Travel guides usually include a charming story about some foreigner going to Viet Nam, the locals look them over and promptly proclaiming them fat. The foreigner takes great offense until they are told that being fat is wonderful and a considered great compliment. ‘Just one of numerous, hilarious cultural misunderstandings you can expect in Viet Nam.’
This is bullshit.
Well I should say that this story is bullshit now. It was a compliment in the past; for many years, the average Viet person struggled to get enough nutrition. Only the wealthy and connected could afford to get plump and everyone else stayed thin. So yes, for a long time being a little husky was considered a good thing, but not now and certainly not in Sai Gon. People in Sai Gon, especially the youth, have been soaking in a heady mix of K-pop, Hollywood movies and Vogue magazine. Being lean is most assuredly ‘in.’ So unless you are somewhere particularly rural, poor or isolated being called fat isn’t the admiring comment it used to be.
Don’t get me wrong, foreigners will still probably be called ‘fat’ quite often. I was talking to a Vietnamese friend of mine about a mutual acquaintance and the conversation pretty much went down like this; “I know (that person), she is fat…oh yes, so fat.” The person in question is a little on the heavy side and my friend employed typical Vietnamese forthrightness and just told it how it was.
Now, this acquaintance doesn’t actually have the silhouette of a walrus with an underactive thyroid, far from it! But that is the tyranny of comparison. Vietnamese people are small in proportion; even the slimmest, western foreigner will usually look large standing next to them. Hell, even the clothes manikins can’t zip up the Vietnamese-sized jeans they are modelling.
I should note that plump babies and children are still considered a very good thing in Sai Gon and everywhere else in Viet Nam. Parents want really chubby babies and there is much hand-wringing when a kiddy doesn’t have a good couple of rolls on their thighs.