Public parks aren’t usually on the radar for travellers exploring Asia – but they should be. A long-time resident of Vietnam’s capital city tells us why the region’s public parks are some of the coolest places to explore in Asia.
I’m an early bird. Up by five-thirty, out the door by six – there’s just something about early mornings that I love. Since I moved to Vietnam four years ago, I’ve found kindred spirits in pretty much every Hanoi local, too. English-speakers living here like to call Hanoi the “city that never sleeps in”, and they aren’t exaggerating. People living in the capital city tend to rise with the sun (or before it), and converge upon the stomping ground for the city’s early risers. Those places? The public parks.
Come six in the morning, and you’ll find the public parks in Hanoi stirring to life before most of us have even rolled out of bed. Locals congregate in these shared spaces in the urban bustle to exercise, to socialise and even to eat. And like any well-established public space, people tend to organise themselves into microcosms of culture – like the outdoor version of a high school cafeteria.
Spend enough time in Vietnam (and plenty of other countries in Asia) and you’ll begin to realise just how fascinating this curious cultural phenomenon is to watch. I’ve done my fair share of people watching in the wee hours of the morning – both in Vietnam and some of its neighbouring nations. With the help of a little coffee and an alarm clock, this is what I’ve discovered about Asia’s public parks – and why they’re worth experiencing for yourself.
Nothing brightens your day quite like watching open-air aerobics classes.
Most of us Westerners think of aerobics and imagine a gym classroom filled to the rafters with hot pink Lycra. Aerobics is one of those things that only happens in the relative privacy of a recreation centre – never out in full view of the public.
In Asia, this couldn’t be further from reality. Self-consciousness takes a back seat to the gyrating, undulating energy of an aerobics class in the open air. Local women (and a handful of men) flail in-time with catchy dance music blasting over the speakers of an old boom box. A chirpy instructor counts off the steps, and her crew of amateur Jane Fondas work up a sweat with hip rolls, pirouettes and jumping jacks set to a thumping beat.
In no place is it more fun to watch than at Hanoi’s Lenin Park – smack-dab in the centre of the city, and hosting a handful of aerobics crews within its confines. Get there for around 6AM to catch them just as they’re starting. If you’re feeling especially bold, join in for a few eight-counts – you’re guaranteed to make a few of the locals smile.
You haven’t really seen local culture until you’ve watched a heated game of Chinese chess.
When I was eleven, I learned how to play chess with the help of my grandfather. I remember watching him stare intently at the board, calculating his next move for what felt like hours. I also remember this cherry-red colour his face became when he realized I’d beat him for the first time.
That cherry-red colour is the same as I’ve seen on the faces of many local men huddled over a good game of Chinese chess. Apparently, such intense concentration has a way of making them get a bit flushed, and watching the sheer intensity of some more competitive pairs battling it out is truly a sight to see.
In Shanghai’s Xiangyang Park, so tense is the rivalry that certain Chinese chess matches are nothing short of a spectator sport. Expect “oo-ing” and “ahh-ing” crowds reacting to every move, and some serious sums of money hanging in the balance. Just outside of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, you’ll find local men battling it out within a stone’s throw of this epic historical wonder.
Old souls abound in public parks.
In China and Vietnam (and in a smaller way within Hong Kong), there has long been a focus on promoting exercise and regular activity for the aging local community. Even now within some of the region’s public parks, you’ll see signs and posters advocating the benefits of regular exercise for local retirees. But since living quarters in Asia aren’t exactly spacious – and gyms still pretty new on the scene – getting exercise means getting outside.
Older folks in Asia have a few clever tricks up their sleeves when it comes to daily exercise. Rather than setting off for lengthy walks or jogs (the public parks in Asia are only so big, after all), they have mastered the art of stationary workouts. Without ever moving more than a few feet, I’ve watched sixty-somethings jog, jump and pump imaginary iron – and broken a serious sweat while doing it.
I’ve found that local pensioners in Asia are particularly drawn to lakes and rivers for their daily exercise. My personal favourite is on the edges of Hanoi’s West Lake, a vast and beautiful body of water in the capital city. Get up early enough and you’ll have the pleasure of watching fishermen casting their lines over the water, too.
Tea (and pretty much everything else) tastes better in the great outdoors.
While many of us would consider eating a strictly indoors activity (unless, of course, we’re camping or having a picnic), Asia is part of the world where eating happens everywhere, all the time. Food in Hanoi is incredibly important, since recipes and dishes have their roots deep in the history and heritage of people here. The same goes for most other countries in Asia where the rapid pace of development wreaks havoc on its heritage. You can tear down as many buildings as you’d like, but it’s hard to do away with something as culturally-ingrained as food and drink.
So, it’s only natural that Asia’s love of food and drink spills out into its beloved public spaces. There’s no better excuse to gather with friends and family than a great meal, and so gatherings in public parks usually involve some kind of snack or beverage, too.
In Chengdu (a Chinese city best known for its Panda Research Centre) the quickly-vanishing culture of open-air tea shops still holds fast against the tides of change. Wander through its vast, green public parks and you’ll stumble across more than just a few tea shops. These haphazard collections of chairs (some more like a bamboo EZ-Boy recliner) are usually covered only by an overhanging of foliage or tree canopies. What’s happening within them, however, is culture unfolding. Pull up a chair and watch the world go by here – you’ll be feeling like a local in no time.
Local life unfolds in the public park.
Let’s face it – sometimes its not easy to get in touch with local culture on our travels. We’re usually so busy ticking off the top city attractions that we forget to slow down, look around and watch life unfold around us. There are few places that offer less distraction and a better front-row seat for local lifestyles than shared urban space. So, next time you’re exploring the greatest cities in Asia, don’t forget to leave a little extra time to wander through a public park or two.
Oh, and leave the guide book at home.
Ready to get a firsthand look at local culture we explored here? Ask our travel experts to build our exclusive Local Life experiences in with a customised itinerary in Asia – complete with the top spots and the off-the-beaten-track experiences (including the above).