Image: famed Vietnamese comedian Tuyền Mập
· Béo – fat (north), pronounced like bee-ow? with an up-tone
· Mập – fat (south), pronounced like mup! with a short down-tone
Don’t get upset when people call you fat in Vietnam! If you are a Western women shopping for clothing in Vietnam, it is almost guaranteed to happen.
Many tourists from the West get offended when they are publicly called fat, but you should know that it is just a matter-of-fact observation by Vietnamese, and does not carry the same sort of ego-shattering impoliteness like in the West.
In fact, calling someone fat is considered cute in Vietnamese!
Fat is a Cute Nickname in Vietnamese
Loved ones and family-members will call each other fat as a cute nickname, like “William béo ơi!” or “Hey Fat Will!”
Fat/mập is also a common social-media handle. For example, on Facebook, it would be perfectly normal for my profile to display “Will Mập”. This is not meant to be self-deprecating — it is just considered cute and slightly juvenile.
Overweight celebrities in Vietnam will almost always adopt the Mập nickname as their main public moniker. For example, Hoàng Mập and Tuyền Mập are two overweight B-list comedians who are beloved in Vietnam — it is hard to imagine referring to them without their “fat” nickname (and no one does).
Fat is a Neutral Descriptor in Vietnam
Vietnamese use fat as a quick way to distinguish between people if they don’t know the personal names of the persons between referred to. Consider the following scenario: you are the only overweight person in a crowded cafe, and the waitress wants to get your attention; it would be totally normal for the waitress to yell something like:
- Chị gì béo ơi, cà phê của chị đây – Hey Miss Fatty, here is your coffee.
- Anh mập ơi, anh muốn order gì? – Hey Mr. Fatso, what would you like to order?
… These matter-of-fact descriptors are not meant to be offensive in Vietnamese, they are used for quick precision. Being overweight makes you very distinctive, and is naturally the most precise way to identify you from others.
Likewise, if there is something else that is very distinctive about you, strangers will use that to identify you in a crowd, even if it is considered humiliating in the West. For example “Hey baldy!” Being called baldy isn’t considered rude: it is a natural descriptor when someone needs a quick way to get your attention.
Being overweight is so rare in Vietnam, that it will almost certainly be used to single you out (but not in a mean way).
Fat: a Common Topic of Small-Talk
“Wow, I haven’t seen you in a long time — you look fat!”
Among friends and relatives, it is very common to comment on each others’ weight and other physical qualities. It is not considered rude to notice that another person has gained weight. Rather, it is an expression of how much they care for you: they don’t want you to continue down the road of ill-health and unattractiveness. They would say the same thing if you suddenly had bad acne or were sickly-skinny.
So, although being called fat is not offensive in Vietnamese, it is not the case that Vietnamese prefer overweight people. On the contrary, the beauty-standard is very much in favour of tall, fit, skinny people.
Saying “You Look Good” to an Overweight Person is Offensive in Vietnam
In the West, it is considered rude not to compliment an overweight woman on her appearance. To imply otherwise may be misconstrued as “fat-shaming”.
However, such politeness would be very offensive in Vietnam: you would be seen as disingenuous and patronizing.
For example, if you said to an overweight Vietnamese person, “Hey, you look good today!”, she may reply something like: “F**k off! I know I am fat! Why would you say that?“
This may seem incredulous to Westerners, who are raised to massage each others’ fragile egos, whereas the Vietnamese are painfully truthful about physical appearances — to not do so is rude.
Personal Questions in Vietnam: How Much Do You Weigh?
Vietnamese people really like ask personal questions when they are first introduced to someone, like a new work-colleague, or friend of a friend. Are you married yet? When will you have kids? How old are you? And…
- Bạn nặng bao nhiêu cân? – How much do you weigh?
You may politely decline to answer, but they will persist: C’mon, just tell me! This is not meant to be mean, and is certainly not interpreted as rude — it is just regular Vietnamese culture.
“That Couple is a 10!”
A funny slang in Vietnam is to refer to corpulent couples as a “10”, as in, one of them is a “1” and the other is a “0” (a mean way of saying low-value mates). Likewise, a “10 family” is a family with overly rotund members.
Such slangs are considered funny, commonplace, and inoffensive; yet they demonstrate the underlying undesirable image of overweight people within Vietnamese culture.
Western Women Getting Offended in Vietnam
If you are a Western women visiting Vietnam, and you are overweight (or just not skinny), then you should mentally prepare yourself for strangers commenting on your weight. You must steel yourself not to get offended, keeping in mind that what is considered “offensive” is culturally-relative, and it is not your place to berate Vietnamese for their culture — to do so would be cultural-colonialism and disrespectful.
As an example of what to prepare for, consider the following unfortunate anecdote which happened to an overweight colleague of ours from the UK, named Jane: she went to a fashionable store in Kim Ma to buy some cheap clothes. The shop-attendant, who was trying to be helpful and honest, remarked: “Hey, you should try on a size L, because you are fat”. Jane was visibly upset, but didn’t do anything, yet.
After trying on a dress, the observant attendant added: “Hey, that dress isn’t good for you, it will only reveal how fat you are.” Thereafter, Jane stormed out of the store indignantly, insulting the attendant and embarrassing herself.
When in Rome, do as the Romans… Although no one in the West wants to be called overweight by a stranger, the above attendant was actually being helpful according to the norms of Vietnamese culture. If they didn’t act thus, they wouldn’t be doing their job.
Do you have the will-power not to get offended? If not, then don’t try on clothes in Vietnam — which is a shame because so many discount name brands can be found in Vietnam.
The Growing Concern with Overweight Children in Vietnam
The Vietnamese have historically been very short and skinny. But, as urban incomes increase, the prevalence of overweight children is also increasing. About ~18% of primary-school aged children are now considered overweight (Pham, Matsushita, Dinh et al 2019; Beal, Le, Trinh et al 2020). This is remarkable because only 20-30 years ago, during the height of socialism, Vietnam had the opposite problem: high incidences of stunting.
As Vietnam becomes more affluent and adopts a more modern lifestyle, it is an open question whether the Vietnamese will follow other recenly-developed countries like South Korea in ballooning their waist-lines in tandem with GDP. Or, will they retain their slim physique, like in Japan? Early school-yard evidence seems to point to a generation of new Vietnamese with much “bigger bones”.
Fat-Shaming in Vietnam
Trying to pull the “that’s fat-shaming!” faux-outrage in Vietnam is not likely to elicit a lot of sympathy. You may get some superficial de-escalating apologies. But, because being called “fat” is not offensive, you are more likely to push other people away, as they regard you (or avoid you) as an overly-sensitive person.
Worse, you may be thought of as a “cry-bully”: using faux-outrage to bully others less powerful than you.