Fast Food

Would you like fries (or onion rings or chicken tenders) with that?

What McDonald's in Ho Chi Minh City Means for the Future of Vietnamese Food

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Big Mac [Photograph: Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last weekend, the Vietnam's first-ever McDonald's opened in Ho Chi Minh City. The move drew worldwide attention, but as the Times article points out, the Golden Arches are coming to the party a little late. Consider how many locations there are of these fast food giants in Vietnam already: KFC has 134 locations, Pizza Hut has 34, and Baskin Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts have a combined 18, with plans to open 60-80 more a year throughout Southeast Asia.

The positioning for McDonald's and its Western fast food brethren is as a middle-class lifestyle choice, rather than an inexpensive meal option, which appeals to Vietnam's burgeoning middle class. But will a Big Mac ever replace banh mi in food-obsessed Vietnam? Or will more more traditional foods enjoy a renaissance as a rejection of Mickey D's presence? And is it a zero sum game, or could both be true? We asked Vietnamese food blogger Mark Lowerson—who took Jamie and Carey on an excellent street food tour of Hanoi last year — for his take on the new arrival.

What does the McDonald's opening and the proliferation of American fast food joints in Vietnam say about Vietnamese culture in general and Vietnamese food culture in particular? "I think it's just another step on the way to development and our impending status as a 'middle income nation.' It says more about the economy than the culture to me. McDonald's has obviously deemed the time right for entry into Vietnam. They see the demographics—60% of the population is under 35 —and that's ripe for the picking. But in terms of the perception in Vietnam, apart from natural curiosity—particularly amongst the young—I don't think most people would have thought about McDonald's as a competitor to traditional street food culture here."

What explains the apparent burgeoning popularity of these American fast-food brands in Vietnam? "To me, they're not that popular yet. Vietnamese people do not yet have the palate for highly processed food. KFC has been in the country for over a decade and in Hanoi, but I rarely see their outlets busy or crowded. Young moneyed people will try these places because they're curious about Western popular culture, but whether they become an entrenched part of food culture here remains to be seen. I personally hope not, because this country has their own version of 'fast food' that is better, less processed and, indeed, faster!"

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Banh mi [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Will American fast food have any effect on traditional inexpensive Vietnamese foods like pho and banh mi? "If it does, it will take a long time. The Vietnamese are used to recognizable food, made from scratch, in transparent kitchens on the street. They are fanatical about the freshness of ingredients and produce. I would imagine that McDonald's will market itself as a luxury brand, rather than a fresh food alternative, in order to attract market share here. It will be a status thing rather than a serious food choice."

Could you ever see pho being sold in a Vietnamese McDonald's or a fried chicken banh mi at a Vietnamese KFC? "I'm not sure, though I will be intrigued to see how McDonald's puts a Vietnamese twist on their menu, like they've done in other parts of the world. Maybe they'll introduce pork, which is by far the dominant meat used in the cuisine here."

Do these American fast food chains threaten Vietnamese street food culture in any way? "Not at this stage."

So what conclusions can a serious eater draw from all this? It sounds like curious young people with some cash to burn will entertain the idea of American fast food, while the rest of the country will keep eating the high-quality pho and banh mi they know and love. What do you think of all this? Sound off in the comments!

About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of Serious Eats.

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