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Sweating out My Sadness on the Canal's Exercise Machines

We're all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

That's a quote that I've memorized from the cult classic Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai. The dialogue comes from the main character, “Cop 223” He Zhiwu, who has just been unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. As a way to chew over his pain, he indulges in aimless activities such as running around a baseball field until he faints.

In 2023, I purchased a set of workout clothes and a pair of sneakers to force myself into motion, as a natural reflex to breaking up. Of course, I am well aware that biologically, the human body has the ability to continuously regenerate tears. But in moments of confusion, I want to believe in the romanticization of cinema, for in the end, there could only be two outcomes:

1. I defy science, becoming the first person in history to actually run out of tears.

2. Working out makes me healthier and more attractive, theoretically boosting my chances of stumbling into someone new. Quite sensible.

Public fitness equipment was introduced to Vietnam in 2009.

Today, staying fit has never been easier for Saigoneers, with an array of gyms popping up at every price point. However, I don’t trust myself to fend off predatory sales pitches and century-long membership plans, especially with my impatient nature. To assess my perseverance, I needed a test — a free test, to be exact.

Thus, after every workday, I would walk to the embankment on Hoàng Sa Street, just five minutes from my house. Here, a variety of public fitness equipment has been installed, including hip twisters, sit-up benches, parallel bars, treadmills, etc. My reasoning was, if I could handle turning cranky iron wheels for a month, I would surely deserve a smooth treadmill in an air-conditioned room, complete with body fat percentage meters and an iPad screen to listen to my favorite artists.

After a month of challenging myself, my trial plan turned out differently than I imagined. The public fitness system is indeed very simple and comes without any modern features. Each piece of equipment is designed for practical exercises, and the instructions for using the machines are written in the simplest language, so anyone can access them. Even after being exposed to rain and sunshine 24/7 for many years, the layers of yellow, white, and green paint only chipped a bit, while the joints continue to operate smoothly, albeit emitting a few creaks with each hip twist or pedal push.

In 2009, city officials, inspired by visits to Singapore and Thailand, adopted and piloted in four major parks, including Tao Đàn, Lê Văn Tám, Gia Định, and 23/9. Observing the public’s support, the model was expanded to the rest of the city. By April 2013, along with the completion of the Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal renovation project, over 60 machines had been installed along the waterway. Thanks to the pleasant landscape and free equipment, the area around the canal soon became a public gym, catering to the physical training needs of residents who couldn’t afford more expensive alternatives.

Residents use the fitness equipment in the morning near the base of Điện Biên Phủ bridge.

As predicted, I stopped working out on the embankment after a month. Not because the equipment was inadequate, but because sitting under the green trees, watching people (and floating bottles) pass by while gasping for breath, somehow had a healing effect. I ran out of tears to cry, though I still sweated profusely. Nevertheless, every morning on my way to work along Hoàng Sa Street, I felt a sense of joy seeing the machines being used, grateful for their silent servitude under harsh weather, waiting to serve me and all the other strangers. Should the government rope me in to advertise for these exercise machines, I would chime in with a quick disclaimer: “This product is suitable for children, the elderly, and broken-hearted adults.”

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