those who maybe rely on the vibrating belt machine too much. Grandma-aged women thrust along to the workout videos with the young girls and then follow up with a session on the twerk machine. Old men lift right next to the guys who are throwing around dumbbells that weigh as much as me (circa middle school).

Fitness is something I believe should be a part of everyone’s life. It’s not just about looking good in the mirror (although that’s definitely a perk). It’s also about being healthy, keeping your body strong and giving you the tools you need to go on that awesome hike or play baseball with your grandkids. A lot of people back home are self-conscious about going to the gym. Maybe they worry about looking weak next to people who are lifting much heavier weights, or not being able to run as long or as fast as the person on the treadmill beside them. They worry about their size or how much they sweat or how hard they’ll be breathing after five minutes. I wish they didn’t! Take a lesson from the Vietnamese and don’t worry about it. You’re not at the gym for anyone but yourself…do your own thing. Don’t sacrifice your health because of what someone else might think. Get out there and shake that booty, big or small.


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