Written by Brook McCarthy

The lucky bunch attending the upcoming Byron Yoga Centre teacher training and retreat in Vietnam will spend ten days in the salubrious Life Resort, set on a near-private beach twenty-five minutes drive from Quy Nhon town. Before arriving at Quy Nhon, students and teachers are most likely to fly into the thriving port of Ho Chi Minh city, otherwise known as Saigon.

“My first impression of Saigon when I visited two years ago was of a bustling, westernised city,” says Stephan Kahlert, meditation and yoga teacher at Byron Yoga. “I wondered what the Vietnam war was all about?” It was Saigon’s western influences and capitalist heart that caused it to become estranged from the communist north until the final undignified withdrawal of the US in April 1975. Signs of the war, known here as the American war, are now few in this thoroughly modern city, yet commemorated with considerable sensitivity and a skilled serve of politics at the War Remnants Museum in the city’s central District One.

The French colonial-style Oscar Hotel where Stephan and other Byron Yoga teachers will be staying is also in district one, in the wide Nguyen (pronounced ‘win’) Hue Boulevard. Just opposite is the well-known Rex Hotel which hosted many American officers and press briefings during the war. The Saigon River, the famed Ben Thanh markets, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the People’s Committee Building are all a short stroll from the Oscar.

“Another vivid impression was of motorcycles bearing down upon us whenever we went to cross the road,” adds Stephan. Crossing the wide boulevards of Saigon takes considerable skill – and courage. Adopt the local method by moving slowly and consistently across the street and watch as motorcyclists swerve around you. Thriving streets packed with markets, shops, tiny alleyway cafes and vendors selling from stands-on-wheels and with goods spread out on crowded pavements viewed from the back of a motorcycle is an experience not to be missed. Hitching a ride on the back of a ‘moto’ or ‘Homda’ is the easiest and most common form of short-trip transportation in Vietnam. Be sure to agree on a price beforehand – usually 20-25,000 dong, about one dollar and thirty cents Australian.

Although Saigon sets the economic capital and contemporary social trends for the rest of the country, the traditions and beauty of ancient Vietnam culture is also evident – so long as you know where to look. “I recall several small snapshots of life lived in the open – men getting a haircut with the mirror stuck to the trunk of a beautiful old tree, the common and enchanting sight of school girls on bicycles in white ao dais (traditional dress and pants), and the smell of incense and sounds of tolling bells in the city’s many small Buddhist temples.” Stephan’s 20 plus years of experience in yoga and meditation is steeped in Buddhism, including Zen style, but his current method is influenced by several schools and philosophies.

“I am a big advocate for enjoying your meditation – it’s fun and very beneficial,” says Stephan. As a trained psychologist with experience teaching stress management, Stephan’s approach is grounded in western science, but his engaging, infectious style wins over both complete novices and seasoned meditators. “Although meditation can certainly be done by anyone wherever you are, results can be much faster in a relaxed and supportive environment which we aim to create at the Life Resort in Quy Nhon.” The yoga space at the Life Resort is set right by the water. It also has a beautiful spa with good value massage, health and beauty treatments, modern and spacious hotel rooms, and fresh, authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

“Vietnamese cuisine is world-renowned for its subtlety, its liberal use of fresh herbs and citrus and its Taoist balance of the elements of meals – sweet (earth), salty (water), bitter (fire), sour (wood) and pungent (metal).” For the seafood enthusiast, Vietnam is heaven, with favourites including caramel fish in clay pot, sour fish soup and, of course, the incredibly salty and pungent-smelling fish sauce. For pure vegetarians, choices are more limited but not insurmountable, especially with the many vegetarian and vegan restaurants catering for strict Buddhists. A good choice in Saigon is Tib restaurant on the second floor at 170 Tran Quang Khai Street in district one. For more vegetarian choices, visit: www.happycow.net

To find out more about the upcoming yoga retreat and yoga teacher training in Vietnam, visit our Yoga Retreats Vietnam page.