The famous yellow arches are glowing in the capital city of Vietnam: February saw fast food giant McDonald’s open its first restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, with two major additions – a range of pork products and the famous Vietnamese robusta coffee to satisfy local tastes.
The opening saw almost 22,500 customers within a 24 hours period and another 400,000 customers in the first month.
The restaurant marks McDonald’s first venture into a new southeast Asian market in two decades and is the only 24 hour and drive-thru option in Vietnam.
At roughly 900 square metres, the restaurant can hold up to 350 patrons, an expanse necessary for the droves of customers walking through the doors each day.
A visit to the western restaurant chain is seen as a treat for wealthier Vietnamese families, including Binh Thanh who brings her two children to McDonalds on special occasions.
“We enjoy the food. It’s very different to traditional Vietnamese food but it tastes the same as all the other food at McDonald’s that I’ve tried in other countries.”
The restaurant promises quality produce, sourcing its beef from Australia and pork and potatoes from the United States.
Nguyen Duy Hoang, a food safety student at Nong Lam University and ex-employee at fast-food restaurant Jollie Bee, says most customers want to try the western favourites when they frequent McDonald’s.
“When McDonald’s first opened, Vietnamese people were very curious to try it. I wanted to try the most popular things on the menu.”
The success of the franchise, owned by the prime minister’s son-in-law, Henry Nguyen, has sparked another two stores to be opened in the coming months.
Nguyen worked for McDonald’s in the U.S. as a student before becoming a banker and eventually an entrepreneur responsible for the first Vietnamese franchise.
“I have dreamed of one day opening a McDonald’s restaurant in my native country ever since my return to Vietnam more than a decade ago,” Nguyen said in a press release on behalf of the company.
Employee Daniel Trong is just as enthusiastic about the opening of fast food giant, completing a nine week training course to gain a position at the restaurant.
“I have worked here since the store opened. It was a very exciting time for the employees and we are always very busy.”
Le Thi Kieu Thu, a lecturer in food safety and nutrition at Nong Lam University in Ho Chi Minh City, had to wait for two months to taste her first McDonald’s cheeseburger due to overwhelming crowds at the restaurant.
She says teenagers are drawn to the newness of the restaurant and want to be seen at a place that is hip and western.
“It was not easy to come and try McDonald’s. There was more customers than they expected and there is always a long line to get in. Teenagers want to gather in a place like this because it looks modern and beautiful.”
Thu says the prime location was available to the franchise because of Henry Nguyen’s status and that the franchise attracts local customers from District 1, the more affluent part of the largest city in Vietnam.
“I don’t think it would have been easy to get this location for McDonald’s in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City but Nguyen can have that.”
The cost of a Big Mac is 60000VND, which equates to about $3AUD, a price that is reasonably expensive for Vietnamese people who earn on average AUD$150 per week.
Many could lament the introduction of McDonald’s in Vietnam as an invasion of unhealthy food in the healthy, pho-loving country. (Pho is a vegetable and meat broth favoured by Vietnamese).
Le Thi Kieu Thu says the expensive meals are preventing most of the population from eating fast food in unhealthy amounts.
“I think that the price of McDonalds is a little bit expensive, but Ho Chi Minh City has a higher level of income, so it depending on the family people can eat here sometimes,” says Thu.
While McDonald’s is not the first fast-food chain to be available in the country, the iconic U.S. brand does mark a full turn-around in the way Vietnamese people regard their former wartime foes.