The food landscape of Viet Nam, especially in the large cities, is changing rapidly. In fact, it is being altered almost overnight, thanks to the rapid and loosely regulated introduction of American-based fast food chains.
Three weeks ago, McDonald’s opened its first franchise here, on a busy street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. People queued up for blocks and waited hours to get in, anxious to finally try some of that American fast food which the rest of the world appears to be so crazy about.
Last year, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Viet Nam, sensing big opportunities here with a deeply ingrained coffee culture, a young, Western-oriented population, and a well-established coffee shop scene. Within a few months of the first outlet opening, three more had sprouted up in nearby neighborhoods and more are on the way.
KFC and Pizza Hut (Yum! brands) have been here since 1997. Burger King arrived in 2011. Dairy Queen just opened its first franchise in Ho Chi Minh City. Baskin Robbins jumped in during 2012. Dominos Pizza opened its first franchise in 2010.
Even before these companies arrived, Viet Nam had seen an alarming rise in obesity, especially in children living in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam’s largest cities. A number of factors, including rising incomes, increasingly sedentary lifestyles caused by the rise in popularity of computer games, the increasing availability of sugar laden soft drinks and a rapid increase in meat consumption have contributed. With the onslaught of the Western fast food chains, this trend will vastly accelerate. It’s quite common now to see obese young children in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the wealthier districts, such as District 1 and District 7. According to a study published last September, ,Viet Nam already has 300,000 children classified as obese under the age of 5.
And it’s not just obesity. The number of cases of diagnosed type 2 diabetes is also skyrocketing, as is heart disease and hypertension. Nationally, the percentage of people with diabetes has climbed from 1% to 6% and in Ho Chi Minh City, 10% of adults have the disease. Given the large problems Viet Nam already has with one of the highest rates of smoking in the world (4 billion packs consumed in 2013) and an increasing thirst for beer, the public health situation is set to deteriorate rapidly.
While the government has made some pronouncements recently regarding increasing taxes on cigarettes and putting stronger warning labels on packs, its blithely indifferent attitude toward Western fast food is curious, to say the least. Locals sigh cynically and point out that McDonald’s entered Viet Nam thru a partnership with Good Day Hospitality, which is owned by Henry Nguyen, son-in-law of the prime minister.
A Reuters article dated February 3, 2014 (and not picked up by any of the Vietnamese press) states: Governments could slow or even reverse the growing obesity epidemic if they introduced more regulation into the global market for fast foods such as burgers, chips, and fizzy drinks, researchers said yesterday.
The article continues, “Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity,” said Roberto De Vogli of the Uinversity of California, Davis, in the U.S., who led the study.