Writer/memoir coach Mark Koehler discusses sport, health and living well on a visit to Vietnam.
On holiday overseas I look around for some tennis courts but can’t find any. It’s the same story as previous cities I’ve visited in this strange hot and steamy country. In abbreviated English I say to a guy, “I am tennis player”. He has some basic English but still looks at me blankly.
“You know,” I say, “Roger Federer. You know him?” Another querying look. Three times now I’ve had this vacant conversation and they frown a little, not recognising the name.
I’m in a part of South-east Asia where tennis does not feature high on anyone’s agenda – or any sports’ news for that matter. Is the problem is my rudimentary language skills. Or is it my Aussie accent? Maybe, but for goodness sake, how many different ways can you say ‘Roger Federer’?
It is Vietnam. The people are lively and happy, but are not generally into sport. They’re too busy making a living, so they just work. They do not share our crazy Australian obsession with all things sport. Even swimming at one of their world-class beaches is a minority pastime because most folk have never learnt to swim!
I miss sport, even if it’s my fascination with (armchair) cricket. Instead I’ve become the inquisitive tourist.
We Aussies of course derive great benefit from our recreational pursuits – we study it, discuss it at length. We might compete, travel away for weekends, build friendships, stretch tired muscles – sometimes too much.
But not the Vietnamese. They do not indulge in such frolicking behaviour. Yet they know how to stay healthy and fit – much more than the average Australian. They could teach us a few things about living well.
There is a distinct lack of overweightness. How do they do it? One preoccupation is good food – lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, not much meat (or alcohol) and almost no dairy. Plenty of rice – unrefined, it has limited carbs. Leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Great coffee is everywhere, for locals and visitors alike. And as a tourist, apart from cheap and delicious street-food, you’ll manage to find mouth-watering pizza and Baskin Robbins ice cream. (Ice cream is largely a western preoccupation . . . determination.)
Vietnamese fitness comes from work, a social walk, gardening, or visiting a gym. From running or yoga. One cultural health study shows that older Vietnamese benefit from of an active lifestyle throughout their life span, especially in ‘socially mediated domains like living arrangements or labour work’.
I wander ancient alleyways and notice the strength in the legs of older Viet people – seventy or eighty year-olds squat with ease and dexterity. No knee replacements here! Another cultural phenomenon is the great care families take with their older folk, looking after them in the home rather than a transfer to an aged-care place. This way the grandparents and great grandparents contribute to running the household. They cook or supervise children.
These people are hardy and irrepressible. The collective psychology epitomises resilience. They are indomitable as history shows over and again. The ‘seniors’ here (both women and men) are the ones who stood up to the entire American war apparatus and sent it packing, tail between its legs.
Yet this country has resolved massive difficulties and welcomes any outsider with enthusiasm and grace. With a pleasant disposition they have replaced competitiveness with cooperation – which is most evident on the chaotic roads crammed with a million motor bikes. There is no road-rage. Unbelievable.
However I’ll give you one tip. As richly beautiful and accommodating as it is, Vietnam is not the place for a sporting holiday. But if you are into coffee, and appreciate a warm welcome, you could add a Vietnam visit to the bucket list. Easily.
Mark Koehler (founder, LifeStoryWriting.com.au)