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Sweet Memories of Vietnam

After a week of teaching in Hanoi, Author relaxing in a cruise at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Not THAT Vietnam

by Samra
posted January 12, 2010

I have sweet memories of Vietnam, not THAT Vietnam, but one seen through the eyes of a dancer. In August, 2009, as an extension of my trip to Malaysia this year to teach some workshops, to
see dear friends, and eat delicious Malaysian food, I decided that I wanted to go to Vietnam.  Taking seriously the saying that a day without dance is a day not lived, I took the initiative of arranging some dance opportunities while there.  Through the wonders of the internet and a network of friends I connected with dancers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  My life simply will never be the same!  I admit I say this each time I experience a new culture, but this trip was one of those transformational ones.  I will dedicate another article later to my stay in Malaysia.



When I arrived in Hanoi I was met by two young drivers hired by my hostess, An, owner of Apsara Studio.  I was immediately impressed and couldn’t help giggling at the creativity of my transporters to get my attention.  They were holding a big flyer of my workshops with name and photo in Belly Dance costume.  It certainly beats the dry names written by tour agencies to meet their arrivals.  Not knowing the country, I felt uneasy about what people in the airport would think of me as a belly dancer.

Soon I was to find out that I had nothing to worry. Hanoi is a vibrant cultural city and Belly Dance is the new rage.  It is respected as the true art form that it is, and dance students are hungry to learn more and more.

I was taken to Apsara Studio which is in fact a cultural center holding dance and fitness classes in many styles, as well as the home of Hidden Hanoi, a school where visitors and new comers can learn Vietnamese cuisine, language and folk dances.  An, the very beautiful owner and mother of 2, teaches the cooking classes and Latin dances, and her Australian husband owns a youth hostel downtown.  They do a wonderful job of sharing Vietnam with all visitors and are very welcoming hosts.  I stayed for 8 nights at Apsara studio. It is beautifully decorated, where dance students have a lounge with refreshments, comfy sofas and free internet access.  They can stay and relax as long as they want before, after or in between classes.

Hanoi is a very unique city in all aspects, including their houses.  I noticed and commented to a tourist guide on my way to Halong Bay that I had not seen two similar houses in the whole city and the countryside.  She said she never noticed or thought about it, but it was true.  They are very creative and individualistic!  An explained to me why the houses are so narrow.  She said that most people owned a business in front of their houses, and taxes used to be charged not based on the income of the business, but based on the size of the front room.  So the houses were very narrow and long!

The city has a modern section, the French District and the Old Hanoi.  The French District is the section with the widest Boulevards, fountains and it looks very different from the rest of the city.  I loved shopping in the Old City, because each street specializes in a certain category.  So, if you want fabrics, you go to the fabrics street, etc.  There are also big enclosed markets as well as modern boutiques and galleries.  Hanoi also has several lakes and parks and the government is enhancing the natural beauty of the city with preparations to celebrate their first millennium next year.

I don’t recall seeing Western fast food restaurants, although I am almost sure there are some somewhere. I ended up being too busy teaching several hours each day, preparing for the Hafla, and eating with my new friends who invited me to their homes or to ethnic restaurants nearby.  I even ate at a “restaurant” down the street from the studio, which is a local version of fast food and it was totally yummy.  I am a bit picky about clean food, but I had no trouble eating a couple of meals at this place. 

The food was prepared on the street. Cauldrons of extremely hot broth boiled on. The vegetables were crisp and fresh and the diners sitting on the only bench moved over to make room for me!  Everyone was friendly and smiled as warmly as the wonderful noodle and veggie soup!

Ara, the Belly Dance instructor in HanoiHanoi streetSome westerners may have a wrong impression of Hanoi as dirty and chaotic.  I might agree a little with the chaotic traffic, although it has its own flow.  But although at the end of the day one sees trash on the side streets (mostly from
pedestrians and motorbike riders), the people are always sweeping the streets.  The thing that some tourists don’t realize (and I wouldn’t have understood if I hadn’t stayed with Vietnamese) is that people practically live on the street in front of their houses. They cook, eat, play with their children, let their chickens run free. Sometimes they will put down a mat and sleep!  It is just a different way to do things.

After a few hours of exploring the city I always returned to the studio to teach classes to wonderful ladies eager to learn.  Although my workshops and classes in general were as affordable as possible, Vietnam is not an affluent country and people who attend classes are very dedicated and eager to grasp each new concept, each move.  There are several instructors in Hanoi; however, I worked mainly with Ara Twang, who trained with masters in Europe and Asia. She teaches workshops in France and several Asian Countries.  Although she started teaching in Apsara only two years ago, she has brought her students to a very skilled level and she insists on presenting the art of Middle Eastern dance in a very traditional and classy style.  Therefore her troupe, Bastet Douad and her students are sought by some of the best venues and events.  Ara is from South Korea and is a very talented dancer of many styles, with a very cheerful personality.  I really enjoyed hanging out and dancing with her.

Like all around the world, Vietnamese dancers love to shimmy.  So, the shimmy workshop and the drum choreography were very popular.

  Zills became the focus of my visit because most of the dancers hadn’t had the opportunity to play with them.  Everyone wanted to try a little and some caught on very quickly and fell in love with them.  But I think the most fun everyone had was during the workshop “Fusion for Fun”; I taught a playful choreography to a Shakira’s song fusing Samba, Salsa and Belly Dance.  The ladies really enjoyed it.  I still remember that one of the dancers wanted to learn this choreography so much that the detailed notes I gave out were not enough for all the details she wanted to grasp.  I would not permit videotaping in class, but suggested to her after she called me a couple of times, that I would allow her to videotape herself following me, and as long as only she appeared on the video, she could use that as a practice tool to reinforce the notes.  Unfortunately, the only time I had available was at 11:00PM of my last night in Hanoi.  She agreed to come pick me up where I was having dinner with friends and take me to the studio so that we could do this project.  I was tired and needed to pack, but I really felt touched by such desire and commitment.  It is truly amazing what we do for art.

