About the same time Vietnam declared its independence in 1945, America began a love affair with the burger. Seventy-two years later, the burger has made its home in the capital of Vietnam, with the opening of the city’s first McDonald’s. Criticism abounds, as it did with the franchise’s arrival in 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City. But how much of the commentary is based on outdated modes of thinking?
In fact, the first iteration of the burger can be traced to the Mongols who, as John T. Edge, New York Times contributing writer and author of Hamburger & Fries, explains, was a result of horsemen storing “raw mutton scraps in the gap between the horse’s flank and the saddle” to eat between pillaging villages.
The burger has come a long way since it has returned to roost in the East, and so has the sentiment attached to it.
“It’s a food that’s a symbol of capitalism and food as a literal buy-in to capitalism,” said Edge in a recent telephone interview, “and it carries with it all those ideas of Americanism.”
Part and parcel of the American burger joint of the 1940s was the drive-thru. Whereas in Ho Chi Minh City, motorcycle lanes replace the automobile corral, the new franchise location on Hoan Kiem Lake, an area that’s a tourist destination and auto-free on the weekend, features a walk-up counter.
A few weeks following its grand opening on Dec. 2, which included a requisite ribbon-cutting and meet-and-greet with Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s still hums with activity. While there are no lines out of the door today, after a busy morning, the staff scramble to regroup before the lunch rush. At half-past eleven, queues form and staff direct the crowds like air traffic controllers as counter crew exchange patrons' receipts for goods.
While the Big Mac, fries, and Happy Meals are near carbon copies of their Western counterparts, a few items on the Hanoi franchise’s menu reveals at least one thing McDonald’s excels in — adaptability.
“Their product remains the hamburger,” says Edge, “but the accoutrements applied to it and its trappings very much reflect a smart assimilation and adaptability of a very agile company.”
Fried chicken and banh my are just a few of the things that highlight the Vietnamese version of the menu. But it’s the condiments that are the real winners.
“I love this condiment,” says Kim, 22, a Vietnamese woman who’s just finished eating, and points to a translucent ochre-coloured dip alongside ketchup, the brand’s better-known staple. It’s her first visit to a McDonald’s, and she’s joined by her friend, Van Anh, 21, a veteran McDonald’s patron.
“I had a lot of expectations of the experience,” says Kim, who followed her friend’s lead and ordered a Big Mac meal. “It’s not what I expected. But I love the fries!”
A Domino Effect
Adapting and assimilating are part of McDonald’s arsenal of marketing tactics, but where they have become less flexible these days is their approach to supply chain and food safety standards.
McDonald’s, much like another American behemoth, Wal-Mart, has integrated local buying and organic foods as part of their business model, as well as adopting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.
McDonald’s requires its franchises to follow these and other standards on a global level, a fact that’s made McDonald’s expansion within Vietnam more difficult, though not impossible. Henry Nguyen, managing partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam, which owns the Vietnamese franchises, called the process a “headache” in an article published in 2014. The demand for better products, however, has had the added benefit of an increased supply of quality food and food safety awareness.
The brand has a lot to lose financially by not enforcing strict guidelines. In 2014, according to a Reuters report: “McDonald’s increased the number of audits of its suppliers in China” after a food safety scare hit sales. A year later, Japanese suppliers fell under the same scrutiny. Those years marked significant financial losses for the brand. For McDonald’s in Vietnam to maintain its rapport with patrons, and even more importantly, their bottom line, food safety, both within their franchises and among their local suppliers, is of utmost importance. Word of mouth still matters.
There’s a golden lining to an emphasis on food safety in a developing country. In 2016, a report co-authored by the World Bank and partners at the request of the Government of Vietnam concluded that: “International experience provides many tested ideas which, in the right combination, should gradually improve levels of food safety.”
With McDonald’s high standard of practices for which everyone is held accountable, there is a domino effect. Vietnamese workers, many of whom are unfamiliar with issues such as cross-contamination, will bring these practices home, and if they continue in the food industry, they will take them to their next job, too. And that’s a win for everybody.
Women As “Fry” Keepers
“Get ready for fat, lazy, unhealthy sick kids,” quipped one Twitter user about the arrival of McDonald’s in Hanoi.
The most damning argument within Super Size Me, the acclaimed documentary by Morgan Spurlock, was the argued correlation between the effect of McDonald’s advertising to children and their obesity rate.
Obesity rates of American children were at an all-time high when the film was released in 2004. According to Children’s Data Bank, statistical figures suggest that since then, the number of obese and overweight children has decreased or at least remained unchanged.
Following the release of the film, McDonald’s rolled out the GoActive Happy Meal, offered the option of replacing fries with apple slices — and most tellingly of how the brand responds to consumer backlash — nixed the “super size” meal upgrade across the board. McDonald’s denies that these changes were made in response to criticism, unsurprisingly, because a confession could expose them to legal claims. Regardless, the changes were made.
While McDonald’s cannot be held solely responsible for the increase in obesity rates, its response to criticism should be lauded. According to a 2013 study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, with the exception of some outliers, marketing fast food to kids has improved. Numerous companies have done their part to roll out healthier food options, but ultimately the responsibility to make better food choices falls where it should — on the parent.
“I wouldn’t take my kid here,” says Kim, who, as of yet, doesn’t have children. “I wouldn’t even want it to be a treat for my children because they would always want McDonald’s. I’d want to make them normal everyday food.”
Kim’s foresight is something that Americans, in particular, lacked in the 1940s. Driven by a desire to get dinner on the table in a growing economy, parents have helped their children become addicted to the tantalizing allure of golden fries and a toy that’s quickly relegated to the rubbish bin.
In Vietnam, while it’s true that McDonald’s is a convenience food accessible to a more affluent socio-economic group, there is something else that will limit the growth of the country’s waistline — mothers. It is the mother who holds court over the food her family eats. If most Vietnamese women think like Kim and her friend Van Anh, we can expect that McDonald’s won’t be a welcome guest at the everyday table any time soon.
A Golden Future?
While the current American administration is rolling back government regulation, it’s no match for the grassroots efforts that strive for decency like those developed by programmes such as food coalitions, farming cooperatives, or organizations like Southern Foodways Alliance, also spearheaded by John T. Edge, and which preserves and researches “foodways”, defined as “the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food.”
“I think that there are other measures of a food that are more telling that are not about the blunt force of the arrival of a mega company,” says Edge, whose area of research focuses on the permeability of foodways between cultures. “It’s about the genuine exchange of foods and the like.”
Instead, McDonald’s in Vietnam is a story about a mega marketing giant’s arrival to a new landscape, and whose impact will affect the Vietnamese economy for years to come, and will shape its food industry. As long as the country’s matrons remain at the head of the table, waistlines should remain unchanged, too.
Also, smaller Vietnamese companies, such as Naturally Vietnam in Hanoi, which opened its doors 10 years ago, or Hanoi Small Goods, a meat delivery service, will benefit from the arrival of McDonald’s, as more Vietnamese people become aware of and concerned with what’s in their food. Instead of burgers and fries, what we can expect people to be “lovin’” will be access to safe, healthy food, and a society that benefits from eating it.
PHOTOS BY TEIGUE JOHN BLOKPOEL