Viet Nam News
by Ruth Sinai
It’s not easy being overweight in Việt Nam. Whereas in the US, the land of the free and obese, I blend right in, in Hà Nội I feel a bit like a freak. Let’s face it, the vast majority of Vietnamese people are thin. Some are downright skinny. The women are gorgeous in short skirts, their legs draped sideways on the back of motorcycles as they’re driven around. Some of the men driving them are not so bad, either. And they seem to eat – all the time. It’s not fair. The city sidewalks are full of people sitting on small stools, slurping phở, chugging away at noodles, plucking grains of rice out of their bowls with chopsticks. Maybe that’s the key, after all, how much rice can one grab with one pincer-like chopstick movement?
The first time I saw myself in a photo next to a Vietnamese colleague, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who’s that giant woman standing next to the dainty Vietnamese lady, I asked myself. It can’t be me. I’ve actually dropped a few kilos since I moved here, deprived as I am of junk food, my appetite diminished by the heavy heat and sticky humidity. But, alas, it was my very own self in the photo.
When I first noticed people staring at me on the street, I thought they must be impressed by my weight loss, or perhaps by my newly blonde appearance. Then it dawned on me – it wasn’t my golden locks, nor my fabulous fashion sense, it was my size they were gawping at.
Mostly, I’m not bothered. I try to avoid snapshots with Vietnamese friends and make excuses for refusing to frequent eating or drinking establishments, which seat patrons on stools from which not-so-thin, not so limber people can only rise if assisted by hydraulic lifts. That’s just the way it is. They were blessed with thin genes. I should be happy with what I have.
Generally, this little pep talk works. However, I do have one serious complaint about living in Việt Nam. In a land that prides itself on its garment and footwear sectors, I cannot find anything that fits. Not my body and not my feet. After being directed to one or two places that supposedly cater to “people like you”, I stopped trying. After all, what is online shopping for if not for bypassing retail outlets? Except that this path, too, is not hassle free. The one time I did order clothes delivered from abroad, I ended up chasing the parcel for weeks and then having to pay some fairly exorbitant sums for things written by hand on the form, which no one I know could even understand.
But I refuse to totally give up for one reason, and one reason only. A few months ago, a colleague was travelling to the US. I decided to order online from a US store and ship to his American address, from where he would bring the goods to me upon his return to Hà Nội. The deal went through and the eagerly awaited merchandise arrived. Thrilled to the core with my purchases, I glanced at the labels. I looked, and looked again, and then a third time. “Made in Viet Nam” stared back in the face. Do you mean to tell me the gray top I was holding had gone half way around the world and back so that I could wear it? Is that what they mean by globalization?
So what’s the story? Do local manufacturers make plus-size clothes only for export? Do they have an agreement with American importers not to sell these products in Việt Nam in order to force ex-pats to shop abroad? Sounds farfetched and conspiratorial. Maybe it’s that the local market is too small for retailers to bother. How many x-large shirts or dresses are they going to sell to petite Vietnamese clients, after all. In Hà Nội’s Old City, the hub of tourist activity in the city, some merchants cater to larger visitors, mainly with x-sized T-shirts, shorts and fake Northface jackets. This usually does not extend to shoes. On a recent expedition to find sandals for a sure-footed Western male friend, only one of the dozens of stores we entered stocked a European size – and only in one design.
As a foreigner and guest in this country, I usually try to avoid giving advice on most things. What I’d like, though, is to make a plea to Hà Nội retailers: please consider that there are over 100,000 expats in your beautiful capital, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Western tourists. Not all have been endowed with your fortunate genetics. Keep us in mind. Thanks. VNS