In Vietnam: The Bina Gym

Trương Đức Toàn, Proprietor, Bina Gym

I’m leaving Đà Nẵng shortly. My apartment lease has come to an end. I’ve finished teaching. My American friends have gone back to America and Saigon. I’ll miss the place, for reasons too many to list. Here’s one reason which maybe sums up my experience of Đà Nẵng: The Bina Gym.

The Bina Gym is about 200 metres up a small lane which continues on from my lane. The shutters at the front open straight onto the lane. From the exercise bikes you are only a metre from locals walking, cycling, motorbiking up and down the lane. The equipment works well, there are loads of machines and free weights. Every available inch of space is filled with equipment. It costs 180,000 dong per month for unlimited use – that’s about A$10 /US$8. If you can’t afford that, it’s 20,000 dong per day – that’s less than a dollar. When I first started going there, I was about the only westerner in the place, but I’ve noticed a steady increase in “expats” in recent weeks. Word has got around. I’ve recommended it in Facebook groups, so maybe I’ve helped give it exposure. I hope so.

The place is run by Toàn.  He speaks little English but somehow always manages to make you feel welcome. He has a physique to make women swoon and extensive, impressive tattoos. Despite his size, Toàn is what my young American friend Nick would call “a sweetheart”, by which he means just a lovely, friendly, sweet personality.  I’d be the oldest, skinniest person in the gym, but there’s none of that testosterone fuelled, looking down the nose, machismo so evident in many western gyms. Toàn lives next door to the gym with his beautiful wife and baby son. The baby son is clearly also going to grow up to be a body-builder going by his already impressive baby physique. Toàn and his wife often play with their son at the front of the gym. The gym is almost part of their house in that they come and go frequently, eat their lunches, pass the baby to each other, exchange their news, wander in between gym and home. Toàn not only runs the gym and gives tips to serious body builders (I’m not one, you may be surprised to hear), but also sweeps the floors, fixes broken machines, opens and closes the place, stocks the fridge with water, sells supplements and handles the reception desk.

I’ve been going to the Bina Gym two to three times a week for the last six months, alternating a gym day with a running day. Today I managed to explain to Toàn that I was leaving Đà Nẵng. We shook hands and I took the picture above. I was touched, an hour later, to receive a message from him. He must have found someone, perhaps his wife, who speaks English, to help him compose the message, find me on Facebook and send it to me. It says:

Hello Mr Mike, thanks for your love and support for my gym in the past, I really want to talk to you but unfortunately I can not speak English much, hope later if have the opportunity to meet again I will talk to him more, wish him good health and happiness, goodbye!

It seems to me that Đà Nẵng people are friendlier and more open than in most places in Vietnam and Toàn’s message is an example. Gestures like this mean a lot to me. I have tried to learn Vietnamese but I don’t have an aptitude for languages, so I’m limited to the basics: hello, thank you, goodbye, how much, too much, basic numbers. I’d need to live here for years to develop any kind of proficiency. So it’s frustrating to get to the point of ‘almost friendship’ with people like Toàn, but not to be able to go any deeper. And I see the same frustration in Đà Nẵng people when we try to communicate in English. That’s the challenge of living in a non-English speaking country. In the case of Vietnam though, the strong push to teach English in schools will make it easier for English speakers to bridge that divide in future. Hopefully it won’t be at the cost of the local culture and the friendly ethos of the Vietnamese.

If you ever get to Đà Nẵng, pop into the Bina Gym. Toàn will make you welcome.

Bina Gym: K42 Phan Tứ, Mỹ An, Ngũ Hành Sơn, Đà Nẵng


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: He recounts a (fairly) typical evening in a letter to his young friends

10th Feb 2018

Dear Nick and Gaby

You remember the ROM Casa bar, you know, the one opposite the hostel on An Thuong 4, the hostel where the rooms are shipping containers stacked one on top of the other. Well I was in there last night for a quiet beer. You help yourself to beer from the fridge and pay at the end of the night – that place. I grabbed a seat near the window looking out on the road, and expected a quiet evening. I’d had a very good curry at a new Indian place that’s sprung up on that corner where they gutted a place a few weeks ago. They don’t mess around here. It’s called Veda’s and is owned by the people who run the Veda’s that we never went to, over the far side from the Kangaroo Bar. Good curry and another good option within walking distance from my place.

