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Business

Vietnam's widening waistlines spur flurry of business

Ho Chi Minh City's 8020Fit offers personal training and delivers meals to customers six times a week.

HANOI -- Brisk economic growth, rising incomes and evolving diets are driving up obesity rates in Vietnam. This has businesses lining up to help citizens shed unwanted kilograms.

Fitness centers are sprouting up across the country. California Management Group, which opened its first gym in Vietnam in 2007, now operates 22 in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang. At its facility in Vincom Mega Mall Royal City, a large commercial complex in Hanoi, treadmills and other equipment fill a space about the size of a small school gymnasium.

A three-month membership costs 4 million dong ($179) and includes dance and yoga lessons. "It's expensive, but I'll do my best to lose weight, because I've gained some recently," said Pham Thi Hoan Linh, a 25-year-old woman who has been training there for three months. Optional sessions with a personal trainer cost 500,000 dong a pop -- nearly as much as in Japan.

To meet growing demand, CMG aims to increase its network of gyms to 100 by 2020.

Major rivals Elite Fitness and Curves set up shop in Vietnam a few years ago and now run around 10 locations each. Elite offers a personalized training program, including meal planning, for $350 a month.

Beware of the bulge

According to stereotype, at least, Vietnamese are among the slimmest people in Southeast Asia. This is said to be a benefit of their vegetable-heavy diet. Women, in particular, are known for being svelte -- a consequence, perhaps, of tightfitting traditional garments such as the ao dai.

But since the country joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, inflows of foreign capital and goods have accelerated. The economic shift appears to be impacting waistlines: World Health Organization statistics show that 16% of Vietnamese men were obese in 2015, 3.2 times more than a decade earlier. The obesity rate among women surged 80% during the same 10 years, to 24%. 

A survey by Vietnam's National Institute of Nutrition, meanwhile, found child obesity is as high as 40% in major cities.

Some pin the blame on the proliferation of Western-style fast-food joints, including McDonald's, which arrived in the country in February 2014. Experts also point to a 13% increase in demand for soft drinks over the past three years. The spread of convenience stores could contribute to the problem, too.

All this is creating opportunities for health-oriented businesses -- and not just big fitness chains.

Smaller gyms, for instance, offer services the big boys do not. 8020Fit, which opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2015, not only provides personalized advice but also delivers meals to customers six times a week, with the help of a food wholesaler and other partners. The meals are tailored according to the customer's ideal body type -- say, muscular or slender.

The six-week 8020Fit program, including a personal trainer, costs 10 million to 20 million dong. Despite the relatively steep price, the customer base has more than doubled from last year, to 600.

Over at Body Shape Gym and Fitness Center, which opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2014, 43-year-old Polish taekwondo master Mariusz Steckiewicz teaches training methods based on martial arts.

Retailers are also capitalizing on consumers' urge to lighten up. At three shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Homefood sells products such as quinoa and chia seeds, which are said to enhance beauty but can be hard to find in Vietnam. "Many young women come in," said Nguyen Thi Van Anh, a 30-year-old clerk at the Hanoi store. "Sales," she added, "have increased 30-40% on the year."

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