A Day in the Making – Saigon, Vietnam

A Day in the Making
Saigon, Vietnam

I glided through the meat market on my way to the change rooms, to this place known to anyone who considers himself half a man. Women don’t venture to these places though, for the simple fact that being strong is considered unbeautiful. It also means they are fat, and being fat in Asia is taboo. Asians will come right out and tell you if you are not up to par, and Asian women have a hard time dealing with any strenuous activity, as it will bring muscle and in turn make their thin bodies look healthy. God forbid!

I walk past 50 shirtless, shoeless, muscle-flexing Vietnamese men who are in competition with each other over who has the biggest muscles, not to mention who can lift the most. My 5-foot-7 white body, weighing maybe 55 kilos with funny long extensions, is soon noticed. It takes no time to become the spectacle. Men stop what they are doing to look at me, and their mouths drop when they realize I am there to go toe-to-toe with them. I am about to prove to those men that girls can lift – and still be beautiful. I change my shirt and put on an appropriate T-shirt (“Girls Rock” – just kidding) and a bandana, trying not to be to conspicuous. By the time I enter the gym I looked like Aunt Jemima.

It’s obvious that this was a MAN’s gym, by the way the bathrooms, as well as the gym, had a urine smell about it. I even saw a man spitting on the floor after a hard set. Only in Asia can they get away with that. But what could I expect for 50 cents USD? I had been searching for a gym, and this is the best I could find. .

The gym, as I mentioned before, is in no sense of the word glamorous. It looks like it was used for soldiers during war times. It’s ancient, and the weights are strung up anywhere people can find room. The weights had grease all over them, and you have to search to find one’s match.

Two fans, one at either end of the medium-sized, over packed room, barely move the air. The guys here like the idea of sweating; it makes them feel more like they got a full workout in. And there are no treadmills, no bikes. Just weights. Even though the men spend more time looking in the mirror and yelling than they do actually working out.

But it is a gym, and I am happy to be part of this sweaty competition. As I begin my workout, men stand around me, wondering what I am doing and why I am lifting so much. When I was in Korea they would take my weight out of my hand and tell me I was lifting too much, then give me a weight weighing next to nothing. But here the guys just keep reminding me what muscle group I was working. Just in case I was unsure.

Out of the corner of my eye I see what appears to be another women taking the step and attempting the impossible. But as “SHE” soon approaches me I realize it’s a “girly boy,” which you never see in Vietnam. As she approaches me she is soon stuck to me like the air she breathes. She’s very nice, and decides to tell me she is gay and really a man. I play it up like I have no idea, even though her shave job that morning was giving off a 5 o’clock shadow. She is only there to talk with her friends, to be their support and feel their rippling muscles as well as mine. .She won’t work out though, for the reasons I listed above.

She is actually from Thailand, which made everything come together. It isn’t popular in Nam to flaunt your sexuality like that. I spoke with her for a few more minutes, and realized she wasn’t going to let me workout, so I very politely told her I would talk to her later. After the usual questions I was free to start my workout again. She is, don’t get me wrong, very nice, and on different circumstances I would have been happy to discuss what nail polish I was wearing.

But not now. I started lifting, and by the time I had gotten through my first set I looked like Rambo. The war paint on my face mixed in with the sweat, making for an interesting look. Every time I wiped the sweat from my face I would wipe off 10 pounds of grease as well. I was blending in just fine. No one would bother me expect for “Sophia”, my new best friend.

I decided to ask one of the local men to spot me. As he leaned over me with coffee and cigarette breath, I was surprised he didn’t have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth during his helping hand. (It never ceases to amaze me that they want to have this hard fit body, but they all smoke and drink in-between sets – it all goes back to the macho image.) His idea of spotting is different from mine. He spots on one side, which in turn throws the whole balance of the weights off. I had to give him a crash course in being a good spotter – good thing he was a quick learner. I can blame my fit shoulders on him. As I finished up my workout I decided to go back the following day and prove my worth again.

As I leave I notice Sophia waiting for me outside. She is sitting patiently on a park bench.

I grab my stuff and say good-bye to everyone. There is actually a platform where the men can go and lift, to show everyone how strong they are. They even line up at the scale to see how much each person weighs. It is all a game; what they don’t realize is that everybody is different, and not everyone needs to have a huge body. But we do all need competition. It makes you strive that much harder. That makes them happy, which in turn makes everyone around them happy. Small pleasures in life.

I leave the war-stricken gym feeling refreshed and happy to have ventured there – even though the usual “Golds Gym” goer probably wouldn’t set one foot in there without many bottles of disinfectant.

As I am leaving Sophia comes up to me and gives me her phone number, telling me to call her and she will do my make-up. I accept the offer and go on my way. Just as I am outside the gate she comes whizzing by on her scooter, offering to take me wherever I want to go. Well, it’s rude to decline an offer and to refuse food, so I happily get on the back, thinking I will save some money.

Let me tell you, I would have been happy forking out the money for a real motorbike taxi. Sophia, being very flamboyant and over the top, and who talks with her hands as opposed with her mouth, starts driving.

Just as we are driving through crazy Saigon her hands are flailing and she is turning to look at me, and before she realizes it she is almost skidding into a Mac truck stopped at a light (which nobody abides by anyway).

She scoots by it and back into what I thought to be controlled chaos – until she took over the road. I have travelled this path many times without fear for my life, although I look back now and I probably should have. Sophia is whipping in and out of alley ways, side streets; you name it, she’s there.

Finally we come to a halt.

I catch my breath and try to release my white fingers from the back of the bike. I thought they had become permanently glued there. She has decided to take me to her beauty salon, where she is learning make-up. I get introduced to all her co-workers, who don’t speak English. I have about 20 of them poking at my hair and my face.

Sophia then decides to give my fair-coloured eye-brows some colour. She is penciling away for about 10 minutes when I finally have the chance to look. “NICE,” is all I can say. Big and bushy, I don’t know what colour she used, but according to them I am now beautiful. I now have some meanly shaped eyebrows. Look out Marie Claire! .Thank god she decided to stop there!

I say my good-byes and thank-you’s and reluctantly get back on the bike. We whip around the streets, with everybody honking at us. All the excitement had gotten to her, and she forgot where I was staying. I pass her the card with the address on it. She holds it up, without any regard for what is in front of her, but as soon as she hears a honk she realizes it is time to dodge the parked car or the pedestrian or even the wild dog.

We finally near my destination and I thank her more than I have ever thanked anyone before. She vows to see me tomorrow and give me a full tour of the city. I can’t wait! As I walk into a shop and get a stiff shot of whiskey I thank god the Honda dealership invented horns…

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Traveler Article


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