McDonalds Free Zone
Last week I had the peculiar experience of watching the documentary Supersize Me with a friend who had never heard of McDonalds. It was completely lost on him. In fact Viet fell asleep after about 20 minutes. Apparently it was strange and incomprehensible in a land without fast food.
Last month Viet and I were in Bangkok and passed by the first Golden Arches I'd seen in nearly five months. It was a novelty enough for me to comment on it. Viet just had a blank look. Never seen or heard of it. So I tried to explain the fast food phenomenon. While I was at it I pointed out the KFC next door. All of it a new concept.
It's not that Vietnam is unglobalized. Viet may not be eating globalized fast food schlock, but he listens to The Black Eyed Peas and various other hip hop ambassadors. (He's also into army fatigues which I just can't understand. I have tried to point out the irony of his wearing a U.S. Army jacket to no avail. Have you taken a look at the Long Bien bridge anytime over the last 30 years, I want to ask him?)
Nonetheless there is something so refreshing about a land without fast food chains. From what I understand foreign conglomerates need real local partners. They won't let the money just flow out without some kind of meaningful local investment. I guess the Kroc family doesn't see much in it for them given these conditions, and thank God for that. There are some homegrown chains here though. The big one in Hanoi is Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks - slick and standardized, with all the best locations, including a big balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and, my personal favourite, a permanently docked boat on West Lake. Other than a few instances like that (Pho 24 is another) the businesses here are generally small home-grown family affairs. Quirky charm and personality are the name of the game.
However, as you can see I did succeed in spotting one pair of Golden Arches in Hanoi recently. I'm not sure how the McDonald's mystique adds to the success of little Ca Phe Hanh in a country without fast food chain brand recognition. Ironically though it speaks to the thorough absence of McDonald's here. It seems not even this blatant trademark violation succeeds in provoking a cease and desist order in this little corner of the world. More power to the underdog is what I say!