Overweight, beer bellies are ‘oddities’ for Vietnamese

TEXTS AND PHOTOS by Jesse Pizarro Boga

HANOI, Vietnam (MindaNews/05 September) — It was 5 a.m. when my alarm went off. My lazy Filipino butt was glued to my bed when I heard a soft knock on my door.

“Jesse?” Bin, my young Vietnamese brother, called. “Are you ready?”

Earlier that week, I agreed to go jogging with him in a nearby park–a fitness routine that is out of the ordinary in me.

Back home in the Philippines, I would only “jog” in the afternoon and usually with my friend Karla. Both of us often lied to ourselves, as we don’t really jog. We just put on our running shoes and walk around gossiping.

We usually end our afternoon “jogging” session with some ice cream and cake.

The average Vietnamese would probably be so confused with what Karla and I do–because the average Vietnamese jogs like he/she means it.







Vietnamese jogging at the Cong Vien Nghia Do (Nghia Do Park).

Fitness frenzy

Being fit and healthy is engrained in the lifestyle of the Vietnamese. This is reflected by the number of people that I saw in Cong Vien Nghia Do (Nghia Do Park) that morning. We arrived there at 5:30.

The park, which surrounds Lake Nghia Tan, was teeming with about 300 people that I almost believed that there was a fitness or family activity going on.

There was none. The morning was yet another daybreak in the city.

In one corner of the park, there was a group of women doing aerobics to the bass beats of a remixed version of a Rihanna song. The women, in their 40s and 50s and clad in their printed pajamas, were stretching and flexing their muscles in rhythm, following a recorded voice that was counting and telling which set of moves are next. They were popping their chests, shaking their buttocks, and bending their bodies forward to reach their toes—just some of the many exercises that they do to improve cardio-vascular endurance.

Jogging to the other side of the park leads me to see a bunch of shirtless guys working out on bars. They were doing leg raises, pull ups, and push ups. Some were doing sit ups on the ground as some children sat next to them, imitating what the grown ups did.

An elderly group of people could also be spotted in another corner. They were doing some sort of Vietnamese yoga that had them sitting calmly on the ground and meditating with their eyes closed.


A group of Vietnamese doing yoga.

The folk in their golden age who gracefully move their arms and legs engaged in some Vietnamese Tai Chi called “Thai Cuc Quyen;” their movements were beautifully synchronized.


After finishing my first 800-meter lap around the park, I saw a lawn playground with children playing on bars, swings, and see-saws. There were another group of elderly women next to them. These women were chanting and yelling and walking in circles, as lead by someone. They were perhaps doing a cardio exercise of some sort.

These scenes repeat themselves every afternoon like clockwork.

Weighing scales are everywhere on the streets, too! In Hanoi, no one has an excuse to be overweight, considering that it is very easy to check your state of health anytime and anywhere. These scales, which also measure height and BMI (Body Mass Index), only cost you 4,000 VND (eight pesos) for the service.

And when the morning workout is over, everyone goes home for a warm bowl of noodle soup for breakfast. Others hang out by the pavement for some brewed tea with ice (Tra Da) or yogurt. There are bottles of orange juice and energy drinks on sale, too.

Fancy schmancy protein shakes were nowhere to be found. Who needs those when the Vietnamese have their resources for nutrients, anyway?

Vietnamese “carinderia”

Food stores abound every street in Hanoi, which cater to residential areas and neighborhoods around them. These small eateries are called “Quan An” (literally translates to “store eat”). Some have highly specialized menus (noodles only) and others house an extensive range of dishes (usually served with rice).


Vietnamese eateries are called “Quan An” (literally translates to “store eat”). Some have highly specialized menus (noodles only) and others house an extensive range of dishes (usually served with rice).

Food servings are often generous and sometimes overwhelming. My first ever Quan An dinner was a hodgepodge of rice, pork, eggs, vegetables, and soup. I was certain that my plate could be shared with a friend. It was reasonable at 35,000 VND (about 70 PHP); but I was pretty sure I could get an appropriate serving at half the price in Davao (ugh, I miss Balbacua and Hinalang).

Employees nearby flock to this Quan An near my house. All of them enjoy the heaps of vegetables on rice. The food on their plates were more varied than mine.

One lady seated next to me one Monday lunch had bean stalks, bean sprouts, braised pork with coconut meat (Dua Kho Thit), stir fried young pumpking with garlic (Bi Do Non Xao Toi), and rice on her big plate.

Others pile up crab spring rolls (Nem Cua Be), water spinach stalks with beef (Nom Rau Muong Thit Bo), and tofu on their rice. The Vietnamese also enjoy pork with rice, but the meat is often served as a side dish to the vegetable entree, a complete opposite of what we do in the Philippines.

Stir-fried noodles (My Xao), often served with beef, chicken, or seafood meat and plently of vegetable stalks and leaves, have less grease. These are made by the serving, so each order is ensured fresh and flavorful.

Somewhere in the bustling Old Quarter in Hoan Kiem District, another Quan An is busy serving people bowls and bowls of sticky rice (Xoi), a sweet but often savory Vietnamese dish that is made from glutinous rice. I usually order this with steamed corn and garlic flakes (for more flavor and texture) and boiled chicken slices as toppings. Beef, eggs, and pork pates are also available.

One bowl of Xoi is already heavy to the stomach. But the Vietnamese do not order Coca Cola with it (as any Filipino perhaps would). Instead, they drink soy milk or Tra Da.

Bia Hoi (Vietnamese draft beer) are also available in many restaurants. The Vietnamese regularly enjoy cold glasses of these on humid nights or, in my case, Saturday nights in the club and dancing to pop music. But I often wonder why most of them are not overweight or carrying beer bellies.

Then my alarm went off again. It was 5 a.m. and time to jog and workout with everyone in the park again. (Jesse Pizarro Boga of Mindanao Times is a fellow of FK Norway’s Environmental Communication Exchange Project in Asia. He is currently in Hanoi, hosted by the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. Follow him @jesiramoun.)