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Pho versus KFC: Food for serious thought

Update: April, 13/2014 - 17:49

by Minh Le-Trung Hieu

A series of global fast food restaurants recently made their foray across the main roads of large cities, such as Ha Noi and HCM City.

"This is a new consumer trend ‘thriving' in Viet Nam," Le Phuong Diep, a young office worker informed her friends.

"The appearance of this trend seems to be beneficial for Viet Nam's investment environment," her friend stated.

But, many others argue that this is just an intense, ongoing war between tradition and modernism, between pho (traditional noodle soup served with beef) and fast food, and between the No 1 Vietnamese coffee exporter and the world's famous coffee brands.

A pho restaurant, named Minh Chau, located on Le Van Sy Street in HCM City, was famous for many years. Throughout the day, hundreds of people sat in its two large houses and relished pho or rustic dishes, such as grilled squid and clams, while sipping at some rice wine.

But that is something of the past.

Today, Pho Minh Chau has moved to the other side of the street, in a small house. In its former location, now stands a spacious red house with modern glass doors of the world famous KFC brand.

The pho restaurant now mainly serves the middle-aged people.

During the latter half of the day, the KFC fast food restaurant is brimming with teenagers.

Sometimes, people see a lot of balloons hanging in the KFC restaurant and hear singing voices "Happy birthday to you..." This is someone's birthday celebration, which certainly cannot be hosted in a Vietnamese pho restaurant.

About a decade ago, KFC, Lotteria and Jollibee were the only known brands having a stronghold in Viet Nam's fast food market. But, currently, there is a huge influx of foreign brands in Viet Nam, which is apparently visible on the streets of large cities, in major commercial centres, and even spread across neighbouring towns.

"The western fast food industry is, without doubt, making profits in Viet Nam," claimed Nguyen Ngoc Lan, a state employee.

Obviously, a bowl of hot pho ga or pho bo (noodles served with chicken or beef, respectively, along with fresh aromatic herbs and onion) offers much more nutrition than a piece of fried chicken or greasy hamburger, which is the leading cause of obesity.

But, thanks to the modern decor of these restaurants, service skills, and marketing gimmicks, these western fast food chains are conquering a major chunk of the market, while the pure Vietnamese dishes are losing ground.

Moreover, the western fast food chains are creating a new consumer trend in Viet Nam.

"We, the young Vietnamese consumers, no longer feel curious for western style coffee, such as Starbucks or Gloria Jean's Coffee, and we also understand 'the other side' of fast food, such as McDonalds burgers or KFC chicken," noted Hoang Kieu Trinh, a Hanoian woman.

"But, what attracts us to come to these fast food restaurants, is their modern style, comfortable spaces, and moreover, we feel we are the 'stylists'," she confessed.

These are the key factors that foreign firms actively advertise to their clients.

Moreover, the foreign brands also seek to "localize" their products, to create a sense of familiarity and empathy among their clients.

Previously, no one sold rice in fast food outlets, but rice has now become the dish with the highest recorded sales. KFC has also increased green vegetable portions in its menu in order to adapt to the Vietnamese eating habits.

Nguyen Ngoc Vinh, a photographer in Ha Noi, contended that undoubtedly, the fried chicken and hamburgers cannot substitute pho, as well as espresso and cappuccino coffee cannot replace filtered coffee.

"But, Vietnamese consumers will also not hesitate to refuse a pho shop, which is full of used tissues and chicken bones on its floor, and instead, opt for a fast food restaurant that is cool and clean," he pointed out.

Today, the younger generation does not have the time or patience to sit for hours on end sipping coffee with a dripping filter. Instead, they may choose to drink coffee in take away paper cups with straws.

While fast food has had the reputation of not being healthy, some companies claim that they do not sell "fast food" and instead serve "delicious food with a fast serving style".

In this context, Viet Nam has many delicious foods that are served in a fast manner. Not just pho and bun bo (vermicelli with beef), many other Vietnamese traditional dishes, such as banh canh (noodle soup), banh cuon (steamed rolled rice crepe) and different kinds of spring rolls have been widely appreciated by western tourists.

Diversity in the Vietnamese food industry has been extensively recognised. Most importantly, the foreigners rate the quality of Vietnamese cuisine as not just "tasty", but also "good for health" with more vegetables and less fat, a popular global trend.

Due to the advantages offered by Vietnamese cuisine, the "father" of competitive strategies, Michael E. Porter, during his Viet Nam visit to attend a conference on "global competitiveness" and "Viet Nam's advantage" in 2008, suggested that Viet Nam should be the "kitchen of the world".

Unfortunately, Viet Nam's culinary industry still lacks sound marketing strategies and effective management.

We have brilliant names, such as Pho 24, which its owner intended to use for launching Vietnamese pho to conquer the global market, but this dream is probably still far from fulfilled.

There are also pho restaurants which still serve tasty meals in hygienic surroundings in our large cities.

But, their numbers are still small as compared to the outlets of foreign fast food brands.

The fast food market in Viet Nam has over the past 15 years completely changed. Numerous billboards of fast food brands are visible on the most beautiful and busiest streets. Currently, KFC has more than 160 outlets in 19 provinces and cities, Lotteria has 165 restaurants, and Burger King, which just arrived, has about 20 in prime locations.

According to a survey conducted five years ago by the Nielsen Company on the fast food market, people belonging to the high income group are regular customers of fast food, 27 per cent of people from the middle income group have fast food at least once a week, while this ratio among the lower income group is 6 per cent.

But now, fast food outlets have become the preferred choice of university students.

"Don't worry that our traditional cuisine will become the underdog," Ngo Thanh Hoa, who won the Masterchef Viet Nam competition in 2013, once proclaimed in front of the media.

"I found that pho, vermicelli, and meat bread still rule the alleys and side streets. Currently in Viet Nam, foreign fast food is only a part of people's eating habits. Instead of eating traditional dishes for the entire week, we now have more food choices with fast food," he remarked. — VNS


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