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.
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018