Since establishing Nutrifort Fitness in 2003, Nicole Hankins has helped drive the explosion of fitness culture in Vietnam. She talks to Brett Davis about changing attitudes to health and nutrition, and her personal journey back to the country of her birth. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Your family moved to France when you were young, how did that experience shape your life?
My family moved to Paris in 1970 where I was raised before moving to the US where my entire family currently lives. I came from a big family of seven girls and we are very close in age and spirit to this day. My parents were already well traveled, since they were educated in French boarding schools. But leaving my grand parents and family behind was devastating for them. They taught us the value of family and kept as much of the Vietnamese culture in our lives as possible. I went to an all girls school and was required to participate in sports every day after school where I developed an affinity for fitness and team sports I have to this day.

France is renowned for its cuisine, is that where your interest in food and nutrition originated?
Indeed, living in Paris allowed my taste buds to thrive and appreciate good food. I had the responsibility of going to the local bakery and bringing back baguettes and fresh baked goods for the family. Without fail, half the baguette and croissants were eaten by the time I reached home! It was never planned that my personal food interest would one day serve my professional vocation. But once college was behind me where I studied finance, I started looking into nutrition out of curiosity.  I took cooking classes, nutrition classes, studied nutraceuticals and the science of functional foods and started working in the field of formulation for food companies. When the boom of protein bars, cereal/granola bars, weight loss supplements hit the US, I consulted for the largest health food companies and helped them create and mass produce these food products.

What motivated you to return to Vietnam?
I was asked by a company I was consulting for to help them formulate protein and nutraceutical powders for the market in Vietnam. My first trip back was in 1997 to work. My mother tongue failed me miserably since I only understood 30 percent of it, but the food, the scents, the people were my heritage. I never felt more foreign than when I came here, but never felt more Vietnamese when I left a month later. My father was horrified when I first told him I was considering taking a job here: “Do you know how much sacrifice, time and money I spent to get you out? And now you want to go back there?” I waited until he passed, and after a painful divorce, I decided to change scenery and start a new adventure. I saw an opportunity in Vietnam to do something I am passionate about, to teach, to make a difference, and if nothing else, it would look good on my next resume!

Have you seen a change in local attitudes towards health and fitness in your time here?
Absolutely. When I started Nutrifort in 2003, we were the first company to introduce private training. Back then we would send our staff to all the hotel gyms to train clients who were mostly foreigners or wealthy Vietnamese. The only access to fitness for the locals were early morning or evening walks in the parks. Then when California Wow came to Vietnam, which I am really grateful they did, the fitness craze here began. More and more people are catching on and making it part of their lifestyle, but it is still not a priority. Most locals think if they are skinny, they don’t need to exercise.  While westerners think that health and fitness go hand in hand, here fitness is reserved for the overweight.  Yoga has become very popular because women here think if they lift a two kilo dumbbell, they will look like Arnold! Parents don’t encourage children to exercise because that’s time away from the academics, and it is not as important as getting a top grade in math. There are still a lot of misconceptions about fitness here, but at least interest is growing. If I can change the mind of one person, especially the youth, then I’ve done my job well.

What effect do you think the ‘Westernisation’, particularly fast food, of Vietnamese diets is having?
In one word: disaster! Especially for the millennial generation. The onset of disease like obesity, diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease will hit them hard in the next five to 10 years. Especially since they move less here because of the heat. But even if people exercise, the harming effect of fast food because of the high calorie content but lack of nutrition will create a perfect platform for chronic illness. The sad thing is that in the West, fast food like the popular ones here, are often reserved for people who can’t afford a healthy meal because of limited budgets. But in Vietnam, they have been re-invented to target the more wealthy, educated people who have disposable income. The locals are hungry for any Western brands and recognition; they think it is a status symbol and shows success if they can afford to take the family to these establishments. Most of the really obese people in the West are usually low to middle class, but here it will be, and has started already, a rich man’s disease.

Vietnam can be a less than ideal place for expats in terms of lifestyle, what are some of the common problems you see?
Over the years, I see the same patterns from expats. They usually gain a lot of weight in a short period of time. Their lifestyle usually changes overnight but it takes five to six months before they can adjust, so before they realise they need to adjust to the adjustments, it’s nine months into it. Changes I often hear are: “I use to walk a lot, but it’s too hot to do that here”; “I used to drive my kids to school then run errands, but now have a driver”, “I used to do chores around the house, but now have a maid”, “I used to cook, but now have Ms Hoa!” So they spend a lot of time being sedentary, working at the computer, and slowly the 10,000 steps that used to make up their day are reduced to 2,000 or so. But they still eat the same amount of food because, this is the normal amount they have been eating. The other common pit falls for men mostly, I see recurring is the excessive drinking in Vietnam. Because alcohol in social settings like bars and restaurants here is less expensive than their home countries, and provide a place to gather, laugh, comiserate, do business etcetera.

People often think it is time consuming or difficult to eat healthily, is that a misconception?
It is not difficult, but it does take a bit of planning. Like anything, once you plan for it, the outcome will be more successful. Food is no different! You know you have to eat lunch/dinner for the entire week, but you will be too busy to cook, then prepare for the meals on the weekend. You can also choose the food from healthy choices of restaurants ahead of time, if you don’t want to cook and have the number on speed dial.  If you wait until you’re starving, your choices are impulsive, quick and usually unhealthy! I am busy too, for this is the reason I created the set meals menu from Monday to Friday from our good eats restaurant. It took me a year to prepare the menu, calculate the calories and choose and taste all the ingredients and food with our chef before we activated the program. Using all my nutritional knowledge and my appreciation for good “slow” food, we came up with this incredible menu that aims to please the palate and keep you healthy. In the process people are losing weight and finding the convenience unparalleled to anything they have tried! Each day we have a choice of two meals and we can deliver to Districts 1, 2 and 7.  For VND 129,000 per meal you get a home cooked meal with entree, salad and juice!  It’s been very successful since we launched it 10 months ago.

Nutrifort fitness now has six locations, what do you think has been driving the explosion of gym culture in Vietnam?
Our success story has been a result from our commitment to service. Nutrifort has a real person behind the brand. I have put a lot of thought, and care into each and every product and service we sell. Before anything is sold to our customers I have tested it. From the staff, to trainers and instructors, to choice of classes, maintenance of facilities, to the food and beverages. Thankfully the people we partner ourselves with have recognised this value!

The explosion is also due to the growth of many real estate projects that need to have a gym to stay in competition and attract tenants and buyers. Gyms and pools are amenities for these projects. Personally, I am grateful that I have been able to do the work I love, and set out to do when I came here. The best part is, I get to stay fit and eat well doing it. How lucky am I?