Hanoi is hardly a sedentary city. In soft early morning light, Hanoians practise tai chi in parks, and in the evening, dance or play games in the public spaces. Children are active; cycling and skipping hand-in-hand to school, and kicking footballs and shuttlecocks in the street. Brave souls — both foreigners and Vietnamese — can be spotted running across the streets, dodging construction works, cars and motorcycles, the ultimate in an urban trail.
And while traditional exercise has been the domain of public spaces, the trend towards gyms and niche fitness cannot be ignored.
Working out by Hoan Kiem Lake
The Great Outdoors
Dotted along the shore of West Lake are fitness machines that use body weight and resistance to build muscle mass. Popular among Vietnamese, young and old, park workouts can be done at any time of day, and it’s free. In locations like West Lake, where the air is reasonably fresh, exercise isn’t considered detrimental to health.
Exercise parks are also social. Friends work out together, chatting and laughing as they circle through the machines. Families with small children scamper around a vibrant, safe space.
Mr Duc Anh, a lean 22-year-old mining and geology student, works out four days a week, rain or shine. He spends an hour on the machines, methodically using each one. “I live nearby,” he said. “So coming here is time-efficient, and it’s free.”
Like Duc Anh, Mr Tuan also spends an hour on the machines every day. The muscular 32-year-old policemen said the gym is not for him. “There is enough equipment here,” he said. “I like the vibe and being outside.”
Accessibility and fresh air are the main attractions for those using the exercise park. Six months pregnant with her third child, Ms Linh, a 39-year-old pharmacist, strolls the park every evening. “I like the fresh air, and I live locally so it’s easy to get to,” she said.
“My husband comes here to do his workout when I get back from my walk.”
Before falling pregnant, Linh said she had a gym membership, but only so she could practise yoga. “The gym was near my office,” she said. “I’d go to yoga three times a week, but I didn’t have enough time for the other classes.”
Insider Olympia Gym in Hanoi
The Lure of The Gymnasium
At the end of To Ngoc Van in Tay Ho is a nondescript gym called Olympia. Unlike the newly opened Centuryon on Xuan Dieu, which oozes money, Olympia is a no-frills fitness centre.
As well as a swimming pool and a sauna, the gym is equipped with free weights and machines. The price of the gym — at the lower end of the scale — is a major drawcard for Vietnamese and foreign patrons alike, even without classes.
Mr Dung, who has been managing Olympia for four years, said they are busy during the week in the early morning and late evening. “It is mainly Vietnamese who come at this time because of their working hours. Foreigners tend to come during the day because they have more flexibility.”
Dung said Olympia was cheap compared to other gyms, which is what attracts and keeps members.
On the leg press, a Vietnamese man extends his powerful thighs. Mr Tung has been a regular at Olympia for two years, coming daily to use the weights. At 45, Tung is the picture of health, and with muscles straining against the technical fabric of his T-shirt, he said he had always been interested in his health and keeping fit.
“I cycle and run around the lake, but I like this gym because it is not expensive,” he said.
A kilometre or so away from Olympia, the Fitness Village is a tranquil oasis. Opened in January 2016, with its well-maintained, tropical garden setting and small swimming pool, the gym is reminiscent of Bali.
Fitness enthusiast and part-owner Josh Zukas, who has lived in Hanoi for four years, points out that while the gym is beautiful, it is neither upmarket nor boutique. “We are accessible, and members come here to relax and socialise,” he says. ‘‘Our target market is internationally minded, ‘non-ego’ members who want a comprehensive approach to fitness.”
The gym has an international feel, which is a major drawcard for Vietnamese who comprise 5 to 10% of the membership base, according to Zukas. “We have a high Vietnamese membership,” he says. “And even though some of our Vietnamese members don’t speak English, they seek an international environment, which helps in other aspects of their life.”
With the emphasis on value for money, a beautiful environment and qualified, English-speaking instructors, Fitness Village also capitalises on its central location, tailored class schedule and qualified trainers to attract and keep members.
“Unlike many Vietnamese gyms, our instructors are independently qualified and certified physical trainers, who all speak English.”
Asked what the future of fitness is in Hanoi, Zukas predicts it will become more niche and specialised. “Yoga, Pilates and climbing are exploding. Facilities will be built to cater to people who know what they really like doing.”
One of the instructors at The Fitness Village in Hanoi
On the climbing wall at VietClimb
The Rise and Rise of Niche Fitness
Opened six years ago by 36-year-old climbing enthusiast, Jean Verly, VietClimb is Hanoi’s first climbing gym, purpose built for bouldering. A certified climber who has been climbing for 25 years, Jean saw a gap in the market and decided to exploit it by building VietClimb. Now, he is looking to expand into Saigon.
“Nature is our only competitor,” he said, with outdoor climbs located an inconvenient distance from Hanoi. Safety concerns are minimised thanks to an indoor venue, one that is built to European standards.
VietClimb attracts equal numbers of young male and female climbers, and comprises 40% Vietnamese, and 60% foreigners. “Our foreigners are mainly Japanese and Korean. We have a higher number in this demographic, compared to other gyms in the area.”
With a community of around 70 members, Jean said only 10 of these are original members. “The expat community is quite transient,” he said. “And after the Vietnamese marry, there is generally no activity.”
According to Jean, people are attracted to climbing for the physical benefits, particularly core strength; indoor climbing is also technical and strategic. Indoor climbs are easy to programme, with climbers advancing through colour-coded levels of difficulty at their own pace.
Jack and Amy, from the UK — aged 24 and 22 — were in Hanoi for just three days before seeking a climbing gym. Both have been climbing for four years, and were originally attracted to the sport for similar reasons. “I find the gym boring and I’m not good at team sports,” said Jack. “With climbing, I get to challenge myself and see myself improve.”
Amy agreed that she wasn’t competitive. “But it’s nice seeing yourself improve each day. And climbers are friendly. There’s a good community with climbing.”
And it seems that it’s that personal progression and sense of community that keeps people coming back to climbing.
Photos by Sasha Arefieva