THE CITY WHERE EXERCISE IS CULTURE | Darrin Henry
Watching people do early morning exercise in Hanoi on the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a phenomenon I’ll never forget.
There’s a crazy little thing photographers tend to do; set the alarm for stupid o’clock to go bumbling out in the dark in search of perfect sunrise pictures, but in Hanoi, Vietnam, when we tried this we got an unusual surprise.
You Can Do Whatever You Want Here
The Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which means “Lake of the Restored Sword,” was our destination, a beautiful centre-piece of the city, ringed with overhanging trees and the Turtle Tower island out in the middle. We were guessing it would look special at dawn.
But as Sharon and I walked toward the lake soon after 5am we found we were not alone! Instead of the deserted streets we would normally encounter elsewhere, the whole lakeside was alive with movement. Hundreds of people. ‘Movement’ really is the key word here! Any kind you can think of. Dawn we discovered was exercise time at the lake in Hanoi.
It was the most amazing sight, hundreds of people out walking, stretching, twisting, flexing, tai chi-ing and just a very few running. Not many youngsters mind you. I estimate the age range went from about 30 up to the top end of senior citizens.
Meet At The Lake For Some Early Morning Exercise In Hanoi
Some people just stood facing out to the lake shaking their arms and flicking their fingers in and out. A few held arms above their heads and leaned over, side to side, almost like fans at a concert keeping time to a ballad. Sit-ups, push-ups, squats and lunges were underway. Park benches, tree trunks and lamp posts all became improvised gym equipment.
Groups of maybe 6 to 15 were taking part in slow, synchronised martial arts style movements. There were dance groups (it seemed) lined up in rows two or three deep.
What struck us the most was the ‘anything goes’ exercises – spasmodic shoulder shaking, jerky leg kicks, flailing arms… anywhere else in the world we would probably have been laughing but around the lake that morning it was clearly normal, and how quickly we adapted to accepting that normal.
Open Air Gym Membership
There were two fitness types on display. The gentle, tai chi style, sustainable movers; and then the shakers, the serious fitness buffs, mostly men pumping iron with homemade concrete weight bars or pulling their whole body up on lamp posts for incredible stomach crunches!
We soon forgot about the sunrise (it was too smoggy anyway) and just wandered about the lake marvelling at the public keep fit effort.
And then it all came to an end quite suddenly. Everyone finished up and wandered off to go about their day.
We were to later discover a similar thing happens in the evenings, although on a smaller scale. A section of the lakeside is turned into an outdoor gym with men mostly, out pumping iron as families and lovebirds strolled on by.
Badminton is another popular participation activity in the city’s parks. One day we sat and watched a group of men taking part in informal, yet highly contested badminton matches. Very entertaining, and I think they enjoyed having an audience.
I found myself thinking of that incredible sight around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake this week with World Health Day being celebrated every year on 7 April. The theme for 2017 is, ‘Depression: Let’s Talk.’
Personally, I’ve always found exercise to be a great way to keep spirits high. It doesn’t have to be high energy, high impact stuff (or 5am starts); just going for a short walk will do it. Taking the camera makes it even more enjoyable.
The British NHS website advice on depression and mental health, suggests exercise can be a big help.
“Any type of exercise is useful, as long as it suits you and you do enough of it,” says Dr Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health. “Exercise should be something you enjoy; otherwise, it will be hard to find the motivation to do it regularly.”
Increasingly many of us seem to require high-tech equipment or fancy designer sports outfits to motivate us into staying active, but in Hanoi, keeping fit is a culture thing and it works by making use of the space you’re in.
A little inspiration perhaps for World Health Day.