Born to a poor family in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, Loan had a tough childhood that made escaping poverty a top motivation.
"My parents used to work without rest in the field and factory every day to feed a family of four. So I always aimed to work for a better future so that my parents and my brother can live comfortably."
In 2006, when she was 18, Loan was spotted by two coaches after competing at a local sport contest. One was from the province's cycling team and the other from the body building team. She decided to make a strategic choice, showing wisdom beyond her years.
"There are many female bodybuilders in the world, but in Vietnam in general and An Giang in particular, it’s not a common thing. Women can sweat on the running track or a cycling route, but if we replace curves with muscles, it will be considered strange here. I chose that path because despite many challenges, there would be less competition and more chances for a female bodybuilder to make it good."
Loan got her bodybuilding career off to a flying start. After just 40 days of training, she clinched gold at the national bodybuilding championship in 2006.
"Exercising has been a habit since I was a kid. I participated in every sports activity in school. So I was already physically fit before I took up bodybuilding. It only took me a month of training and dieting to win the gold medal in my first professional competition."
As Loan had strategized, there was also an element of luck because there weren’t many female bodybuilders then, so she had a higher chance of success.
"I can say that I had a perfect start for my career, thanks to great timing and making the most out of my opportunity."
To obtain even growth in every muscle group, besides regular and proper training, Loan also had to maintain a strict diet, which continues to this day.
The 33-year-old champion said the common proportion for a bodybuilder to follow is 40 percent protein, 20 percent carbohyrates and 20 percent healthy fat. A bodybuilder needs to have at least six meals a day.
"I'm always focusing on my muscle development and to do that, I must strictly follow the diet that the nutrition expert has designed. As a bodybuilder, I have to consume much more food than a normal person."
She knew that the strong focus on muscle growth would lead to hormonal changes, but Loan was not unduly concerned.
"During the process of building your body, the change of hormones is natural. In order to build muscle, I need to increase the beneficial hormones like testosterone, insulin, cortisol, epinephrine, glucagon and somatotropin.
"Many may misunderstand that hormonal changes not only make me more 'masculine' but also affect other things in my body. But to be honest, compared to the past, I have become more composed and patient in solving problems and achieving my goals.
"Looking back at my journey, I find myself more mature in my thinking and attitude."
In the first days of her bodybuilding career, Loan received quite a few harsh comments about how muscular women don't look feminine at all. But thanks to the encouragement of her parents, she got used to the criticism and didn't care about it anymore. She focused on her passion and goals, instead.
"Not everyone can understand and sympathize with women who are playing ‘men’s games.’ But I don’t agree that beautiful women must be feminine and slim. That is a prejudiced view.
"I have pursued a career in bodybuilding and have constantly trained to fulfill my desire for many years. Nowadays, with the development of the fitness industry and the gym culture, I receive a lot of compliments and admiration. The number of women choosing bodybuilding as a career path also increased, which makes me very happy."
She has been called manly because of her looks, but Loan remains confident about herself as a woman.
"I still wear our traditional costume (ao dai) and dresses on special occasions. I feel completely comfortable in them. They just adorn my beauty in another way. I don’t need to act soft and cute. Being myself is enough because for me, the real beauty is inside, not in appearance."
Loan currently targets success at this year’s SEA Games 31, which is being hosted by Vietnam.
"The SEA Games in Vietnam is a great motivation as well as pressure for athletes.I have thoroughly studied my opponents and I’m confident that comprehensive preparation will bring the best results. For me, the best feeling is winning gold medals for Vietnam on the international stage."
Loan has done it many times. Her decorated career is highlighted by three gold medals in the 46 kg category of the Asian Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship from 2008 to 2010 and four golds in the 49 kg category at the same tournament (2011 to 2014). Between 2015 and 2017, Loan won two more continental golds and two golds at the world championships.
"With my achievements over the years, I have been able to support my family with my salary and bonuses. I repaired our house for my parents, helped my brother with his wedding, bought an apartment for myself and one for rent so that my parents can have a stable monthly income. They no longer have to work hard."
Loan has also identified many options for her post bodybuilding career. She can be a personal trainer at fitness centers, a professional bodybuilding coach or start a business in foods and supplements. She can even start a pet service business because it’s her second favorite thing after bodybuilding.
"But that’s for the future. At the moment, I’m really happy and grateful for this life because of my family, friends, mentors and teammates. Many champions are lonely at the top and luckily I’m not one of them.
"Also, I am not too stressed about getting married. I’m satisfied with my single life, which makes me feel free and relaxed. As far as falling in love and tying the knot is concerned, I have to make sure that my partner is comfortable with my bodybuilding career, because this is my life and I won’t change it for anyone.
"I chose sports instead of an academic path and fortunately, it was the best decision of my life so far. It was the key that opened all doors for me."
Story by Tue Lam, Hoang Nguyen