Vietnam tries Big Macs as first McDonald's opens in Ho Chi Minh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 4:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 4:13am

Four decades after the Vietnam war ended, US fast-food company McDonald's opened its first restaurant in the communist country yesterday, aiming to lure a rising middle class away from rice and noodles.

The arrival of one of the symbols of US capitalism in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon when American troops withdrew in 1975, is the result of a partnership with the son-in-law of Vietnam's powerful prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

McDonald's is following US rivals Burger King, KFC and coffee shop chain Starbucks into Vietnam, a country many Americans associate more with an unpopular war than a newly wealthy middle class.

Signs of the country's rising affluence were on display on Saturday as hundreds of people, mostly young students or families with children, queued at the McDonald's store on Dien Bien Phu street, named after the battle that ended French colonial rule.

"I like fast food. I don't like Vietnamese food. I don't like fish sauce," Nguyen Hoang Long said as he devoured a Big Mac meal.

"McDonald's in Vietnam is seen as a high-class restaurant. In the US, it's just normal," added the 25-year-old, who acquired a love of fast food while studying in California.

A Big Mac costs about US$2.85 at the Vietnamese outlet, while a bowl of traditional pho noodle soup can be bought on most street corners for around US$1.50.

The relatively high price of a burger positions McDonald's as an aspirational dining option accessible only to the middle class, economist Le Dang Doanh said.

For the first time last year, absolute consumption of rice in Vietnam began to decline as the newly wealthy sought alternative sources of carbohydrates, according to a 2013 World Bank report.

The price Vietnam is paying for prosperity is rising rates of diabetes and obesity, particularly in affluent urban areas like Ho Chi Minh City, where nearly 10 per cent of children are now classed as overweight, according to state media.

Hong Diep, a 33-year-old mother of two who had taken her fast-food loving children to the McDonald's opening, said she only let her son and daughter eat burgers and fries as a special treat.

"I know it's not healthy," she said. "In terms of nutrition, no food compares to the Vietnamese dishes I cook them at home."

McDonald's local partner, Henry Nguyen, once flipped burgers for McDonald's while growing up in the US.

His family fled to America at the end of the war.

Also known as Nguyen Bao Hoang, he returned to his native country more than a decade ago.

He was outside the store yesterday directing traffic, mostly motorbikes and the odd cyclo, into the drive-through.