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

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018
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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.

Mike

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: Đà Nẵng – Booming, but will it bust?

When I was looking for somewhere to live in Đà Nẵng, a major requirement was to find a place out of earshot of the numerous construction projects going on, especially in the beach areas. I eventually found a nice place in a quiet back lane. Apart from the usual apartment noise issues (upstairs neighbours walking around noisily, water pipes banging every time someone uses the toilet etc.), and the usual Vietnam city noises (the “Bánh Bao Đây” men broadcasting their wares from motorbike mounted loudspeakers, barking dogs, motorbike engines) it’s been relatively quiet … until last month, when a house almost opposite was demolished in record time, and a new building commenced. This is now the view from my balcony:

I could write a book about the speed with which buildings come down and go up in this city, never mind the improvised building techniques, the health and safety practices (there are none), the living conditions of the workers (many of them live in makeshift tents on or next to the site), the endurance of these men and women (many of the labourers are women). Maybe another post.

I took a brief walk around my area yesterday, not straying more than about 300 metres from my place. These are just some of the building project going on within that radius, and I’ve not bothered with the numerous smaller scale improvements going on.

What is driving this building bonanza? I think it’s partly tourism and partly a response to the growing “expat” community. Korean tourists are everywhere in the city. Apparently Vietnam reminds them of Korea twenty years ago. They come for the beaches, the cheap food and drink and probably other reasons. There are numerous marts that cater specifically for Korean tourists. The largest supermarket near me, Lotte Mart, is Korean owned, and busloads of Korean tourists descend on it, frantically buying up nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits, coffee and tea. Some areas of the beach are crowded with selfie-taking Korean women.

The expat community (like me) tends to be resident for longer periods, and is willing to pay much higher rents than the local residents, though still a lot less than would be paid in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A. In response, numerous apartment blocks have sprung up, with the aim of being rented to expats.

The worry, I think, is that the current boom is bound to lead to an oversupply. Rents will decline. Apartments will remain empty. Hotel rooms will be vacant. A shock to the Korean economy could precipitate this (though maybe the situation in North Korea might encourage more Koreans to come here). A clampdown on expats working “unofficially” might cause the expat influx to cease. Any number of events might lead to a bust in the hotel and apartment market.

The Vietnamese are incredibly resilient people. Businesses here run on tiny margins, almost it seems on a marginal revenue basis i.e. any revenue is better than no revenue. Shop staff are often family members living on the premises and not being paid much. Restaurants are often someone’s front room. Wages of course are miniscule by western standards. Vietnam will survive, but it could be a bumpy ride for Đà Nẵng.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam : The Market Divided

 

It took me a few weeks of living in this area of Đà Nẵng to discover the Bắc Mỹ An Market. Previously I’d bought fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, where an assistant weighs your produce on a digital scale, presses a button on a computer to calculate the cost, puts it into the inevitable plastic bag and slaps the computer generated sticky price label on it. No doubt about the price, it’s whatever appears on the label.

The Bắc Mỹ An is mostly a tourist and expat free zone. The stall holders speak little or no English. There are no computers or even cash tills. They keep their cash in a bag or purse. They have old-fashioned mechanical scales. Prices per kilogram or per piece are sometimes shown on pieces of cardboard, sometimes not. It’s very useful to know the basic Vietnamese numbers so that you can understand what they’re asking you to pay, decide if it’s reasonable or not, and hand over the correct amount of dong.

I was, and still am, a bit trepidatious about the market. It’s common knowledge that tourists and expats will usually be charged more than locals in markets. I don’t mind that as long as it’s not outrageously more than the local price. But the interesting thing I’ve noticed in Bac My An is that the stall holders at one end of the market, the eastern end, are almost uniformly pleasant, smiling and charge me pretty close to what they probably charge the locals (ok, call me naive). I can’t prove that, without recruiting a local to go around and buy the same as me, and compare prices, but I always feel that the price is very reasonable. However, at the western end of the market the stall holders seem intent on trying to gouge a lot more out of me for the same produce. I stress that this is just my impression, based on a small number of visits and interactions.

