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Fast Food and Its Invasion of Vietnam's Culinary Paradise

Friday, 04/06/2018 16:49
Nothing could be more different from fast food, the American way, than the traditional Vietnamese diet.

A portion of Bun Cha at Huong Lien restaurant on Le Van Huu Street in Hanoi where former U.S. President Barack Obama used to stop by for dinner. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

For seven happy years, from 2003 to 2010, I lived on Tran Hung Dao Street, Hanoi. Right behind our elegant French villa, within a few blocks, there was a food paradise. The area to the south was full of wonderful eating places, from grand restaurants to sidewalk cafés.

I loved the oceanic taste of stir fried squid, the freshness of rice-paper spring rolls, the strength of beef in black pepper sauce… But perhaps my biggest favorite was bun cha, which we used to purchase from a little restaurant on Le Van Huu Street, to eat at home on Sundays.

Renowned chef Anthony Bourdain once wrote: “You don’t have to go looking for great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, cafes, little storefronts, in the streets; carried in makeshift portable kitchens on yokes borne by women vendors.” I was not at all surprised that the little restaurant on Le Van Huu Street where we used to buy our Sunday bun cha was the place where Anthony Bourdain took President Obama for dinner.

If fact, the quality of the meals one can get sitting on small plastic stools on Vietnamese sidewalks can easily make the offerings of many posh western restaurants pale by comparison. Which is why I felt so disturbed when reading in a recent New York Times article that Vietnam is one of the countries with the fastest penetration of fast food in the world.

Among the 54 countries considered in the article, only Argentina saw a speedier growth in sales between 2010 and 2015. I could not refrain from wondering whether the tasty and healthy Vietnamese cuisine I had so much enjoyed while living in Hanoi could end up being displaced by bland and fatty fast food.

The Vietnamese craze for fast food seems to have become stronger since this New York Times article was published in the fall of 2017. Youngsters queued in line for hours to grab their hamburgers, French fries and sodas when the first McDonald’s outlet opened in Hanoi, in December 2017. And many Vietnamese children seem by now hopelessly addicted to deep fried chicken, the Kentucky way.

Nothing could be more different from fast food, the American way, than the traditional Vietnamese diet. Fast food is bountiful in saturated oils and industrially processed inputs. Vietnamese cooking, on the other hand, relies on natural ingredients, with minimal use of dairy and oil, and an abundance of herbs and vegetables.  Everything is fresh in Vietnamese cuisine, almost nothing is in fast food.

While Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest worldwide, fast food is a global source of obesity. And obesity is indeed ballooning in Vietnam. According to Professor Le Thi Hop of the National Nutrition Institute, about 1.2 million children already suffer from it. In HCMC, the share of children who are obese increased from 3.7 percent in the year 2000 to 11.5 percent in 2013. The share is probably higher nowadays.

By now the paradox is obvious: Vietnam is a country of beautifully slim moms with sadly overweight children. And Dr. Huynh Hanh, of the University of British Columbia, believes that the opening of fast food chains is a major cause of this disturbing trend.

There is another reason to be concerned about the penetration of fast food in Vietnam.

Food is culture, and it is often said that there is no great civilization without a great cuisine. Of course, the cuisines most people have in mind are the French, the Turkish, the Chinese, the Indian… But Vietnamese cuisine is arguably in that top tier of the world food league. And one of the great cuisines of the world being displaced by bland fast food would no doubt amount to a loss for mankind.

Vietnamese cuisine involves a subtle combination of fragrance, taste and color. Five elements come together and balance each other: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. The refinement of their combinations was pushed to new heights under the Nguyen Dynasty, when the 50 best chefs from all over the kingdom were selected to serve the emperor.

Later came the French influences, from new ingredients such as potato and asparagus, to new dishes such as banh mi pate or banh xeo. Pho, the quintessential Hanoian dish, was arguably influenced by French onion soup, and its name is said to derive from pot au feu, a traditional French broth.

In my eyes, the cuisine of Vietnam is much better than that of its neighbors: too spicy towards the west, too complex towards the north, too heavy towards the east…

Alas, the prospect of seeing Vietnamese cuisine being displaced by industrial fast food may seem quite real at times. By some accounts, there are already 207 Lotteria outlets, 140 from KFC and 100 stores by Jollibee. Other chains are following suit, and are massively investing to enter the Vietnamese food market.

And yet, my concerns could well be overstated. Some of the western fast food chains are struggling. Burger King invested $40 million to expand its chain, but it is still grappling to gain a foothold in Vietnam. McDonald's had targeted 100 restaurants after 10 years in the country, but it still has only a few in HCMC, and just one in Hanoi. Some of the successful entrants in the fast food market are Korean and Japanese, and their offerings are more suitable to the eating habits of the Vietnamese, with rice as the main staple.

Meanwhile, young people in Vietnam still love local food. Market research firm Decision Lab reckons that the generation born in the 1990s collectively spends about VND13 trillion ($568.1 million) per month eating out. For many young Vietnamese men and women, monthly spending reaches VND2-3 million. These young people eat sticky rice, fried corn, baked banana… and pho, of course! They drink mango shake, milk tea and Vietnamese coffee. And in continuing the tradition of their elders, they make Vietnam the global capital of “real” fast food, in its sidewalk version.

Even among western countries, food trends can be very different. Fast food, the American way, seems to have taken over the planet, but in parallel a strong “slow food” movement has emerged. Founded in Italy in the 1980s, in reaction to the arrival of fast food chains, it promotes the use of fresh ingredients, from farm to table, and celebrates taking time to cook and share the food with family and friends. The 2000s saw the emergence of the global chain Eataly (from “eat” and “Italy”), where large food halls host a variety of small restaurants and counters selling ham, cheese, olive oil and other fresh ingredients. Looking like market places, Eataly stores are thriving, from Sao Paulo to London and from New York to Tokyo.

The history of Vietnam provides some reassurance. French colonialism exposed the country to western influences for the first time. Unlike the current opening up of the country to foreign trade and investment, globalization back then was imposed. And yet, the Vietnamese culture was strong enough to only absorb the best that western civilization had to offer. From the new poetry movement to the Romanized Quốc Ngữ script, from neo-impressionist paintings to the ao dai dress, the finest French influences and local traditions were mixed back then to generate what we now see as distinctly Vietnamese cultural products.

Food is culture too, and based on the country’s previous experience with globalization, it is difficult to believe that fatty, American-style fast food has much future in Vietnam.

By Martin Ram/ VNE

*Martin Rama is the chief economist for the South Asia region of the World Bank. The opinions expressed are his own. 

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