It’s not that there is nowhere to walk to, it’s just that the humidity is such that when you arrive where you’re walking to, everyone assumes you’ve swum there.
So where I might easily have walked up to an hour a day in Sydney, usually in the cool of the evening to and from the city for dinner, walking here is usually restricted to roaming around air conditioned shopping malls or a short venture to local shophouses for freshly baked French sticks or dragon fruit.
The end result is an unfortunate contraction of Saigon Swell… best described as a rapidly enlarging belly for which in a city full of delicious food, cheap beer and other readily available diet-stretching indulgences there seems little panacea but for more exercise.
That’s how I ended up at the counter of a brand new gym, splurging a whole 3.5 million lucre on a three month all inclusive membership (it’s the only type they sell). Don’t panic, that’s exactly AU$160.43 plus point one of a cent, according to that day’s cross rate. (Mathematical skills, iPhones or pocket calculators are essential here where one Aussie dollar buys you a whole 21,816 dong which, incidentally, is enough to buy a cold Tiger at Happy Hour at a local establishment, or gives you change for two HD quality digitally copied Hollywood movies in the downtown tourist shops…)
For those who know me well, I have a reputation for regarding gyms as one of the free market’s most bizarre inventions: a large building where people can go and strap themselves into sophisticated torture devices and pretend they enjoy stretching, compressing, bending and bruising almost every part of their anatomy. And yet rendition is a crime (Oh of course, that’s not voluntary; right…).
Anyway, rest assured there will be no such torture devices wrapped around me – my intention was purely to find an air conditioned location to walk, cycle or run with a subsequent shower close by rather than be seen with large dark patches all over my shirt…
California Fitness & Yoga opened shortly before Christmas in a converted waterfront warehouse two blocks from my apartment. Which means every piece of equipment from the torture devices and treadmills to the shower booths and kit lockers is brand spanking new. Some of the machines have barely been unwrapped.
Noting the number of expats working on the site and expecting the same sort of hard sell techniques employed by Australian gyms, I made it clear I was only looking to use cardio equipment (in layman’s terms – stationery cycles and running/walking machines) but the manager, Ryan from Seattle, whose bulging muscles made him look a little like a young Arnie Schwarzenegger, gave me a tour of the place nevertheless. Did I say place? I should have said Palace.
This palace is half gym, half lounge bar. Besides the rows of gleaming machines waiting to torture the excess fat off your belly there are gleaming glass-walled studios for yoga classes or pilates – even a pole dancing room with rows of shiny vertical pipes.
“Are you into pole dancing?,” asks Ryan. I must look bemused. Seriously, how is an average male supposed to answer a question like that, when asked by another male? He changes the topic to kick boxing…
Near this room is a lounge. Yes, a lounge, complete with paisley prints on the wall, comfy sofas and coffee tables. All that seems to be missing is the chiller filled with racks of Champagne.
Downstairs, however, there IS a bar. A juice bar. Where a couple of jaded expats are perched, seemingly in recovery mode. No espresso I am assuming. And no vodka shots to blend with the cranberry juice but, hey, this IS a gym I remind myself. It just feels like something far more relaxing…
Back upstairs Ryan shows me the sophisticated screens on the stationary cycles. This is where it can actually be fun! If you speak Vietnamese there’s a dozen local TV channels to select from. If not, you can surf the internet, watch videos on YouTube, play Soduku or other puzzle games, or plug your iPod or USB device in and listen to or watch whatever you like. At any time you can pause and check the distance you’ve cycled, the number of calories burned off and your top speed. Even check your heart rate.
I truly am impressed – very much a first for a gym visit.
Two bikes along from where Ryan is demonstrating all this to me a cute young local girl wrapped in impossibly tight pink Lycra is setting a cracking pace on a reclining exercycle. She smiles at me and for a moment I feel much better about my flabby physique. Until the sudden realisation it’s a smile of sympathy… I suck my breath in, fruitlessly trying to hide the Saigon Swell, but the millisecond long window of opportunity to impress has long since closed.
So that’s how I discovered a gym and came to part with a whole 3.5 million dong.
As gyms go this is far from ordinary and who knows, it may just make for a more comfortable means of toning up a little.
Meanwhile, I have this nagging feeling the gym bunny in the pink Lycra might just be part of a carefully plotted conspiracy to get us expat guys to commit to memberships…