You know you’re in Vietnam when you see sidewalks filled with small plastic chairs and street food carts. These neon-colored chairs seem to be intended for toddlers, but you see adults sitting in them, so, you join them to enjoy a cup of hot jasmine tea while some smoke cigarettes by 555 and Dunhill. Mini-carts with sticker letterings on the glass tell you what’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The words tend to have accents above and below vowels to indicate the tone you need to pronounce. Say the same word with a different tone, and you’ll confuse the locals.
Joining the colorful display is the multitude of spray-painted numbers on the adjacent walls. At first glance, this looks like installation art. Upon closer inspection, there are tiny words bordering the numbers – these are advertisements for someone’s business.
The theme of simplicity runs throughout the majority of the old-school business world in Vietnam (or Việt Nam as it’s spelled here). What you’ll mostly see in the signage is the name of the service or specialty dish. It isn’t how attractive the sign is that it reflects the success of these places, but mainly word of mouth that brings it.
Vietnam is transitioning rapidly from its post-war existence to a growing trade market with a booming tourism industry. You can observe this from the juxtaposition of spaghetti-like power lines piling on and around poles that accent the side walls of multi-story shopping malls. Ballads harmonized by MIDI keyboards reverberate from the nearby cell phone shops. Sometimes, they’re excessively loud with heavy-bass and EDM. If you were ever a raver, now would be a time to get some flashbacks of those days. If you couldn’t notice the high decibels of the music, there’s a life-sized inflatable mascot at the door welcoming you in to buy a cell phone.
As a reminder of who’s looking out for you here, pink billboards are featuring Ho Chi Minh’s head blossoming out of lotus flowers. You’ll also see larger-than-life sized paintings of him with children and families. He has been deified for his contribution to this country.
If you thought that traffic was crazy in *insert your closest metropolitan area here*, imagine for a moment you are walking here in the streets of the busy cities of Vietnam (like Hà Nội, Đà Nẵng, and Sài Gòn).
If you’ve never been here, imagine a world where your streets have minimal signal lights. There are no 4-way stop signs. Nor are there 2-way stop signs. There are numerous roundabouts, so everyone enters the circular path at any given moment; no set rules on who has the “right-of-way” either. You’re left to trust the philosophy of organized chaos. Traffic just works itself out.
Adding to the chaotic picture, instead of cars being the predominant mode of transportation, a sea of motor scooters and motorbikes are the recognized majority. Because these two-wheeled machines are really the only vehicle that many locals use, everyday errands that are simply normal to them are typically shocking to a Westerner. Need to deliver a gigantic ceramic pot filled with kumquat tree? Need to pick up your wife and 3 kids? They’re all going on the back seat of the motorbike. The little one can stand behind the handlebars.
Sounds of loud mufflers and honking create an entire symphony of cacophony. Honking in Vietnam (like many South East Asian countries) is not an expression of road rage. In fact, there is little road rage at all. Honking (and being honked at) is not someone yelling an expletive or annoyance, but a mode of communication to ensure everyone involved is paying attention to each other. When you hear someone beeping at you, what you’re being told is, “HI, I SEE YOU AND I AM HERE, TOO. ONWARDS WE GO.”
This social norm extends to pedestrians. Aside from the major signal lights at major streets, there are no special lights to stop drivers and riders in consideration of you crossing the street safely. You, too, must trust in the chaos one step at a time, literally. If you hesitate and fear that first step, you will NEVER get to cross the street while the locals play “Frogger” and confidently walk forward as the flow of traffic continues around them.
If you couldn’t tell by my last name (Tran), I am Vietnamese. 99% of my family still lives in this country. Not only does this mean that I am told that I’m “too skinny,” or that I “need to have babies”, this also means that I get the insider scoop on the best local street food! There is a world beyond “phở,” my friends. Let me share the secrets spots after I tell you about a few yoga studios in Đà Nẵng (the second largest city in Vietnam).
