Eyes of love beholden between bodybuilder ‘Muscle Doll,’ banker

By Hai Hien   January 21, 2024 | 12:00 am PT
Tran Thi Ny thought her bodybuilder figure would make it difficult to find someone who truly loved her…until she met Duy Tan.

Ny, 24, has been competing professionally for over 6 years. She’s won more than 20 medals at national and international tournaments.

Nicknamed "Muscle Doll" in the Vietnamese bodybuilding world, her accolades are also commonly met by the petty and irrelevant criticism is that she "doesn't look feminine at all."

"People ask me how I will find a boyfriend or husband with a body like mine," Ny said.

Tran Thi Ny at a bodybuilding competition in 2023. Photo courtesy of Ny

Tran Thi Ny at a bodybuilding competition in 2023. Photo courtesy of Ny

Ho Duy Tan, a 29-year-old a bank employee in Bien Hoa City, also likes to exercise. In March 2023, he signed up for a new gym in the Dong Nai Province capital city, which neighbors Ho Chi Minh City.

He was immediately impressed when he saw Ny working out in the same space. He didn’t know she was the "Muscle Doll" – and maybe it wasn’t exactly "love at first sight" – but he felt a spark.

Tan approached Ny and the two became friendly at the gym, although not quite really "friends" at first.

The only personal detail Tan learned about Ny in their first conversations was that she was a professional athlete. This piqued his curiosity, as he knew he now had an interesting acquaintance. But things didn’t go very far very quickly.

The first challenge the two had together was soon thereafter when Tan referred to Ny with the pronoun "chị" (older sister), implying that she was his elder.

This can be a serious faux pas in Vietnam, and Tan was immediately scolded: "Am I that old for you to call me that?" Ny scowled.

Tan was embarrassed and quickly left the gym with his tail between his legs.

However, Ny stayed on Tan’s mind. And it was then, when he was technically "upset" with her, than he began to develop what he called "a strange feeling."

He started purposefully going to the gym more often at times he thought she would be here. He expected her to ignore him after their little fight, but he still wanted to see her as much as possible.

After a short period of awkwardness, a mutual friend from the gym, who had noticed the clear attraction between Ny and Tan, invited Tan to have a drink with his crush.

He refused because he was afraid that Ny would be uncomfortable meeting him. "She’s straightforward," the friend told him, "but she's also a lot of fun."

After some encouragement, the friend convinced Tan that Ny was just a little quirky and would indeed enjoy meeting him in a more personal setting outside the gym.

So, the exercise enthusiasts had their first "date." It was at this meeting that they finally learned each other’s names and the details of their professions and what they do for a living.

After that day, Tan sent Ny a friend request on a social media messaging app and they began actively texting every day.

Tan eventually invited Ny to cycle around Bien Hoa because he knew biking was one of her hobbies. At the end of their first ride together, Tan invited Ny to his house but was refused.

She warned him sternly that if he followed this too-rapid inclination, he would no longer have the chance to meet her. "This is the first time I've met a girl with such a strong personality. Every word she says is like an order," Tan said.

Ny said that she’d been pursued by many callers in the past, but no relationship has never gone that far due to her strong temperament and her suitors’ concerns about her career.

Afraid that Tan would just be another bachelor trying to change her, Ny wanted to make sure she was decisive about what was important to her from the very beginning.

But Tan was not discouraged, and he still texted Ny every day.

From gym-related topics such as eating and how to exercise effectively, gradually both of them began discussing other hobbies, aspects of their lives, and their more individual personality traits. They grew to learn more and more about each other on deeper, more profound levels. The barrier that the female bodybuilder had built between the two of them gradually slipped away.

Tan now always compliments Ny's body. He disagrees with the idea that beautiful women must be slim, and he encourages his girlfriend to just be herself, all the time, no matter what.

Knowing that Ny is a good cook, Tan made sure to tell her that as a bachelor he feels lonely eating all his meals by himself. So, taking the hint, during her time off from competition, Ny began inviting Tan to his house to cook for him. She even began preparing him boxed lunches to bring to the office.

Tan said that now every time he opens his lunch box, he carries it all around his workplace to show off to his colleagues.

"Being with Ny, I receive the love and warmth of a family, something I haven't felt in previous relationships," Tan beamed.

After 5 months of knowing her, he confessed his love and proposed to her on her birthday.

When the two announced their relationship, not everyone was satisfied. Tan's friends were skeptical and said things like: "Is this world running out of girls for you to be with a bodybuilder?"

Tan's father was initially shocked to learn that his son loved an athlete. The traditional elderly man was afraid that with her muscular appearance, Ny would not be feminine enough to be a wife and mother, and her future life would be difficult an unhappy.

Faced with everyone's concerns, Tan stood firm. He said that he did not need his lover to act soft and cute, but just needed her to be herself.

As for Ny, she is used to other people's probing attitudes, so she doesn't pay attention and just does what she feels most comfortable with.

The first time Ny visited Tan’s family home, she rolled up her sleeves and helped everyone cook. During meals, she abided by Vietnam’s traditional cultural mores of propriety.

Out of the utmost politeness and respect, she cleaned the house and did the dishes.

Ny said this kind of thing comes easy and natural to her. "Coming to someone else's house is not just to be a ‘guest,’ so, whatever you can do to help, you must do it."

It was these actions that made Tan's father change his mind.

Ever since then, whenever Ny is in a bodybuilding competition, Tan’s father asks his wife and relatives to put aside work, turn on the TV, and watch his son’s lover compete. He’s said to boast about it to everyone he meets around town.

Ny and Tan, showcased in their wedding photos, are set to celebrate their wedding in March, commemorating one year from when their journey together began. Photo courtesy of Ny and Tan

Ny and Tan, showcased in their wedding photos, are set to celebrate their wedding in March, commemorating one year from when their journey together began. Photo courtesy of Ny and Tan

Because she regularly participates in national and international tournaments, Ny has to train with high intensity and eat a strict diet to gain muscle and burn fat. Pressure from competition and training often makes her easily stressed and angry. Additionally, being so busy and singularly focused on the tasks at hand, she also grows quickly weary when Tan complains that she replies too late to his texts.

These kinds of pressures even pushed the "happy couple" couple to the breaking point at least once.

"There was a time when we split up, but then we both missed each other so much," Ny said. "Seeing his haggard face because he missed meals, I felt sorry for him and we got back together again."

After some misunderstandings, both partners learned to be more understanding and forgiving. Tan no longer pushes Ny when she's busy competing, and Ny respond to messages as soon as she's done working so her lover won't be too anxious.

In October 2023, at her cousin's wedding, Ny suddenly received a marriage proposal from Tan, boldly in front of all relatives and friends.

"There was supposed to be a flower toss, but the bride didn't toss it and instead came forward to give it to Tan. Before I knew what was going on, he knelt, took out the ring, and proposed to me," Ny said, adding that the moment was the most unforgettable of her life.

Now the two are busy preparing for a wedding that will take place in March, exactly a year after they met. During their free time, they take each other to the gym to work out together.

As for Tan, thanks to his girlfriend's encouragement, he’s also begun participating in contests and was ranked among Bien Hoa’s top-10 bodybuilding competitors at the end of last year.

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