Today, at the east end of the market, I bought a hand of bananas (15,000 dong, about A$1), two dragon fruit (25,000 dong, about A$1.50), two mangoes (20,000 dong, about A$1.25), four potatoes and 5 tomatoes (25,000 dong, about A$1.50). All with very pleasant interactions and a few giggles as I tried to slowly translate “hai mươi lăm” and “mười lăm” (25 and 15 respectively, which means the price is 25,000 and 15,000 dong). I’m sure a longer term, more street savvy resident could have got the prices down, and a Vietnamese person would pay less again. I don’t bother to haggle, though I have given the bag back and walked away when I thought the price was outrageous.  To me, the prices I paid today are still bloody cheap, and I’m more than happy to keep buying from those stalls.

A number of times I’ve mistakenly given the stall holder way too much – for instance a 100,000 note thinking it was a 10,000 note – and they’ve given it straight back, pointing out my mistake. Mind you, there could have been times when they kept it and I was none-the-wiser, but I don’t think so.

At the other end of the market, I’ve been charged more than twice as much for dragon fruit, and three times as much for mangoes. I sense, perhaps incorrectly, that there is a more predatory attitude – a sort of “here’s a mark, here’s my chance to make a bit of easy money out of him”. In the overall scheme of things, it’s still petty cash to me, but significant to them, so I can’t blame them for trying. But the end result is that I don’t go back to the west-enders, and I continue to patronise the east-enders. It’s just a more relaxed, pleasant experience.

If my observations are accurate, I wonder how the different cultures developed in this one, smallish market. Do “honest” stall holders tend to hang out together, set up stall next to like-minded people? Do they berate “mean” vendors and banish them to the other end of the market?

On a macro-level, Đà Nẵng people seem to generally be pleasant, friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Friends who have lived in another Vietnamese city, which I won’t name, tell me that people there seem to be mean-spirited, hostile to foreigners and to resent their presence. How does this happen? I have sensed this in other countries too. You can arrive in a town and get a feeling about it – comfortable, uncomfortable, mean, friendly, hospitable, cold, safe, unsafe. This might be down to your first few interactions with people, and, no-doubt, two people can react in completely opposite ways to the same place. I know lots of people who like Melbourne for instance, but whenever I go there I have a sense of dislocation; there’s something about the place, the people, the culture of the city that just always makes me feel out-of-place. I have cycled a fairly short distance between towns in Cuba and sensed entirely different atmospheres. There are towns in Ireland that feel mean and cold, and others that feel warm and friendly, to me at least.

I’m very happy to have discovered the lovely people at the east-end of Bắc Mỹ An, and to be in a city where the atmosphere is one of openness and welcome, rather than suspicion and hostility.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

In Vietnam: APEC Upheaval

APEC 2017 has finally descended on  Đà Nẵng. Well it’s been descending for weeks, with never-ending motorcades, police motorcycle outriders and blaring sirens hooning up and down the beach road near where I live. Trump, Merkel, Putin and others are about to, or have arrived and will be staying in the most upmarket of hotels and resorts. Unfortunately, the city has been hit by a typhoon in the last week, and is not looking its best. The efforts of the city elders to install new toilets and rubbish bins, to screen off unsightly wasteland, and to generally spruce up the city, have largely been undone by days of damaging winds, torrential rain and high tides.

The schools are closed for the next two days (Friday and Saturday 10th and 11th November 2017) in honour of APEC. Tonight was to be my last class until Sunday, but I didn’t make it into the city, because the authorities decided to close the three main bridges over the Han River during rush hour, presumably to allow APEC limousines to carry their precious cargo to their plush hotels without having to wrestle with Đà Nẵng traffic. After an hour or so scooting back and forth. along with thousands and thousands of other confused  Đà Nẵngians, trying to find a way across, I eventually gave up and went home. But I can now look forward to 4 of the next 5 days off and hopefully a return to normality next week.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017