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Hanging on to your Vietnamese food culture

Thursday, April 19, 2018, 11:56 GMT+7
Hanging on to your Vietnamese food culture
Vietnamese dishes. Photo: Tuoi Tre

When I was a kid growing up in Canada, the concept of large corporations delivering the same products in identical stores all across the country was just gaining momentum. I recall our favourite burger joint to which we’d drive up in the car and be greeted by serving staff whizzing around on roller skates – it was fun and unique!

The server would roll up to the drivers’ door, take the order, and zip off to the kitchen with it, to later return with everything on a tray that fit neatly onto a car window rolled halfway down. When we’d take a family vacation in the car, it was fun to see the same burger place far away from home – a feeling of familiarity.

Fast-forward about 50 years and those big corporations have almost entirely taken over the food and hospitality markets in Western countries. Most products have become standardized – cloned to perfection, predictable, designed for the “average” palate, and downright boring.

In my last job in that part of the world, I travelled a lot domestically, and, upon awakening in the morning and pulling open the hotel room drapes my first question would be: “Where the heck am I?”

I’d scan the horizon but it was futile because every city looked just about the same: Holiday Inn, Ramada, and Hilton Hotels among other big names. Move on to fast food and you’ve got all the burger and fried chicken joints, toss in pancake and waffle restaurants, donut shops, pasta chains, and seafood places and there you go. Almost everything standard and mass-produced everywhere you go.

Top that off with the major coffee chains, pet food stores (!), and supermarkets and just about every city in the U.S. has the same 40 or 50 corporations flogging the same products. 

Large corporations could buy ingredients in huge quantities so there was no way the entrepreneur could remain competitive and many were forced out of business. Those big companies also eliminated most customer services – forcing patrons to queue up and wait instead of serving them, reaping huge profits in the process.

I went into one of the big international coffee chains in Ho Chi Minh City a while ago for the first time in ages and it was a strange experience to say the least.

I gave my order to the person behind the counter, who had a slick uniform with his name stitched across the breast. He noted my name on a paper cup (by then I had already forgotten his) and gave me a cool buzzer/blinker/vibrating gadget and a printed receipt.

I suppose a buzzer gadget is perceived as a cool, modern necessity, but it didn’t add anything to my experience. I could have just as easily hovered in the pick-up area until I saw my cup or the staff could have called out my name – why else ask for it? What’s the receipt for? Customers don’t return coffee for a refund, or do they? 

Coffee tastes better in a real porcelain cup and we save the environment at the same time, so it’s an opportunity to be seized when it comes up. But like most such coffee places, everything is paper, plastic, and cardboard – the real cups are not used because it’s easier to toss everything than wash dishes.

That experience was, well - ugh. Not personal nor memorable in any way. The coffee wasn’t exceptional either nor was the paper cup. The only thing that would make me ever want to return to such an establishment is the air-conditioning on a hot summer day.

I go to local cafés in Vietnam of which no two are exactly the same. There’s no shortage to select from – there must be a café on average every 100 meters in every city in Vietnam, so it’s easy to find a place that tickles my fancy.

Not only is the local experience more unique and satisfying for the customer, it’s also cheaper – a lot cheaper. Why actually is the coffee in that big corporate café double or more the price of the local café? Many reasons, the most obvious of which is the big companies negotiate deals with various coffee bean suppliers worldwide so they could get large quantities at reduced prices. 

I guess that’s because they’re sitting in their fancy offices thousands of kilometers from Vietnam connecting the dots. If they had done some homework they’d have learned that some of the world’s best coffee beans are right here on their doorstep in Vietnam.

Do we need or want Brazilian or Colombian beans shipped from the other side of the world?

We don’t.                                                    

Then they have all the overheads that big companies have: marketing expenses, disposable cups, staff uniforms (with names!), standardization of products, logistics and shipping, buzzer thingies, training, etc. – none of which the entrepreneur has. The cost of all those bells and whistles is passed on to the consumer at the end of the day.

It’s trendy to patronize the multinationals because it’s perceived as being “cool”, just like most things from abroad, particularly the West. And I completely understand that “cool” does the trick for some, particularly the younger generation.

At the same time I’m delighted to announce that “cool” obviously isn’t enough, because the Western mega-corporations aren’t winning the battle here in Vietnam!

Burger King closed several restaurants in Vietnam over the past year, McDonald’s has only made very little headway and that’s in Ho Chi Minh City, and has been far behind its stated goal of opening 10 new outlets per year since it unveiled those plans. Finally they opened up a store in Hanoi a few months ago.

Starbucks has barely made a dent in the market and is so desperate to succeed that they recently re-introduced its Da Lat blend in an attempt to project a local look and feel. Subway had lofty goals when it entered Vietnam almost seven years ago but only has managed to open six restaurants, all in Ho Chi Minh City.

Scene from a typical corporate banh mi chain
Scene from a typical corporate banh mi chain

In fact here it’s pretty much the opposite of the corporate experience: you can’t find an identical bowl of noodles from one street to the other even if you wanted to, never mind in one region or the entire country. The competition for the low-end customer is fierce and vendors are numerous, so they’re forced to invent and re-invent.I doubt if any of those businesses would survive were it not for the support of the expat communities and foreign tourists in the largest cities. Most of my Vietnamese friends have little or no interest at all in them.

This divine curry soup is available a couple of times a week in a nearby hole-in-the-wall and the place is packed each morning it’s offered. A unique offering with a home-cooked touch!

Yummy Chicken Curry Soup Breakfast
Yummy Chicken Curry Soup Breakfast

Enjoying regional specialties in Vietnam is not only fun, it’s even a hobby and a passion for many foodies. I belong to a constantly-expanding Facebook group that boasts over 10,000 members and all we talk about is Vietnamese food! We don’t want to eat the same food in Hanoi as we do in Ho Chi Minh City or Nha Trang – we thrive on the variation from the different parts of the country.

Local Banh Mi vendor and her cart
Local Banh Mi vendor and her cart

Those roller skate burger joints? They’ve nearly all disappeared except for a few that are considered relics – memories of a time when eating out was a fun experience. 

People go to them the way they visit a museum, to see how things were “way back when”, then ask themselves how most food experiences have become so superficial and tacky.

Don’t let your unique Vietnamese culture go – it’s the beauty and original experience that can easily be taken for granted until it’s gone, and then it’s too late.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor


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