Claudia Davaar Lambie boldly attempts paddle boarding down the Saigon River. Photos by Vinh Dao.

“Hold your stomach in as if you’ve been punched,” my paddle boarder friend replied, after I probed her on the best way to stay balanced.

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) originated from Hawaii and has now made its way to Ho Chi Minh City thanks to Tommy Woo. Originally from California, Woo is an electronics engineer by trade. As a trained diver and surfer, the 36-year-old loves everything related to water sports. He began paddle boarding two years ago just for the fun of it.

Woo launched W.A.O. SUP Saigon in August 2015 after deciding it was time for the young (and older) citizens of HCMC to step away from the gadgets, iPhones and electronics and start living an active, healthy life. W.A.O. is an abbreviation for ‘We Are One’, which is associated with Woo’s previous survival training team.

Woo and four trainers are dedicated to coaching newcomers to stand-up paddle boarding. The water sport is a variation of surfing but without the waves. Instead, SUP allows you to glide along the calm water using a human-sized paddle and all the core strength you can muster.

Upon arrival at a District 7 section of the Saigon River, Woo gave us a brief training session on land. He skillfully demonstrated the paddle technique using the oar. Perfecting this paddle method seemed pivotal when aiming to steer the board in the preferred direction. Woo also explained that balancing on the board (and not falling off) required your feet to always be centred. Woo’s expertise helped calm any pre-paddle nerves that we had.

Apprehensively, we walked down the embankment to the river. One by one, we climbed on board to revise the training methods. Ensuring the Velcro ankle strap was securely tightened, I slowly stepped on and carefully hunkered down on my knees. Using the flat side of the paddle, I pulled parallel to the board in a downwards direction. The paddle had to be deeply submerged in the water for the board to move any real distance.

As Woo explains, setting up W.A.O. SUP in Saigon was easy. “The SUP boards with attachable fins are easily inflated, deflated and stored away,” he says. The boards are made from a PVC fabric which holds the board in shape. Woo said that they are of the best quality, purchased from the Netherlands, Germany, Korea and Hong Kong.

With the practise session over, it was time to paddle the waves without any assistance. When I asked Woo for any last minute tips, he helpfully replied, “You have to get over your fear, that’s all!” Still squatted down on my knees, I wanted to try and perfect the paddle technique before attempting to stand up. Gliding along the river like a swan, I soon began to feel at ease.

I felt like a real pro, as long as I paddled in a straight line. When it came to turning the board to the left or right, it was a different story altogether. I had moments of spinning round in circles, the enveloping water lapping onto me. Woo shouted over with instructions on how best to navigate, which I eventually managed to do.

Despite the tangles of plastic bags and chunks of wood dotted around, bobbing on the river was quite relaxing. Tug boats waded across from time to time, carrying cargo and passengers from one district to another. An occasional current from a passing boat would naturally sway the board in a new direction. If surfing is for adrenaline junkies, SUP is for chilled-out adventurers.

It was time to stand up. Slowly I perched onto my feet, knees still bent, and then positioned myself like a runner seconds before the starting pistol. Ensuring my feet never left the centre of the board, every muscle in my legs shook as I attempted to stand. Thankfully, Woo was on hand to assist. I was terrified I would fall into the river.

Gaining your balance is one thing, but holding onto a 6ft paddle and steering the board simultaneously becomes exhausting. Gripping onto the paddle for dear life, my knees were locked in. Finally, I was doing it… I was stand-up paddle boarding. Woo looked on from the edge of the river, waving and smiling at me like a proud father, as though I’d just removed the stabilisers from my bike.

The benefits of SUP are limitless which is why Woo advocates it so much.

“It’s great for improving your balance, it gives your body a full workout as you tense every muscle and it allows you to connect with nature,” he says. Woo is currently working on a programme to combine SUP and yoga which he promises will be the best workout yet. He also wants to take people on tours to other lakes and rivers in places like Tay Ninh or Da Lat.

After a strenuous two hours of paddling, it was time to call it a day. My legs ached and my stomach crunched but I felt a true sense of accomplishment. I had paddle boarded on the Saigon River; something I never thought I’d hear myself say.

One hour of paddle boarding cost VND 250,000 and two hours VND 450,000. Visit waosupsaigon.com.