The puppy had its winter coat on and barked at everyone who walked by. But it went running for cover when a large pig walked in the front door, did a lap of the pub, grabbed any stray peanuts it could find, including a few by my feet, and then was shooed out by a barmaid. You remember that pig that we used to see now and again outside Minsk, around the corner? I reckon it was that one, expanding its territory or more likely escaping the weed fumes.

Five minutes later, that expat bloke we saw on the losing end of the fight at Simple Man a while ago, walked in. Or rather he stood outside with a Vietnamese woman for a while, then walked up to the bar, asked the barmaid to get him a beer, then walked straight out without paying for it. He looked awful. Sores all over his face, thin as a rake, tatts up every limb. He scarpered down the road with his partner, stolen beer in hand. The poor bar staff looked totally shocked and didn’t know what to do. They’re all teenagers, and they weren’t going to chase after him. I suspect he pulls this trick on different pubs on a regular basis, and figured he hadn’t done it at this place yet, so he’d give it a try.

Another five minutes and there’s a huge explosion just a door or two away. I walked out to investigate and saw a plume of smoke wafting down the road and a lot of puzzled people looking up at it. Nobody seemed to know what it was. Seemed way too loud to be a car or motorbike backfiring. I wonder if it was some major electrical malfunction at the construction site on the corner. There was much discussion in Vietnamese, and a lot of those “I don’t know” hand gestures. Another unsolved Da Nang mystery.

Tonight at ROM Casa there’s a security guy sitting near the door. Not the type of no-neck you see in Australia or the States, but a guy who looks like your favourite Vietnamese uncle. I think he’s there to deter beer stealing expats, peanut stealing pigs and to look out for stray explosions. It’s less eventful tonight. The only excitement being a young bloke who walked in with the biggest crayfish I’ve ever seen, still alive of course. Not sure what he was up to, but can only conclude he wanted to show it off to some of his mates before taking it off to get it cooked somewhere. Boney M briefly came on the sound system, but maybe they saw the pained expression on my face because they took it off half way through and replaced it with some marginally better V-pop. I did a bit of writing, logged onto the wi-fi, (password= “thankyou”), saw your new pics of Bangkok on Facebook. Looks great.

Back at my place, an Italian bloke has appeared who I suspect might be the father of my mysterious landlady’s baby. I’m not sure. I had a brief chat with him. Middle aged, balding guy with a limp. His English is not great. Seems nice enough except that he kept telling me how back in Italy, Africans get free houses while Italians like him have to pay for theirs. This seems to be why he’s in Vietnam.At first, I thought he’d moved in with the landlady, but he seems to sleep in the apartment below mine, and spends his days with her and the baby. Who knows what the setup is?

Hope you’re settling back into life in the States. As you can see, it’s still all action in Da Nang. Victoria is coming up from Saigon for Tet. Will be good to have the company.



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

The Vietnam War – A Documentary by Ken Burns

Last year, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on the American Civil War. Burns does in-depth, lengthy documentaries which require watching over several weeks, but still manage to grip you with detail, objectivity and historical context. The Civil War series was gripping; a horrifying recount of the first time humans used machines to kill each other methodically.

“The Vietnam War” is equally horrifying. For me it has extra relevance, as I am living in a city, Da Nang, which was a major American base during the war, and have visited cities such as Hue, which were devastated by American bombing.

I thought I knew a little bit about the Vietnam War. I was in my teens in the 60s when the anti-war movement was at its height. I remember some of the famous photographs: the naked girl running after a napalm attack; the Vietnamese soldier being shot in the head by a Vietnamese office But clearly I knew little, because I was constantly shocked by revelations in this series.

