Bin is a nine-year-old boy living in Saigon. Like other kids, he is excited about his coming birthday, when he will be showered with presents and play with his friends with limited parental supervision. Last year, his mom cooked a feast with his favorite dish: fish sauce fried chicken, but this year it will even be better: his party will be held in KFC – located in a supermarket at a Saigonese busy intersection.
Yes, KFC is the abbreviation of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Birthday parties are such an integral part of KFC’s strategy in Vietnam that there is a separate section on its website for party reservation. A full package includes not only food, but also invitation cards, a game master and decoration. Other fast-food chains in Vietnam, such as Lotteria and McDonald’s, provide similar services to attract the local population.
Fast food in Canada is a value-for-money option – it’s the last resort one comes to at the wee hours of the day or when budget is tight. But in Vietnam, it takes on another status. Dining in a fast food restaurant offers patrons the bright and clean ambience often found at other high-class establishments at a fraction of their costs.
Why is fast food in Vietnam such a fancy fare? How else is it different from other places in the world? Let’s find out.
Many global fast food chains in Vietnam have an extensive rice menu specifically for the country. As rice is an essential part of the Vietnamese cuisine, they have to adapt their offerings to appeal to local customers, even though it just means swapping out the burger buns for a bowl of rice. To many Vietnamese, a meal without rice is not complete, so instead of chicken and fries, they can go for a piece of KFC’s original recipe chicken, served with steamed rice and raw cucumbers and tomatoes on the side.
Most fast food restaurants in Vietnam are located in a spacious air-conditioned area, either in a building of its own or as part of a shopping mall or supermarket. These are well-maintained and often have modern design with bright color schemes and Wifi connection. That explains why a lot of people choose KFC or Lotteria as a party and gathering venue. Seldom do Vietnamese rush when dining in such restaurants. Instead, having a meal there is a leisurely enjoyable experience.
While fast food chains like McDonald’s and KFC serve their meals in a paper makeshift container on a tray, their counterparts in Vietnam use proper plastic tableware and utensils. Your chicken comes in an oval white plate, with stainless steel fork and knife, and your drink is dispensed into a tall cup that you return after dining.
Take a quick look at any fast food outlets in Saigon and you’ll see a general pattern about their customers. The majority of the patrons are teenagers and working professionals in their 20s and 30s who like trying new foods and Western meals at an affordable price point. The older generation, on the other hand, still prefer traditional Vietnamese dishes with familiar ingredients and cooking techniques.
The real Vietnamese fast food
To those who come to KFC and McDonald’s for the air-conditioner, bright lights and chilling atmosphere, the real fast food chains are bánh mì stalls and phở shops where they can quickly grab a bite anytime of the day. Instead of ordering at a counter, you can just find a table after parking your motorbike and someone will come, asking for your preference from the very specialized menu. You can get in, eat and get out within 20 minutes. Plus, you’ll be able to get wholesome dishes at a lower price compared to Western food.
Vietnamese food still rules
People are enthusiastic to try burgers, pizzas and fries – items foreign to their regular meals, but once the novelty factor dies off, they go back to the familiar. That is probably the reason why fast food growth in Vietnam has slowed in the past few years. Indeed, visits to fast food outlets dropped by 17% in 2018, according to market research firm Decision Lab’s latest foodservice industry report. These international chains not only have to compete with each other but also countless number of street food vendors and casual service restaurants which are nimbler to changes.
The upside to this fierce competition is that the food scene in Vietnam is getting more exciting and dynamic with new cuisines and creations. For example, Domino’s latest phở pizza deserves some credit for hitting all the right notes: cheesy, aromatic, herbaceous. It’s Vietnamese flavors on an Italian invention. It’s East-meets-West.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt