Princeton students tend to take care of ourselves, so on arriving in Hanoi finding a suitable gym was as high a priority as renting cell phones and connecting to the internet. About a blisteringly hot twenty minute walk from our hotel, there’s a modern gym at the end of an alleyway. A large poster of an American woman in full-body spandex covers the front wall. The man behind her is turned around and seems content to wear a speedo.
We each paid 20,000 dong to use the three story facility--$1.25. The first floor was dim and echoed with the low murmur of about three dozen Vietnamese men lingering around rusted machines and weights. The majority were shirtless, a few had impressive dragon tattoos that made me imagine that they were gangsters until I reasoned that Vietnam has relatively low crime levels.
I was dreading the cool stares that were sure to come and I was relieved when Tim joined me in the area. At least there were now two foreigners in the middle of all the weight lifters. As it would happen, Tim made a very good impression. He’s a shot-putter, and although we were amidst Vietnam’s stronger stock, he pretty much doubled anything that people were lifting in the room. He drew a small crowd as he lifted and each time he finished, a friendly Vietnamese guy would put on more weight and insist that the exhausted shot-putter clear it. The crowd was amused, curious to see how much weight Tim could take and as he passed each test they became more and more congratulatory.
For my part, I wasn’t strong enough to create a spectacle, but I still felt pretty good about myself. In Princeton, the machines are built to accommodate the type-A bodybuilders, but in Hanoi I found myself placing the pin near the bottom. Besides for Tim, no one in the room made me feel weak. I sweated profusely. It was at least 90 degrees outside and the air felt like a jacuzzi. A few slow ceiling fans offered a small relief but the heat was still intense. To top it all off I was still wearing jeans because my luggage was still somewhere in Eurasia. So after about half of a day’s routine, I gave up and got ready to leave.
I found that the rest of the gym was equally crowded, even though it was the early afternoon of a workday. The Vietnamese are not especially athletic, but Ho Chi Minh did daily calisthenics and during a later campaign to “emulate Uncle Ho”, exercise was popularized. This may be a minor factor in why there are absolutely no fat people in Vietnam, although genetics probably plays a larger role. After all, there were no shot-putting types in the weight room.