I hadn’t realised the length of the war – 20 years. Or the number of Vietnamese casualties: between 1 and 3 million depending on how you measure it. Vast numbers of casualties were innocent civilians. Or the fact that it became a civil war between North and South Vietnam, which might explain the lingering disconnect between people from Saigon and Hanoi. Or the extent to which the U.S.A. backed, South Vietnamese government was corrupt and repressive. Or the political machinations in the U.S.A. which extended the war and the casualties long after it was clear that the war was lost.

The interviews with retired soldiers on both sides are incredibly moving and insightful. The utter waste of lives on both sides, is shocking.

Today, young Vietnamese people show only superficial interest in the war. If you ask a student which historical person they most admire, most of them will reply with a rote answer: “Uncle Ho because he liberated our country”. But if you ask them which country they most admire, the U.S.A. is top of the list. They want to learn American English more than English English. There is certainly no inherited hatred towards the old enemy amongst the young, though the older generation may be more ambivalent.

There are several versions of the documentary available: abridged, expletives removed, and full length. It took me several weeks to get through the full length version: some 15+ hours of material over 10 episodes. Available to watch on the PBS website:


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: Where Boney M are cool

If ever you asked me which band I would like never to hear again, ever in my whole life, it would be Boney M. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve hated their music ever since they first appeared on Top of the Pops in the 70s. It struck me as representing all the worst aspects of pop music – manufactured, meaningless, nonsensical. They were a band that seemed to have been artificially created purely for the purpose of making money. This opinion is of course based on almost no research whatsoever. Perhaps the members of Boney M are lovely, talented people who trained as classical musicians but had to resort to commercial music in order to raise money for life-saving surgery for their younger siblings. Perhaps they gave all their money to third world countries. Perhaps not.

As evidence that they are the worst band in the history of pop, I present some lyrics from their hit single “Brown Girl in the Ring”:

Show me your motion
Tra la la la la
Come on show me your motion
Tra la la la la la
Show me your motion
Tra la la la la
She looks like a sugar in a plum
Plum plum

I can only assume the girl in the song is a night nurse doing bed pan rounds. Amazingly, according to Wikipedia: “With more than 150 million records sold, they are one of the best-selling artists of all time“.

Boney M’s music tends to generate “ear worms” – those annoying snippets of a song that you involuntarily hear in your head on an endless repeat loop when you are off-guard. My late father used to keep singing a line from “Brown Girl in the Ring”; I have a clear image of him in his later, stooped years, walking around the house, singing it to himself.

I was in an Indian restaurant recently in Đà Nẵng, and they played Boney M all night, on repeat. I finished my curry as fast as I could and now refuse to go back in there without checking what’s on their sound system first. I was telling my young American friends about Boney M recently. They had never heard of them. We met in a large beer hall type place which has an upstairs bar reputedly playing hard rock. The large-scale projector was playing videos of ….. Boney M, and the sound system was blasting out “Brown Girl in the Ring”. The band members were wearing bizarre, incongruous gold-glam outfits. My friends thought it was hilarious. I was in hell. Whenever I go to the Korean owned LotteMart to do my weekly shop, there’s a 50-50 chance that Boney M will be serenading me through the aisles.

Why then is the music of a bad pop band from the 1970s following me around in Vietnam? I have no idea. But maybe that mindless, meaningless pop of the 70s is the inspiration for Vietnamese V-Pop and Korean K-Pop.  Make your own mind up. Below are some examples of V-Pop and K-Pop. I don’t understand the lyrics, but I suspect they are probably on a level with “show me your motion”. The first, has over 300 million views on YouTube and has the inspiring title of “bống bống bang bang”. Google translate tells me this is “bubbly bang bang” in English. The K-Pop example, Blackpink’s “As if it’s your last”, also has over 300 million views. Poor old Boney M’s night nurse motion song has a paltry 9 million views.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018