With more than 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, there aren’t many places on earth where McDonalds isn’t: the Pacific Mariana Trench, snowswept landscapes of the Antarctic, the summit of Everest (though at the rate foot traffic is increasing there, a franchise can’t be far off). Until recently, Vietnam, too, was on the shrinking list of places where the shadow of the Golden Arches did not fall. Two weeks ago, however, the Internet and the hearts of trans-fat-lovers everywhere were set aflutter with official reports from the world’s largest restaurant chain that, in early 2014, Vietnamese residents will finally be able to order a Big Mac, making it the 38th Asian nation to capitulate to Happy Meal capitalism.
News outlets around the world noted that Nguyen Bao “Henry” Hoang, founder of Good Day Hospitality and managing partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam, was awarded the much-sought-after — and in all likelihood hugely lucrative — license to operate McDonald’s in the country. Plans are already at the point where staff has been hired and shipped off to the Philippines for training. The store will be a monster, by all accounts; estimates are that it’ll need as many as 100 staffers. One can only hope they manage the queues better than the new Saigon Starbucks.
Local media outlets went wild over the news, noting that Nguyen graduated from Harvard University, holds a master’s degree from Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, and worked in the technology group at Goldman Sachs before becoming the CEO of IDG Ventures in Vietnam. All repeated Nguyen’s claim that he worked at a McDonald’s as a youth — presumably just before attending Harvard, though reports were curiously nonspecific on the details of exactly when and where Nguyen held down that position, as has been Nguyen himself. It strains credibility to imagine that the number of Harvard grads who mopped floors at a Mickey D’s at any point in their life is more than, well, one.
Nearly all local news coverage omitted two other interesting facts, both given high prominence in international stories on the development: First, that Nguyen is a Viet kieu — the son of South Vietnamese parents (he was born in 1974) who fled the country for America just before the war ended and only returned to Vietnam ten years ago. Traditionally, such families have been looked upon as little better than turncoats, particularly in Hanoi, where Nguyen now oversees $100 million invested in technology, media, telecommunications and consumer companies with Good Day Hospitality. Attitudes towards Viet kieu have changed a lot in recent years, as more and more young Vietnamese spend time working or studying abroad before returning to Vietnam to set up shop. But old traditions die hard here.
What also went unmentioned in local coverage of the news is the fact that Nguyen also happens to be the son-in-law of Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. This point was conveniently overlooked, as well, in McDonald’s official announcement of the news: “Henry Nguyen is that ideal business partner who has an impressive business background and proven track record in driving new business ventures in Vietnam.” Nguyen, it read, “brings a strong passion for the Brand.”
Why was this fact downplayed or ignored in all the Vietnamese coverage? It’s not for us to speculate, but plenty of local Internet commenters have been happy to throw in their two cents. Perhaps it is only coincidence that out of 90 million possible candidates in the country, the Prime Minister’s son-in-law happens to be the one with the best qualifications for this rare opportunity. If so, that’s some coincidence.
For many media outlets beyond the control of Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, that particular aspect of the story was one of its most salient. At news sites as disparate as The New York Times, the Bangkok Post, the Irish Times, CNN, Canada’s CBC, Voice of America, and the Associated Press, for example, Nguyen’s connection to Vietnam’s First Family appeared in the very first sentences of all their articles, and often in the headline.
“If Nguyen Bao Hoang wasn’t the son-in-law of one of the kings in Vietnam, how could he get the McDonald’s agreement?”
This all has provided plenty of fodder for discussion among local observers and commentators. Consider that Henry Nguyen’s father, Nguyen Bang, was an official in the Republic of South Vietnam prior to its defeat in 1975. Technically, members of the Communist Party of Vietnam are forbidden from marrying into any family of the defeated South Vietnamese Republic. His marriage to the current prime minister’s daughter makes Nguyen an especially interesting, and possibly problematic figure for Prime Minister Dung, who’s already beset by a slew of not inconsequential political problems.
Yet perhaps more important is the fact that, in a country like Vietnam, where the system is seen by many as being overwhelmingly aligned against the ordinary working class, and where it’s conventional wisdom that the only way to get ahead in Vietnam is to be there already, news of the Dung-Nguyen-McDonald’s alliance does little to assure people that opportunity in Vietnam exists for anyone except the most highly placed elites — those who in fact need it least. For many Vietnamese who read this news, Nguyen’s “passion” and his purported business acumen mattered not at all to his landing the McDonald’s franchise. His most important professional asset, many have suggested in online comments, was his wife’s father.
“Why did McDonalds choose Henry Nguyen?” one writer asks in a post at QuachBlog2000. “It is because Henry not only has a huge financial property, but also the support from his father-in-law, which promotes the power of McDonalds brands (as well as going through complicated rules and regulations from the governments easily).”
Writing at otofun, a popular Vietnamese forum for car owners, Taylailua wrote, “Sorry but if even 80 million Vietnamese people have the desire like Henry Hoang, only he can do that. On the other hand, why doesn’t he bring something to gain benefit for the people, the country? Just bring McDonald’s to get rid of pho, bun and to make money for foreign businesses.”
