McDonald's comes to Vietnam - Rusty Compass travel blog

McDonald's comes to Vietnam

| 14 Feb 2014
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14 Feb 2014

McDonald's has arrived in Saigon. The first store opened last weekend complete with motorcycle drive-thru and big plans for the future.

After more than 20 years of speculation, McDonald's has finally arrived in Vietnam. Many expected the golden arches to rush in  with Coke and Pepsi when the US Trade Embargo on Vietnam was finally lifted in 1994.

But McDonald's was in no hurry and other big fast food names like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Burger King took the lead. Ronald's rivals have been softening up the Vietnamese to junk food for years.

It shows too. A nation where food was scarce just three decades ago now faces soaring rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.

McDonald's Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer McDonald's Saigon


McDonald's Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer McDonald's Saigon

The Vietnamese, especially the southerners, have always liked their sugar. But now they're stuffing their kids with sweetened milk, energy drinks, candy and fast food. In a generation, the physicality of a nation has been transformed.

And for many in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, the corpulent child is a mark of parental prosperity and accomplishment.

Vietnam looks like a market poised for a fast-food boom.

McDonald's first store opened on Dien Bien Phu St in a densely populated part of the city. Major street names in Vietnam usually reference great battles or military heroes. Dien Bien Phu St remembers the location of the historic 1954 battle in which Ho Chi Minh's ragtag army defeated their French colonial rulers. The battle of Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of French colonialism in Vietnam. The French did the fighting at Dien Bien Phu while the US paid most of the bill. A little over a decade after Dien Bien Phu, US troops arrived in Vietnam.

While Vietnam's most famous general, Vo Nguyen Giap, was amassing men and materiel in the mountains surrounding the French positions at Dien Bien Phu, back in the US, two entrepreneurs, the McDonald brothers, were busily creating the foundations for one of the world's most successful fast-food brands.

The McDonald's opening is a perfect symbol of the wild twists of history. Vietnam has more than its fair share.

American businesses have been back in Vietnam for two decades. But the McDonald's brand carries more symbolic weight than its rivals - especially on Dien Bien Phu St.

Local and international media have also noted that the McDonald's franchise is owned by a Vietnamese American, the son-in-law of the Prime Minister.

When I visited last Monday afternoon, it was too busy to get in to sample Ronald's local fare. I was facing a 30 minute wait - which was apparently far less than those who had joined the crush to experience the first few days of Big Mac trade.

In a sign of local awareness, McDonalds Saigon boasts motorcycle drive-thru - though it looks no different to any other drive-thru as far as I can see.

McDonalds motorcycle drive-thru with a luxury car thrown in.
Photo: Mark Bowyer McDonalds motorcycle drive-thru with a Bentley thrown in.


McDonald's second store will open closer to downtown on Tran Hung Dao St nearby Ben Thanh Market.

Right opposite is Com Chay Tin Nghia, a very local vegetarian eatery that I recently passed by for a bowl of hu tieu noodles - veg style. The Chinese woman that served me insists it's has been open for 80 years. It sure looked like it could have been.

Com Chay Tin Nghia - oppposite the second McDonalds on Tran Hung Dao St.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Com Chay Tin Nghia - oppposite the second McDonalds on Tran Hung Dao St.
Com Chay Tin Nghia.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Com Chay Tin Nghia.
Com Chay Tin Nghia.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Com Chay Tin Nghia.
Vegetarian Hu Tieu at Com Chay Tin Nghia.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Vegetarian Hu Tieu at Com Chay Tin Nghia.

It was a perfect little snapshot of old and new Vietnam. There were two Buddhist nuns and some elderly, Chinese Vietnamese eating from a solid menu of vegetarian options. They'd all been regulars for years. And the prices were still incredibly reasonable. My dinner cost all of $2 with a drink.

Meanwhile, right across the street, workers rushed to get the new McDonald's finished.

While the Vietnamese might be warmly embracing western fast food culture, for now at least, they also seem to be holding on to their great culinary traditions. And Vietnam's very own fast food industry predates the McDonald brothers and Burger King. What's pho, bun and other local favourites if not fast food?

One of the most popular local fast food trends of late is bun dau - noodles and tofu. For the past year, little bun dau stalls have been popping up around Saigon to a warm reception from young city dwellers. With tofu, noodles and lots of Vietnamese herbs and salad, bun dau seems likely to be a more nutritious form of fast food than that coming in from abroad. If you're feeling brave, try the pungent fermented shrimp sauce known as mam tom.

Let's hope Ronald's arrival doesn't upset the balance and the little veggie eatery on Tran Hung Dao St survives another 80 years and Vietnam's traditional fast food businesses continue to thrive.

Local eateries seem to be holding up well against the fast-food wave.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bun Dau Ngo Nho Pho - Local eateries seem to be holding up well against the fast-food wave.


The new McDonalds is located at 2-6 Bis Dien Bien Phu St, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City.

Com Chay Tin Nghia is located at 9 Tran Hung Dao St not far from Ben Thanh Market and the backpacker district.

You can try "bun dau" at Bun  Dau Ngo Nho Pho right by Ngon Restaurant, down the alley at 158bis Pasteur St, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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