I think when travelling, we are all tempted to splurge and over eat, but I know after a few days of that I always feel like crap, have no energy am avoiding bikini photos. So if I’m wanting to really enjoy and make the most of my holiday, being able to maintain some kind of healthy diet and exercise routine is essential. So how do you stay lean and still “relax and enjoy the trip” in a place where the national cuisine is noodles?
One of the best parts of visiting a foreign country is experiencing the local cuisine. And one of the best things about Vietnam is the bread. At first I was hesitant, as bread is something I usually try to avoid, especially in Asia. In my experience throughout Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China and Hong Kong it’s more like eating stale fairy bread. Until my tour guide convinced me that they make it here like in France; light and fluffy and sugar free! Apparently back in the wartime days the French taught the Vietnamese how to make amazing bread… and she was right! Even the stuff I had off the street carts was as good as the best in France.
Another thing the Vietnamese do really well is eat their veggies. Almost every Vietnamese dish I tried had some kind of yummy salad of veggies with it. They use herbs and spices very well to make even the most bland of raw veggies taste good. And if “gluten free”, “wheat free” or “dairy free” is your thing (its not mine but each to their own), you’ll be in heaven here, as almost all the local dishes are made from rice or coconut milk. And even though they do seem to eat a lot of carbs, their portion sizes are small but filling which is perfect in my opinion.
And one of my favourite traditional desserts that you absolutely must try – Che Chuoi – is basically just stewed banana and coconut cream. So yummy, and actually pretty healthy! Ill post a recipe for this one later once I get home to experiment 😉
While I tried a lot of local food while I was out and about during the day, I mostly ate at hotel buffets for breakfast and dinner, as it was cheap (sometimes included) and had a lot of variety, which made it really easy to eat healthily.
The first day I was there I put on my running shoes and used the Google Maps app on my iPhone to take me for a stop-start running tour around the city. This is my favourite way to explore and get my bearings in a new place, and the main areas of Saigon are relatively close together so it was easy! I wouldn’t have run more than about 10-15km in the 2 ½ hours I was out for. Either not too many people run around outdoors in Saigon or the locals are just very friendly, but I received many words of broken-English encouragement from street vendors and shopkeepers that I ran past! I figured I was going to be sweating anyway, and it would give me an excuse to rehydrate with the fresh fruit shakes offered by the many street vendors. My favourite one was orange, kiwi, milk and ice… highly recommended.
The capital city is almost always warm (I went in “winter” and it was 37 degrees Celsius the night I arrived… normally 25-32 though), so having somewhere indoors and air-conditioned to train is nice. My first hotel didn’t have a gym and the rooms were small, however at the end of my trip I stayed at the Pullman Saigon Centre and the gym there was awesome! It’s a little more on the expensive side as far as Vietnam goes, but definitely worth the extra few $ (I think we only paid about $150/night anyway, as we got a great deal with the Accor Advantage Plus membership cards). The hotel itself is in a great spot, close to the market (you can get absolutely everything here, including yummy street food). It’s also close to California Fitness and Yoga that offers many classes daily including all different types of yoga.
Basically you have two options when staying in Da Nang – on the beach and out of the hustle and bustle in one of the luxury hotels, or in the city centre in the middle of all the action.
Da Nang is very flat, so awesome for running and bike riding (though also very spread out, so take a bike if you’re not prepared to run a half marathon). If you stay at one of the hotels along the beach, there is a great ride up the beach path from there to the Lady Buddha which is kind of like Da Nang’s version of “Christ the Redeemer”.
I stayed at the Pullman, which is a beautiful resort on the beach that offers water sports like surfing, SUP and ocean kayaking and there is goal posts set up for beach soccer (the picture at the top is also from this hotel). They also have a gym there – small, but has everything… weights and cardio machines, free weights, boxing bag, yoga mats and even TRX. They also have a big long grassy area between the main building and the pool that’s awesome for doing sprints and outdoor workouts. And the pool is big enough to swim laps.
The Pullman’s buffet/restaurant had many healthy options and were willing to accommodate any special requests… and the quality/freshness of food was incredible. Even more incredible when we worked out that it only cost us around $10 each for breakfast and around $15-20 for a 3 course dinner using our Accor Advantage Plus card (these are so worth looking into… It’s only about $250 for the basic membership and the 50% off food that you get pays itself off in just one trip!)
If you wanted to stay somewhere in the city, the Novotel was in a great riverside location, close to restaurants, markets and day spas. It has a 3-level rooftop bar here (Sky36) that has beautiful views of the city. And it had one of the biggest and nicest gyms that I went to! No boxing set up though, but they did have 4 daily yoga classes of all different types at about $15 per class (even for hotel guests). You don’t actually even need to be staying here to use the gym or do the classes, you can just come and pay to use it (it is free for hotel guests). They also have an indoor lap pool and you can use your Accor card for 50% off food here too!
Hoi An is world heritage listed, and probably the least commercialised city I think I’ve ever been to… I didn’t even see a McDonald’s, let alone any kind of retail chain or gym. We stayed at the Grand Royal, which was a Wotif.com bargain about half way between the beach and the town (5 mins drive or 30 mins walk to either). It was nothing flash, but one of the best things about this hotel was the free push-bikes that you could take out for the day. We rode in a big loop out to the beach, then along the coastline, back to the city centre and then back to the hotel which was a 80-90 min slow cruise.
There was also a little gym about 500m up the road… Going there was an experience in itself! Ill paint a picture for you… A 5 x 10m “pen” with rusted old weights machines, plates, benches, dumbells and a few shirtless young local guys, covering almost every inch of its unevenly concreted floor. You can imagine the funny looks we got walking in as 2 white girls in brightly coloured gym gear. But it only cost $2.50 for a day pass and did the job.
As far as food goes, there are sooo many authentic yummy Vietnamese restaurants to choose from. Our favourite was “Morning Glory”; both the eggplant and pumpkin side dishes are a MUST! For a main I had the BBQ’d chicken leg and my girlfriend had the ginger chicken; perfect examples of herbs and spices making food taste better than unhealthy fatty sauce ever could. I wish we had more time to do the cooking class here! The breakfast buffet at the hotel was pretty good too, and free I loved their yoghurt – it was like a natural non-sugary one that came in cute little glass jars that I topped with banana.
I only had the chance to visit Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Danang and Hoi An. When I booked the trip, I didn’t really know where to go or what there was to do in different places. But as it goes with travelling, you often find out about all the best spots to go just through talking to other travellers while there. Nha Trang, Phu Quoc and Hanoi are three of those, so I will write a little about what others told me to do there.
Nha Trang is one of the most popular beach spots with islands off of it apparently also with a visit. Phu Quoc is an island over the other side of the Vietnamese peninsular, closer to Koh Samui, that is also supposed to be beautiful, and almost always perfect weather (so we were told). Hanoi is the “northern capital” way up the top, supposed to be very cultural and beautiful.
If you have been to any of the places I missed, I’d love to hear your feedback and tips, as I’ll definitely be returning some day soon! And I hope this helps for anyone planning a trip!