Commenting on a Voice of America news story about the McDonald’s announcement, Yeu Le That writes, “If Nguyen Bao Hoang wasn’t the son-in-law of one of the kings in Vietnam, how could he get the McDonald’s agreement? It’s so true that there is no job here that can make you rich as the job ‘Selling for the King,’ especially being EXCLUSIVELY KING of the Communist Kings.” Nguyên Hương observed, “In this chaotic, power-corrupted society, famous foreign business when come to Vietnam always choose the one with powerful cover … When Boeing came into Vietnam, they chose [former Vietnamese prime minister] Phan Văn Khải’s son as CEO. All the commercial positions are only available for the government’s relatives, so stop singing about their talents and ethics.”
“We have to say thanks to the prime minister’s son-in-law. Eating fat McDonald’s food is still better than having poisonous and fatal Chinese food.”
Much of the online discussion has turned on points of national pride. In a widely quoted statement on the McDonald’s deal, Nguyen gushed, “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.” Commenter hoangha writes, “Why is he not dreaming about bringing Vietnamese brands to the world?” At otofun, Khumuioto wondered, “If he loves the country, why he doesn’t he collaborate to bring Vietnamese coffee to the world?”
At a VnExpress news story, Việt Nguyễn writes, “Fast food should be called ‘slow food’ as it needs more than 10 minutes to be served, while Vietnamese foods only needs 2 or 3 minutes and they are ready to eat. Vietnamese people should respect Vietnamese goods.”
Few Vietnamese may have seen Supersize Me, the the 2004 McDonald’s documentary film. Nevertheless, the nation’s Internet savvy youth are keenly aware of the health hazards associated with fast food. But there’s also a widespread sort of willful obliviousness to this fact in the developing nation, where established franchises such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Lotteria, Jollibee (and, more recently, Subway, Burger King, and Popeye’s) are viewed as top-tier brands. In a nation where the average monthly income is still less than $300, eating KFC or Burger King is a popular way of flashing one’s bling; dining at Western fast food outlets here carries a cache that says “lots of disposable income.”
This paradox has made for some interesting back-and-forth online. Viet beo, at popular discussion forum Webtretho, commented, “The US has a high rate of obesity caused by fast food. Therefore, I do not applaud this project.” At a Radio Free Asia report about the news, commenter Legend wrote, “The KFC, Burger King, McDonalds in foreign countries is cheap, but we just eat it on special occasions because it is expensive to us.” Stacy sasha replied, “I don’t know what they will bring for Vietnam. Fast food is fat food.”
At the teen and young adult discussion board Kenh14, shfvm observed, “I don’t understand why fast food overseas targets middle-class to poor people, but in Vietnam, it is like something for the nobility.” Jesicca Le agreed: “Strangely, overseas, Mc Donalds/KFC are fast food or fast/cheap foods, eaten by people who are too lazy to cook or by poor people. However, when they come to Vietnam, it becomes an expensive restaurant. I don’t understand.”
User congthanhgiong unloaded with both barrels: “McDonalds is one of the worst quality burger brands. It’s just the most popular brand, and its meaning in culture is similar to a sandwich in Vietnam. In the U.S., less than $2 buys a burger but it isn’t high quality. If people want to eat high quality food in Vietnam, they can eat something they’ve cooked themselves, always with fresh meat.”
Member tranchau dumped: “There’s nothing to be happy about! Fast food should be avoided because it is not good for health. It is sadness. The economy grows, yes, but people will likely become fat because of these foods. Avoid it.”
Blogging at TechVietfuji, Nguyễn Xuân Truyền writes, “McDonald’s has become famous in America for its influence on people’s obesity. Who will eat it here? Probably mostly students and young people. That hamburger… doesn’t give enough nutrition, but in the future makes your heart weaker because of all the fat it gives to you.” He continues, suggesting this is the beginning of the end of traditional family time in Vietnam: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day when moms can usually prepare for the family. But the more fast food coming to Vietnam, the more chances that this nutritious and family time will be destroyed. Students will love to feed themselves more with this kind of fat food.”
Others see genuine benefits to Vietnam in McDonald’s entry. At Otofun, Dung oc echoed a popular sentiment around the Vietnamese in saying, “I strongly support this big brand to increase the competitiveness of the domestic market. Local businesses will have to adapt and learn to exist in a fierce market.”
As with nearly topic with an international angle, social media commenters freely availed themselves of the opportunity to take potshots at China. At the VOA article, Yi li observed, “We have to say thanks to the prime minister’s son-in-law. Eating fat McDonald’s food is still better than having poisonous and fatal Chinese food.” User 7030 agreed: “Anyway he creates more jobs, paying tax for government. It is still better than someone digging coal and illegally exporting it to China.”
There’s little doubt that McDonald’s long-awaited entry into the Vietnamese market confers a kind of legitimacy upon the developing nation, a legitimacy that’s especially welcome at a time when economic and business forecasts seem to be getting grimmer and grimmer. But as the country rapidly develops, its online citizens are more informed and increasingly less satisfied than they once were with purely economic benefits. Today, it seems, quality of life, national pride, and endemic institutional flaws like corruption, nepotism, and a perceived lack of upward mobility are as important, or more, than learning that yet another well-placed businessman will be aiming for their pocketbooks in the name of national development.
— Patrick Sharbaugh