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food / travel

McDonald's Lands In Vietnam: History, Capitalism And Obesity

A recently opened McDonald's franchise in Ho Chi Minh City is the first in Vietnam. Symbolism aside, the ubiquitous U.S. fast food chain also raises health questions for Vietnamese.

Opening day for Vietnam's first McDonald's restaurant
Opening day for Vietnam's first McDonald's restaurant
Lien Hoang

HO CHI MINH CITY — With a ribbon cutting and a traditional lion dance, Vietnam recently welcomed the country’s hottest new attraction: the first McDonald’s franchise.

Vietnamese have been waiting for this moment for years. On opening day, 34-year-old businesswoman Lai Thi Tuoi waits in line with hundreds of others for a Big Mac and fries.
“I’ve been to other countries and eaten McDonald’s there,” she says. “So when I heard about it coming here, I was excited. For the grand opening I brought my son to taste it, because he likes things like KFC. Whatever’s new in Vietnam, we should go try it.”

McDonald’s is the first chain in Vietnam to be open 24 hours a day, and the first to have a drive-thru. Most Vietnamese have never used a drive-thru, and its arrival is welcome because they hate standing in line. “The first drive-thru in Vietnam — that sounds pretty special to me,” Tuoi says.

The company’s American CEO, Don Thompson, flew in to Vietnam from the Olympics in Russia, which McDonald’s sponsored. “I’m actually looking forward to potentially riding a scooter through the drive-thru,” he says. “I’ve never done that anywhere in the world.”

Vietnam is now the 38th country in Asia to have a McDonald’s. And the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant is the region’s 10,000th location. McDonald’s has also invented a new sandwich for Vietnam, as franchisee Henry Nguyen explains.

“Pork is such a staple of our diets here in Vietnam,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that we had a product that everyone could also enjoy that was pork-based. For this restaurant, for Vietnam, we created McPork. We hope it will not only be consumed and enjoyed in Vietnam, but we hope over time it’s going to be enjoyed around the world.”

Even the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, was at the opening ceremony to give a speech. “McDonald’s will not only serve great food, but it will establish a first-rate Vietnamese supplier network,” he said. “It will build a world-class supply chain, and train the next generation of Vietnam’s great managers and corporate leaders.”

But not everyone is happy about the arrival of McDonald’s, saying that this will only add to Vietnam’s rising obesity rates and diabetes. Naturally, that’s a claim senior vice president Bob Larson denies. “We offer a very nutritious, well-balanced range of products,” he says.

It’s not just eating habits that are changing in Vietnam. The economy is too. Several U.S.-based fast-food chains have expanded into the country, starting with KFC in 1997, Starbucks last year, and now McDonald’s, four decades after the end of the Vietnam War that tore apart both the U.S and Vietnam.

Sean Ngo, managing director of the consultancy Vietnam Franchises, says the McDonald’s entry reflects the country’s push towards capitalism. “The country itself, as you know, is communist in name,” he says. “But in terms of the economy, there has been a lot more flexibility. It has been more capitalistic than it has been state-controlled. And in fact, the rate of privatization is following and mirroring what it was in China 10 to 15 years ago. So what you are seeing, in fact, is an embrace of capitalism.”

If that’s true, Vietnam is no doubt going to see many more McDonald’s in the future.

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