Diabetes in Vietnam

Diabetes in Vietnam

Well, it’s that time of year again when diabetics of all shapes and sizes decide to do their bit and proclaim what the lifelong inconvenience means to them. Personally, I don’t tend to give it too much thought; I sporadically check my blood sugar and inject accordingly, occasionally causing an ounce of pain or a minor trickle of the red stuff.

I used to be a good diabetic, a great one in fact, but in recent months, or even years, I’ve not really given diabetes the satisfaction of causing me any worry or lack of sleep. You’d think that due to my passive attitude, my blood sugars would be up and down like a yo-yo but the truth is that despite them being on average  slightly higher than they used to be, they’re generally pretty level which, considering where I live, is quite surprising. Anyway, this post isn’t about me really, it’s 1 of 2 posts about the problem of diabetes in Vietnam.

For the past year I’ve been living in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon to most people), and the one thing that stands out as a problem (apart from the rising population and smog levels) is the shocking amount of sugar that the general population intakes on a daily basis. It’s been well documented in recent times that diabetes (types 1 and 2) is becoming quite prevalent, but when reading about it on local news sites and papers, the cause of a rise in diabetes in Vietnam is claimed to be due to the following things, some of which I partake in myself: a high alcohol intake (guilty), smoking (not guilty), lack of exercise (not guilty), and finally, an unhealthy diet (verdict is still out on that one).

Now, the lack of exercise element here is very true; the majority of the population will hop on their bikes to go somewhere that’s less than a kilometre away, and a lot of people do eat unhealthily (seeing 6yr old kids and their parents eating burgers and large sodas at 8am in the morning just doesn’t sit right with me), but the one thing that the local ‘studies’ don’t seem to catch is that sugar is in almost everything and, combined with the lack of exercise, is a contributing factor to the rise of diabetes in Vietnam.


The amount of sugar in Vietnamese drinks is downright scandalous. If you go to a street cafe and order a caphe sua’da (iced milk coffee), it tastes sweet, tra sua (milk tea) tastes sweet, and even smoothies will undoubtedly be loaded with sugar unless you exclaim ‘khong duong!’. If for some deranged reason you decide that you want to be extorted, and head into Starbucks (or other ‘high end’ snob boxes), you have to make it very clear that you don’t want sugar, otherwise you’re going to be drinking overpriced tooth decay in a cup.

Y’know when you accidentally drink from someone else’s teacup and you nearly spit it out because they take sugar? Imagine that but with most drinks here. Hell, even the milk supplied by the government to school kids is sweetened, and it’s not like the kids just drink milk either, they seem to think that coca-cola is a perfectly decent breakfast drink…


Admittedly, people drinking sugar filled drinks and not thinking anything of it isn’t necessarily their fault; in Vietnam no one is ever told that sugar is bad. As mentioned above, most milk is sweetened (in supermarkets you have ‘sweetened’, ‘less sugar’ and ‘no sugar’, but the ‘no sugar’ variety takes up the least amount of shelf space), yet this isn’t seen as a bad thing. There isn’t anybody telling anyone that certain foods aren’t particularly healthy, and there certainly isn’t anyone telling folk that some foods are definitely unhealthy. A lot of people seem to be miseducated as well; I recently had a conversation with a Vietnamese friend who claimed that it’s the milk in milk tea that’s the unhealthy part, not the 15% sugar content…

Diabetes in Vietnam: sweetened milk.

Can you spot the amount of ‘khong duong’ (no sugar) ?

We’re all well aware that sugar isn’t the sole cause of diabetes (both types), and neither is drinking, smoking, or a lack of exercise but, combined, they’re a pretty predictable cocktail and the outcome isn’t so sweet.


I’m not preaching to the choir here, and I know that some foods and drinks that I consume are probably slowly contributing to a number of potential health conditions, but I choose to eat them knowingly and with feigned ignorance, as we all do. I’ve watched those documentaries about eating too much of certain foods, or drinking too much alcohol, and they’re great for a fortnight long wake-up call and following health kick, but naturally old habits die hard. In England, in the US, or the west in general, we walk into health problems willingly; we have a near endless amount of TV shows telling us what we should and shouldn’t be eating, and yet we all just think ‘fuck it’ and eat badly anyway.

The problem I’m trying to convey here is that there’s no system in place in Vietnam to tell people that drinking 3 or 4 glasses of sugar a day is bad, or that red bull as your first drink of the day is a problem. There’s no encouragement to walk that 3 blocks to get something to eat (I know of at least 2 people where I live who get KFC delivered, even though it’s a 2min walk way), and the amount of bikes in Vietnam actually seems to discourage people from walking; I’ve noticed that it’s actually rubbing off on expats living here too; laziness ingrains laziness I’m afraid.

Diabetes in Vietnam. Is laziness the problem?

There is a ‘grab and go’ culture in Vietnam which has made people lazy…

Even foods that are expectedly sweet, such as cakes and the like, are so unbelievably full of sugar you may as well just grab a teaspoon and start shovelling syrup down your throat, and I’m not exaggerating here…

I’m not saying that drinking sweetened milk and eating abnormally high intakes of sugar on a regular basis causes diabetes, but that, combined with a lack of exercise and poor education, can’t be helping matters at all, and yet the powers that be seem to be blissfully unaware of the problem, or are making too much money to care. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the problem of diabetes in Vietnam is actually being ignored…

I wrote this short post because, from an outsiders point of view, it would be easy to look at the problem here in Vietnam and blame the people for being lazy and unhealthy but, as with a lot of the problems in this great country, the fault lies a lot further up the line, and that needs to be made clear; it is Diabetes Awareness Month after all.

Anyway, I mentioned that this was the first of two diabetes posts, and with this one being about potential causes of diabetes in Vietnam, the next will be about actually living with diabetes in Vietnam…


3 thoughts on “Diabetes in Vietnam

  1. Pleasure to read on holiday in the Scotish Highlands.Just to point out there are other energy drinks widely available for the first drink of the day 😁.

  2. Been in Vietnam now 2 wks and learned khong duong pretty fast!
    Travelling only 7 wks now (into a 5.5mth period).
    Have been following your blog for a while and currently in Hue. I will be visiting HCMC in a wk and a half, would love to meet up for a khong duong drink…or beer 😂

    • Hi Yasmin, sorry for the late reply, I’ve been away from the laptop for a few days. Yeah, cool! Well let me know when you’re in the city and we’ll meet for a drink 🙂

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