One aunt tells me excitedly that she is taking yoga classes. She talks about her class schedule, how it’s helped her knees; my cousin swears it’s fixed her back. And they deal with riding their motor scooters in the tropical heat just to get to class.
Unfortunately, even though yoga is much newer to Vietnam than the Westernized countries, it is directly on pace with the level of popularity, injuries, and the very critical need for education on anatomy and biomechanics.
If you take a look at the Vietnamese Facebook groups on yoga, you’ll find posts featuring hyper bendy selfies and positive comments reinforcing hyperflexibility as art and beauty. Another aunt (I have over 20) had told me about attending classes at other studios that were over-filled and centered around very strenuous poses, which, my fellow yoga teachers in Vietnam have informed me, have lead to growing numbers of yoga-related injuries.
There is also an increasing number of digital nomads and expats moving to Vietnam, many of whom live and teach community yoga classes in Hội An, an old city only 30 minutes outside of Đà Nẵng. With old French colonial architecture, a serene vibe, plenty of low-priced tailors and delicious food that tourists flock to, it is said that this area and its expats are looking to make this the Ubud of Vietnam.
Discovering Studios & Street Food
The studio my cousin goes to is part of a chic spa+gym chain that highlights their yoga program called California Fitness & Yoga. The walls are covered with a giant mural depicting landmarks from the state after which it is named, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Rodeo Drive, a red Corvette, and a Vietnamese girl wearing booty shorts with a tube top. Lyrics from Katy Perry’s “California girls” dance around these images. It really brought me back home since I grew up and thrived around these landmarks and things (including the tube tops) — I even dated someone who owned a red Corvette. Baring shoulders and midriffs was also normal to me while living in Los Angeles. Although that was once considered disrespectful in old-school Vietnam, it is a way for the locals to associate with Westernized culture.
All of the yoga instructors are from India except for one Vietnamese local. Every teacher is sitting on an elevated mini platform, cushioned with a crosshatch of 2 baby blue Pilates’ style foam mats. Although Vietnamese was my first language, I lost most of it while growing up in Cali. Halfway through the class, I could decipher the words for “inhale” and “exhale”.
Were it not for the Sanskrit, I would have been very clueless about where the sequence was going, and as much as I felt like a fish out of water, I looked like one, too. There were no other expats here. I was far taller than the Vietnamese locals, I looked mixed in ethnicity, and I wore yoga shorts when everyone was wearing pants or leggings, the preferred clothing for practicing, unlike in Cali.
Everyone got a single, equally thick and foamy black Pilates mat, which was a bit unstable to hold my ground on in balancing and standing poses. Numbered in white, the mat and its space were reserved ahead of time because the classes filled up rapidly, which the VIP gym members didn’t appreciate much. So, besides already having their private swimming pool, sauna and steam room, they wanted their own yoga studio space, which they got: an entire section of 3 private yoga studios to go along with the pools… With their own schedule… Just for them.
In my experience with California, “Hatha” typically means a “gentle” class with minimal vinyasas. Maybe there’s a “Power Hatha” class, but for the most part, it’s a slow-paced kind of yoga. That’s not the case with the Hatha class at this gym: complete with Crow Pose, arm balances and a ton of core-strengthening work, it’s anything but gentle. In fact, none of the classes on the schedule are gentle. The adjustments can be rather harsh as well (like the teacher using his foot to force my heels to touch the mat in Down Dog when I am hypermobile and not wanting to go deep).
After all that sweat, it was the perfect time for some street food. The scene here is such that “fast food” means “fresh, quickly digestible and small-portioned”. There is a reason why McDonalds is not successful here (in fact, they only have about 10 locations after trying to expand for a decade), and it’s in the culture.
It’s all about the leafy greens, the herbs, and the fish sauce. And vegans, not to worry — there are so many vegan restaurants around; just look for restaurants that have the word, “chây” in it. Many of the locals make pacts with Buddha to not eat any eggs or meat at certain times of the month (if not all the time).
