When will Vietnam become pretty

Before I came to Vietnam, I was under the impression that Vietnamese women, and Asian women in general, were simply genetically gifted.

That is to say, I thought they just came out of the womb tiny and beautiful, and naturally stayed that way their entire lives without having to exude any sort of extra effort to do so.

After all, the  typical Vietnamese woman or Thai woman is all of the things Western women strive to be – thin, petite, with gorgeous straight hair and creamy, chestnut-colored skin (skin they spend their lives trying to whiten, but that’s another post).

They don’t get fat. They don’t age. They seem to be walking miracles of beauty, earthly Goddesses who can get away with wearing pajamas in public and somehow still manage to look fantastic.

Imagine my surprise when, after nearly four months in Vietnam, I began to realize that Vietnamese women put in a monstrous effort in order to remain tiny and thin and beautiful.

Sure, a small part of their good looks can be traced to genetic good fortune, but a larger part has to do with cultural habits that are woven into the fabric of their day.

Here are 7 things Vietnamese women do (and don’t do) in order to keep looking and feeling their best.

Warning: This post is filled with gross generalizations. 

1. They don’t eat wheat

Notice I didn’t say carbs, I said wheat. There is a whole lot of rice being consumed here on the daily, but hardly any wheat or other grains. Noodles, dumplings, it’s all made out of rice.

A typical meal at my guesthouse consists of rice with a small serving of fish or meat (typically pork) plus vegetables and soup. No bread, no pasta, nothing fried, nothing microwaved.

It’s interesting to note that it’s most definitely white rice too, not supposedly-healthier brown rice we’ve always heard is better for you.

2. Their desserts aren’t sweet

You’d be hard-pressed to see a Vietnamese woman mowing down on some cake – heck, you’d be hard-pressed to find cake. One day at the beach I decided to treat myself to an ice cream cone, and I was given some sort of cross between sorbet and gelato – definitely not the creamy, fatty goodness I was looking for.

Traditional desserts are naturally sweet and include things like coconut, coconut milk, peanuts, fruit, and even beans. The other night I tried some kind of green tea gelatin thing, which was light years away from the Western idea of a dessert.

It’s brilliant thinking – make desserts kind of gross and no one will want them.

Vietnamese women (and men, and kids!) also eat a lot of fruit. Fruit is incorporated into one’s daily diet – sometimes as dessert, sometimes as a snack.

But even the fruits aren’t as sweet as ours are – many are sour, bitter. People’s palettes are different, trained to enjoy foods that are healthy and dislike foods that are heavy, sugary, fatty.

My friend Tina took me for “dessert” one day and we had large glasses filled with all different types of fruit.

“Do you want sugar in yours?” she asked.

“Does the rain in Spain stay mainly in the plain?” I replied.

After we’d finished, I asked her if she had also gotten her dessert “with sugar.”

“Of course not” was her reply.

3. They don’t drink beer

After 3 months in Vietnam I have seen exactly two Vietnamese women drink beer. The first was this terribly obnoxious person who I think was on drugs, the second was my guest owner who indulged in half a glass of beer while out to dinner for a special occasion.

Beer, alcohol, and cigarettes are considered “men’s business” in Vietnam. It’s not ladylike to walk around sloshed, but it’s also not practical – women need to be stone cold sober so the house stays clean and the kids stay fed.

Thanks to these cultural roles and beliefs, the women also don’t develop beer bellies.

4. They LOVE to exercise

The Vietnamese love to go to the beach and play in the water (though many don’t/can’t swim). They also love to exercise every day!

Whether it’s outdoor aerobics in the park or Tai Chi in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, they are out there, working it, in the early mornings or late afternoons.

It also helps that in many cities across Asia there are outdoor exercise parks – imagine your health club, except outside, and free. Fitness is not only a cultural priority, it’s government-sanctioned.

5. They play with their kids

My current guest house owner is the general manager of a hotel and works up to 60 hours a week. But the second she comes home, she’s down on the floor, rolling around with her 9-year old daughter and 18-month old son.

They play, they dance, they sing, they laugh. Family time is a top priority, and I swear the calories she burns from chasing the baby around are a big part of what keeps her so slim.

6. Their food is labor-intensive

The Vietnamese make it really difficult to eat, which means they eat less, which in turn keeps them thin.

You can’t simply shovel food into your mouth, because that food first has to be unshelled, de-boned, pitted, separated, or defrocked in some way.

Nothing is packaged, most foods come straight from the source. So if you’re having shrimp, you first need to remove the shell and the head and the legs. And that takes time.

At the end of your meal, you’ve spent about 50% of your time preparing to eat, and 50% actually eating. The end result is less food ends up in your stomach (and on your hips).

I think this technique in particular would be great for Americans. Make it harder for us to get at the pie – like, put it behind a locked glass door or at the end of a complicated maze – and we’re much less likely to eat it. Too much effort.

7. They’re constantly on the move

Vietnamese women are always on the move. My guest house owner is back and forth from work to home a half dozen times per day. She’s taking the kids to school, picking them up, going back to work, running to the market, and on and on and on, all day every day.

You might be saying “But Rebekah, I’m a stressed out mess and I’m constantly on the move too, how come I don’t weight 90 pounds?”

The difference between our running around and the running around of Vietnamese women is that they do it joyfully.

If I have 87 places to go in a single day, I’m stressed out and grumbling. If Phuong has 87 places to go, she thinks nothing of it.

Why?

Because she has no sense of entitlement. We have this secret belief that we shouldn’t have to do all these errands – that someone else should be doing them for us.

We resent hard work, which is the main factor that leads to our increased stress levels (and we all watch Dr. Oz – stress is the #1 cause of weight gain!)

Vietnamese women, on the other hand, have no inkling that they shouldn’t have to work hard – they expect it. They accept it.

And because of that, life flows through them in a way that keeps them healthy and content with just enough.

Which of these habits could you see yourself adopting into your own life?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. They don't eat wheat

2. Their desserts aren't sweet

3. They don't drink beer

4. They LOVE to exercise

5. They play with their kids

6. Their food is labor-intensive

7. They're constantly on the move

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!