By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of R4vi on Flickr.
Last weekend, the golden glow of American capitalism arched itself over a former communist adversary when McDonald’s opened its first-ever Vietnamese franchise in Ho Chi Minh City.
Firsthand accounts describe techno beats blaring and Big Macs unwrapping, while photos portray motorbikes in line for the drive-thru and Ronald McDonald gleefully posing with locals. Twenty thousand customers were served in the first two opening days.
All that definitely sounds like a festive time, but examining the greater picture, how significant is occasion in reality?
Dean Forbes, a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor at the School of International Studies at Flinders University, tells BTR that while the Western chain’s restaurant opening is a minor event in regards to Vietnam’s overall economy, it’s symbolically relevant when juxtaposed to former historical occurrences, such as the United States withdrawing its last troops from the country in 1975.
“I think the more symbolic issue is the location of the restaurant on Dien Bien Phu Street,” he says, elaborating that its namesake is the major battle where the Vietnamese basically vanquished the French and severed their colonial ties 60 years ago.
Colonial powers and American troops long gone, today, Forbes explains, Vietnam has developed into a country with a population of over 90 million that is experiencing a Gross Domestic Product growth rate of about 5 percent. He believes that, to grow its economy, this Vietnam’s government is implementing a strategy similar to that of China, where “they are looking to build up state corporations” to administer, and foster a type of “managed, organized capitalism.”
It must be noted that although the newly opened Ho Chi Minh location is the premier McDonald’s within its national borders, the restaurant is certainly not the first of the fast-food chains to enter the Vietnamese market, which already hosts over 100 KFCs, plus Burger King, Starbucks, Subway, Carl’s Junior, Baskin-Robbins, and several Asian chains.
“The difference, of course, is that McDonald’s is the biggest icon of globalization, and that’s why it’s important,” Dr. Martin Grossheim, a Wilson Center expert who studies modern Vietnamese history, tells BTR.
Grossheim has traveled to Vietnam many times, the first being to Hanoi in 1987, which was toward the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the national “doi moi” reform period—when the country was transitioning from a centrally planned system to a more market-based economy. There to study the language for a year, Grossheim recalls the days when there were just four or five privately owned restaurants, serving only Vietnamese or French food, in the northern capital. Urban dining culture has thus evolved; these past few years alone, Japanese, Korean, and Italian eateries have opened throughout populated locales like DaNang, HaNoi, and Ho Chi Minh.
Grossheim adds that “basically, people in the countryside stick to their traditional foods; every now and then they might go to the city to try something else. A hamburger might just be too expensive compared to a bowl of Vietnamese pho.”
Dean Forbes points out that McDonald’s offers products for an aspiring middle class, a social sect that certainly exists in Ho Chi Minh City, its most populated province. But the fact that the restaurant has to import their beef, pork, and potatoes will drive prices up. Further, the set of choices is not only more expensive, but much less healthy than Vietnamese classics.
“Bringing in fries and hamburgers is not a great thing, and there already is a looming overweight problem in Ho Chi Minh City, as you’d expect, from the affluent,” he says, worrying that the processed McDonald’s menu will only make it worse.
The political ties behind this particular McDonalds also make Forbes skeptical: Henry Nguyen, the businessman who brought in the restaurant, is the son-in-law of the country’s Prime Minister. While Nguyen has every right to open a business, Vietnam is notorious for political corruption, and merits unfavorable rankings on the Transparency International Index.
Given “the parallels that are happening in China and the massive wealth that Chinese leaders are accumulating,” in Vietnam, the political relationship “clearly sounds some alarm bells.”
Henry Nguyen, who worked at an American McDonald’s as a teenager, says that they plan to open more locations throughout Vietnam, as well as transition to integrating domestically cultivated ingredients.
For better or for worse, McDonald’s is a significant mark of how regional consumers react to a single dining franchise on an international scale. Its global expansion offers opportunities for diners to experience aspects of iconic pre-packaged American food and interior scenery, but also for locals to present provincial components for additions.
Vietnam is the 38th Asian nation to host McDonalds, and elsewhere on the continent the restaurant has tried to adapt to local interests and tastes, such as offering chicken porridge on its Malaysian menu, or fusing a McSpicy Paneer to match the tastes of Indian customers, while disallowing beef burgers in the largely Hindu country.
Because many young Hong Kongers were so receptive to the restaurant, it now offers McWeddings, where they can put together wedding “cakes” of stacked apple pies, and decorate the scene with the Hamburglar or pink McDonalds backdrops.
Chances are that the McPork adaptation will not replace the Banh Mi Thit Nuong in Vietnam as a staple sandwich. Though perhaps McDonald’s existence in the country will entail later experimentation with other local fare, or foster a new social environment, as the restaurant continues its role in the nation.
“It’s symbolic, I think, of the changes that are occurring in Vietnam, with that mixed set of signals,” concludes Forbes of Ho Chi Minh City’s popular new business. “Clearly, Vietnam, a big country with a growing middle class will become more and more affluent, and hence, become a much more significant global force.”