I did take two days off to cruise Halong Bay, one of the most peaceful (if you ignore the other boats and hundreds of other tourists) places on earth. It is one of UNESCOs World Heritage Sites.  But it is magically beautiful and I am glad I took this side trip.  Hanoi will never be forgotten and I hope to return, but now it is time to leave this beautiful city and its wonderful people and fly south to HCMC.  I really felt like I was leaving a new family behind at Apsara Studio.

Halong Bay
Halong Bay is north of Hanoi, about a 4 hour drive.

HCMC or Saigon

When I arrived in HCMC (Saigon), it was night and I was met by my hostess, Sandrine, who teaches Belly Dance at the Dancenter one
of the upscale studios in the city.  Lihn Rateau is the owner of this beautiful studio, and also a very welcoming and friendly hostess.

Because it was still summer vacation, and since this studio is more oriented to children and youth, regular classes had not yet started so it was quieter there than it had been in Hanoi.  I had planned a shorter stay in HCMC and I didn’t get to wonder around the city on foot, cyclo, taxi and motorbike as I did in Hanoi.  Sandrine welcomed me in her home along with her gracious husband and two teenage sons.  This was a very kind gesture because they returned from Switzerland, their home country on the same day I arrived after been gone nearly two months.  Sandrine took me everywhere in the city.  She was always so patient and protective, even through my indecisive shopping.

HCMC is very different from Hanoi, not only because it is much bigger, but it also is more modern with new construction rising everywhere.  It is divided into districts, and due to my limited time I stayed mainly in two districts, so I can’t say that I got a true flavor of the city.  It gave me a feeling of being more western in appearance and structure.  I did most of my Vietnam shopping in Saigon because of luggage weight restrictions in domestic flights.  I guess my favorite purchase was a silk pink lotus lamp, and my miniature water puppet.  

Seeing a water puppet show was one of the highlights of my stay in HCMC.  I am a fan of puppets of all kinds and water puppetry was unknown to me.  I thoroughly enjoyed the show, although I could not understand a word.  But the dragons and the battles and fights with lots of splashing water was fun. And the music by the live orchestra was hauntingly beautiful at times and comical when needed.  I actually got the passage about the turtles because I had heard about the legend of the turtles in Hanoi and had seen the turtle monument in the middle of the main lake there.  But the part I could really identify was the dance segment, where two dancers came out dancing with Wings of Isis!  Totally adorable.

Water Puppet Show in Ho Chi Minh City
Water Puppet Show in Ho Chi Minh City

Another highlight of my stay was our evening at Byblos, a Lebanese Restaurant and Shisha Lounge in the heart of the cultural district.  Lauren and Donald, the Lebanese owners had heard of my upcoming visit and invited me to come dine with them.  The meal was absolutely scrumptious.  Besides providing a meal to delight everyone’s taste buds, they are great supporters of Belly Dance, featuring local dancers on a weekly basis.  I met another HCMC dancer, Tran and her two students who performed that night.  I recommend this restaurant strongly.  The quality of the food and the friendliness of the owners and staff is an asset to the city and the art of Belly Dance.

Bylbos in Saigon
Evening at Byblos,  Saigon
L to R: Samra,  Donald, a friend,  Lauren, Sandrine,  Tran

I enjoyed teaching at the studio.  The dancers were very focused and disciplined, but some of the workshops were a bit of a challenge for some because I actually had some participants who had never attended a class before.  Several were traveling through the city or or were expats from Europe and UK.  But as usual, I teach in layers thus everyone seemed to have had a great time, getting what they could according to their background and our class time limits.  Finally the day came when sadly I had to say goodbye to the lovely Sandrine and her family, and leave Vietnam, a country to where I really hope to return.  I depart on my flight to Malaysia to stay a few days before returning home.  Little did I know the adventures that awaited me in Kuala Lumpur, which has become one of my homes away from home. Stayed tuned for the that story in my next article!

Resources for Dance in Vietnam


  • An – Owner and Director of Hidden Hanoi
    Apasara Studio
    (+84 4) 3 7197916

HCMC (Saigon):

  • Linh Rateau
    46/2 Nguyen Cuu Van
    BT dist. HCMC
    3 840 69 74
  • Byblos Restaurant and Shisha Lounge
    11 Ngo Duc Ke Street | District 1
    Ho Chi Minh City | Vietnam.
    (84-8) 3825 7781 | Fax: (84-8)  3822 3104

Apasara Studio
click for enlargement
After a workshop in Apsara Studio in Hanoi
Hopefully names will be added here soon!


Double Veil workshop in Dancenter, HCMC
Hopefully names will be added here soon!


Samra takes Hanoi by Cyclo

Tropical downpour in Hanoi

Tropical downpour in Hanoi

"national" dish of Vietnam.   Pronounced like  "fur"

This is the "national" dish of Vietnam.   The name is pronounced like  "fur".

.East meets West in the kitchen
.East meets West in the kitchen

Shopping in HCMC

Modern Shopping in HCMC

Born to ride!

Born to ride!

Last note from author: I FORGOT to mention that in Hanoi,  I had the BEST MASSAGE EVER!

Don’t forget to mention the tour to Egypt!  Leyla is hoping to have everyone signed up ASAP since we are going around Easter and it is hard to secure flights at the last minute.


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