Friday, December 7, 2012

   The commute home is an interesting time for me to observe life. There's so much of it here, so much more life lived in the streets, in public places, in public view, than in the US. I'm familiar enough with the insane traffic now, and facile enough with the motorbike, that I can spare a bit of attention for my surroundings. 
   I'm usually pretty beat, but I still keep an eye out, because I truly never know what I will see. A fight? A fire? A monstrously large kite, a flood, a family of 5 perched on one motorbike? I've grown accustomed to these things. 
   But yesterday I saw something decidedly odd.  I've been here for almost 2 years, and yet still have these moments of pure 'what the hell?'
   Only in Vietnam does the opening of a Domino's Pizza qualify for the red-carpet treatment. I drive by, and can't count the number of wreaths and floral displays: palm leaves and roses. I see spotlights. Red carpet with deep, heavy pile. Inside, a trio of sharp-dressed men laugh, flashing white teeth. Blue-shirted employees walk about, blazoned with the tilted red, white, and blue square. One of the suited men shoots his cuffs, and even from a dozen meters away (look at me, being all metric) I see a tiny glint. Ranks of champagne flutes wait on a side table. Behind them stand at least 20 bottles of champagne, each nestled in its own silver stand. A deep blue sedan, with DOMINO'S written in white, idles at the curb. It is flawlessly clean. Girls in dresses—almost gowns—are obviously preparing to man the doors and usher in guest. Upstairs a tired-looking white woman drinks from a waxed paper cup.
   Soon enough I pass, heading up onto the bridge that leads from District 4 to District 7, where I live. If a guidebook were to describe District 4, words like 'authentic' or 'genuine' would probably crop up; really, it is poorer, more crowded, and less safe than surrounding districts. Apartments are stacked one atop another, laundry hanging from the bars blocking every balcony (even up to the 20th story, I see the bars.) The streets are narrow, lined with street food carts. People wear more traditional clothing, drive older motorbikes, have the deeper tans that connote manual labor. It's not unusual to see middle-aged men in boxers and flip-flops smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at cheap plastic tables, or a gang of half-naked kids playing barefoot street football, darting into traffic to retrieve a stray ball.
   This gala extravaganza franchise opening in District 4, then, is a bit strange even for Viet Nam.
   I was able to see all this, and have this moment of complete cultural dislocation. This was someone's dream. This opening was prosperity made manifest. Gentrification, jobs, a foreign university education for the owner's kids. The sight crystallized a realization I've had for some time. Why is fast food so popular in Viet Nam? The tremendous diversity of street food available here, cheaper and presumably healthier, would seem to doom places like KFC, Pizza Hut, or Burger King (now with 2 locations in HCMC.) Yet they thrive. Competing brands lace the city, mostly from Asia and the US. Lotteria from Korea, Jollibee, Kichi Kichi (which may not really be fast food...I've never been inside.) It's like a petri dish, with these proliferating franchises competing for space and resources, back-lit plastic signs and corporate logos crowding every large street. Yet walk a dozen feet, and you can get com tam, bun thit nuong, pho bo, bun bo Hue, bananas, sweet soup, iced coffee.
   So why, then?
I'm still mulling this as I drive past again a few hours later, heading out to an evening tutoring session. The floodlights play on the crisp new signs, illuminating the internally-lit words. The telephone number and the word 'DELIVERY' are almost as large as the name of the franchise. A small stage has been set up to one side of the entrance, and someone is exhorting the crowd. The crowd is an odd mix of the well-dressed and the (to me) typical fast-food consumer. Inside, the same mix. Suits here, t-shirts there; champagne and pepperoni pizza.
   What this really brought home to me is something that I had realized much earlier: fast food in Viet Nam has very different connotations than it does in the US. At home, it is indeed fast and cheap, the last resort—too tired to cook? Order a pizza. Broke? McDonald's. Here, though, you can get a fairly healthy, fairly large meal at any number of restaurants or street-food carts, instantly, for pennies. Eating fast food here is exotic. It's a mark of status. The $4 meal that takes 7 or 8 minutes to arrive at your table? That's $3 and 6 minutes more than the bowl of pho next door. Eating fast food says that you have the time, the money, and the sophistication necessary for, say, KFC. It says: middle-class. It says: English-speaking. It is beyond the reach of many.
   On my way home from tutoring, around 10, the gala is over. A woman in cheap printed cotton sweeps up leaves and petals with a twig broom. A couple of dudes lounge on the rolled up carpet, smoking and eyeing the traffic. Twenty or thirty empty champagne bottles line the sidewalk, and as I watch, someone gathers them up, one by one, for the recycling money. It feels like District 4 again.

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