Barbara Adam ventures into the jungle to experience girl power, yoga, trekking and kayaking at Chick’s Club.
When Georgiana Zana arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from her native Romania in September 2015, she found meeting like-minded people was much more difficult than she expected.
But this woman of action and avid globe-trotter didn’t let a little expat loneliness get her down. Instead she decided to combine her three passions — traveling, event planning and friendship — to create the community she was seeking.
Chick’s Club was founded in February 2016 and in December that year, the organisation hosted its first women-only retreat. That first jungle yoga retreat in Cat Tien National Park, three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, was a roaring success, which Georgiana followed with retreats in Phan Thiet and Hue in Vietnam and in Bali in Indonesia.
“Chicks Club is for all the women who want to boost their self-confidence, spark ideas and creativity, connect, inspire and be inspired by a group of like-minded people,” Georgiana said.
I joined the recent Yoga in the Jungle Volume IV to learn more about the organisation, and get in a bit of yoga and meditation practice, activities I have not really tried for more than 10 years. Georgiana assured me the weekend getaway was designed for yoga novices (like me) and experts alike.
And so at 4pm on a hot and sunny Saigon Friday afternoon, with Typhoon Doksuri bearing down on central Vietnam, I joined 17 other women in the carpark of MegaMart (formerly Metro) in District 2 to catch a chartered bus to Ta Lai Longhouse just outside Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai Province.
The group was a mix of ages and nationalities, friends and strangers, Vietnamese locals, long-time expats, and newcomers to the city. Romania’s Daliana Daniloni, a psychotherapist and event organiser, was the retreat leader and Vietnam’s Tram Nhu the yoga and meditation instructor.
Bonding started on the bus and continued over the retreat’s first meal, a vegetarian dinner prepared by Ta Lai Longhouse staff.
The longhouse, which opened in 2012, is an ecotourism project founded by the World Wildlife Fund and now run by a private company in collaboration with the local community. Every guest who stays at the longhouse contributes US$7a night to the local community of Ma and Stieng ethnic minority people, who were moved out of the jungle and into villages when the national park was created.
Our group of 18 women and two leaders slept together in the bamboo longhouse, on comfortable mattresses cocooned by individual mosquito nets. Thankfully no one snored.
The next morning, as rain drip-dropped from the thatched yoga hut, we began the serious business of meditating and stretching.
Nhu led the session, beginning with Tibetan bowl meditation and moving on to sun salutations and flow yoga. As we sweated and extended various limbs and focused on inner stillness, in the distance jungle roosters crowed, birds twittered, a mobile phone rang and crockery clanked gently in the kitchen.
After two hours of virtuousness, breakfast was served: pancakes, baguettes, eggs and the longhouse’s own brand of coffee, K’Phe.
By now, the quiet atmosphere of the first meal has dissipated, replaced by a loud and friendly camaraderie.
The feeling of instant friendship was reinforced during the morning’s kayaking excursion, which set off from the small natural lake at the rear of the longhouse’s property. We paddled along a little stream to an orange grove, where we parked our kayaks and went for a “swim” in the river.
The swim consisted of clambering over some rocks to sit in the middle of the river and chat. At a certain point I realised that sitting in the middle of a river after a night of heavy rain and a typhoon to the north was perhaps not the smartest idea.
The current had gotten stronger and the river level higher during our “swim”. So we returned to the kayaks to head home.
I skipped the afternoon photo scavenger hunt in favour of a deliciously long nap, and woke ready for the next meditation and yoga session and that night’s impressive vegetarian feast. Friendships were strengthened further around a bonfire, as we roasted marshmallows on sticks.
Sunday dawned clear, and we hit the yoga mats before breakfast for another slightly more challenging two-hour session.
After breakfast we were introduced to the concept of leech socks, ahead of the scheduled two-hour trek.
These particular leech socks were a little like surgical bootees. As we rubbed leech repellent into these fetching navy knee-high numbers, Ka’Huong, our guide, told us that only ground leeches live in Cat Tien National Park. Tree leeches, which drop onto your head and shoulders, were only found in Vietnam’s north, she said, reassuringly.
During the trek, Ka’Huong pointed out leaves and plants the local people used to use when they lived in the jungle. One plant’s leaves contained anti-leech oil, another a compound that relieves kidney stones, she said.
It was a very hot trek up, so it seemed perfectly logical for a group of women to break into song. First The Lion Sleeps Tonight, then some Jungle Book songs.
We finished our trek very hot and sweaty, but smiling. By now we were aware the weekend was almost over. Lunch, packing, more yoga and things really were winding down.
An early dinner and then we piled into tractors to go to the ferry to cross the Dong Nai River to where our bus was waiting to take us back to Ho Chi Minh City, and real life.
It’s Not Over
The day after our retreat, as we struggled to get through a non-jungley Monday, a newly-created Whatsapp group was buzzing. The group was formed in the final hours of our retreat, and ever since we got back it’s been burning with messages about meetups, future events, and encouragement for Anh who competed in a marathon in Sapa the following weekend. Chick’s Club certainly fulfilled its mission to link participants into a fabulous group of inspiring women.
Everyone who attends one of Chick’s Clubs retreats becomes a member of the organisation’s growing community, with access to discounts, upgrades and member-only social events.
There are also regular social events for members and non-members, such as movie nights, book swaps and potluck dinners.
Georgiana plans to extend the Chick’s Club network to other countries in Southeast Asia and to Europe. She’s also created Vagab0nd, an overarching brand that will include Chick’s Club’s women-only escapes and more inclusive events open to men and women.
Keep an eye out for future events on chicks-club.com.