Expect to receive an entire plate of leaves and mints to accompany most dishes that you order. This adds to the diverse flavors that are mixing into your mouth, turning every meal into a flavor and nutrient party where everyone is a VIP.
Try these crispy, well-sized, and savory crepes at Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng. You’ll see their sign at the start of the alley; then you’ll walk down an entire alleyway to get to the restaurant itself. Because crepes are all that the team of over 15+ staff members make, you will get your order within minutes. This happens even though the entire restaurant is packed with locals and a couple of tourists.
Bánh Xèo usually has pork and shrimp inside its thin and folded pancakey goodness. Be sure to take the given rice paper and leafy mints to roll everything into a small burrito-like format. Then, dip the roll into the sauce before you take a bite and savor the magic.
Next up was another yoga studio I had found off of Google maps called Aro Yoga. Since Yelp is not used in Vietnam, Google maps has been the predominant method of searching for popular restaurants, cafés and yoga spaces. There were high reviews for this studio, so I decided to try a class.
With my orthopedic’s orders the previous week, I’d give my shoulders and hips a break, and wouldn’t practice any Chaturangas and Down Dogs. But I didn’t have much time left in Vietnam, so the only class available with my schedule was a Power Yoga class. Hopefully, this yoga instructor would know how to provide modifications, or at the very least not force me to practice the poses a certain way.
I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t want to take a taxi car. I was curious about trying a taxi motorbike instead. Using the Grab app, I was able to order a motorbike driver and hop on within three minutes.
At the studio, the staff was very nice. They showed me a professional brochure on the owner’s experience with Ayurveda and yoga in India. The emphasis on expertise and knowledge of traditional yoga and Ayurvedic living is much more prominent here than in any yoga studio I have visited around the world (so far). This was the first time I’d seen a professional business–like brochure in a studio lobby at all.
The studio space itself was very simple and basic. It had floor to ceiling mirrors, along with some cream-colored curtains. It was refreshing to see a minimal setup that would help me be present to my practice. I tried to sit in the very back so that my modified practice would not distract the other students. After informing the teacher of my injuries, he assured me that he would provide alternatives to each pose.
The problem was that more students showed up at the last minute, so I ended up being in the middle instead of in the back. Throughout the class, the instructor was giving me modifications and it confused several students. Instead of them practicing the “full expression“ of the pose, they were modifying their practice, which had the teacher advise them to practice his intended version.
I appreciated the teacher’s thorough knowledge of anatomy and pose variations. After the class was over, he recommended that I take a yoga therapy class instead of power yoga. I can’t blame him. I’d have suggested the same.
54 Trần Cao Vân
Tam Thuận, Q. Thanh Khe
Đà Nẵng 550000, Vietnam Facebook page
After the class, we’d been craving a set of delicious Vietnamese spring rolls – not to be confused with fried egg rolls – the slightly opaque rice paper that’s rolled up into what looks like thinner and shorter versions of burritos. The major characteristic of spring rolls is that you can have them with a fish sauce-based or peanut butter-based dip.
You could buy a tray of pre-made rolls or you could roll them yourselves at a restaurant. I’m a DIY kind of diner, so it was clear to me and the hubby that we had to go to a restaurant specializing in this. One of my cousins recommended Mau Quan, so we didn’t hesitate to head right over.
This restaurant was also located at the end of an alleyway, and there was no way you could see it from the major road – you just had to walk down and trust that you’d eventually see it. When we finally saw the open space filled with tables of plates and leafy greens, we knew we’d arrived.
We were given different kinds of wraps, including a variation of the typical rice paper you see at the Asian grocery store, a roasted version that is lightly tanned and crunchy with sesame seeds, and an opaquely shiny paper (the same consistency as the noodles in a bowl of pho, except they’re slightly thicker, in large, triangular shapes.) All three forms of these wraps did not require any pre-soaking at all.
In addition, we were given the largest serving size of leafy greens I’ve ever received in my entire life. Not only did this gargantuan plate include lettuce, bean sprouts, and sliced raw banana, but we also got various forms of mints, like Vietnamese coriander, Cilantro, fish mint (which doesn’t smell fishy but goes amazingly well with fish), Thai basil and so much micro-nutrient goodness.
Like the variety of wraps and leafy greens, we were given many kinds of pork to fill up the rolls with. The combination of rolls seemed to be endless. I must’ve made at least 10 before I decided that my yearly quota of spring rolls was filled. It was a good time to call this meal a success; we walked up to the sinks in the middle of the restaurant to clean our hands up and enjoy the rest of the day.
Mau Quan Pork Roll
35 Đỗ Thúc Tịnh
Khuêõ Trung, Cẩm Lệ
Đà Nẵng 550000, Vietnam Google page
As my family visit came to a close, I wanted to try a non-traditional form of yoga. Since yoga is fairly new to Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Fortunately, I saw that there was an aerial yoga studio just 15 minutes from the beach, and I knew that I had to check it out!
I’d practiced aerial yoga a few times in California, and the instruction in those classes was more centered around achieving the acrobatic moves than incorporating meditation and yoga philosophy. So, it was refreshing to meet Avi, who really took her time to get us grounded and relaxed before taking our time to come into each pose.
Her aerial yoga studio space is very tranquil. It was outdoors, but it had a nice cover from the rain (which would fall intermittently). The perimeter was lined with bamboo that was highlighted with orange and green colors. Welcoming all the students to the aerial silk was a cute little gray and striped tabby kitten named Gili (named after the Gili islands between Bali and Lombok in Indonesia). Being a cat lady, I felt that she really was the icing on the yoga cake!
Avi’s specialty is to host an aerial yoga class right in the sand at the beach on Saturdays. Since Southeast Asia is really into this selfie game, she takes a series of photographs while you’re artfully suspended in the silk. It’s a hit, since tourists, expats, and locals walk by before staying to watch with full curiosity.
Aerial Yoga by Avi
5 An Cư 5
An Hải Bắc, Sơn Trà
Đà Nẵng 550000, Vietnam Facebook page
After a fun session with the aerial silk, I wanted to pick up some yarn -at the time, I was going through a serious crocheting and knitting phase. On the way to the yarn shop, the hubby and I passed by this nondescript spot that had a really dark atrium-like entrance. The walls were black, the patio-looking area was empty but there was a slightly elevated ramp on the side that led to a glass door with red and white hanging lanterns peeking just behind the doorway.
There was no signage or anything showing up in its place on Google maps, but we walked through the empty atrium to satisfy our curiosity, and found a cafe where the artwork reflected a serious love for cinema.
As we looked around the cozy interior, we felt like we were instantly transported back to the 60s Japan era. Colors upon colors filled our eyes as we saw curated posters featuring old and new films. The burnt red-orangish tones and hues made me feel like I was in a spaghetti western film myself. College students were hanging out in this space, some were singing while others were strumming a guitar. Nearly everyone was enjoying a nice and small cup of hot jasmine tea.
When we asked what the name of this place was, we were told “Tiệm”, which literally translates to “shop”. Holding true to the Vietnamese style of naming businesses after their main offering, this (coffee) shop added a wonderful gritty vibe that I looked forward to re-visiting the next time I was in town.
Tiệm Cà Phê
147 Nguyễn Tri Phương
Vĩnh Trung, Thanh Khê
Đà Nẵng 550000, Vietnam Facebook page
By the end of all this, I was left wanting more. There was just too much deliciousness and not enough time. This hungry rogue yogi looks forward to checking out the yoga and street food in Saigon and Hanoi. Next time, Vietnam, next time.