Time to talk about shopping. The nice thing about shopping is that it is easy for a tourist to make some kind of judgement about it. Shops are designed to be open, visitable, and for you to be able to find out about them. Also, coming from the consumerist culture that I do, even a bad shopper like me is very well trained. This makes it much easier than trying to analyse, say, the system of government.
The shops are just starting to open with avengeance after the Chinese New Year festival. Yesterday I went into the Diamond Department Store. This is part of a 13 story sky scraper, much of which is offices. The offices are all for international companies, the sign in the lobby telling you which floor to go to is written entirely in English. Although, apparently lots of Koreans work in the building – these companies are Asian as well as Western.
The shops were opulant, more like a posh department store on Oxford Street (London) than John Lewis (a cheaper, commoner UK department store). Prices seemed quite reasonable but only when compared to prices in the UK. A designer t-shirt for seven dollars is good value, but not if you only earn one dollar a day. The quality was very good, I was impressed by the clothes fashion – I think perhaps it was from the US, and the colours are brighter than in the UK.
As I walked round, the place felt wrong. It wasn’t Vietnamese, it felt plonked here to satisfy the market of people working in the offices above it. Who were the people shopping there? How did they earn so so much more than most of the people in the country? People in Ho Chi Minh City on average (HCMC) earn four times as much as the rest of the country, but even that wouldn’t be enough. The Diamond Department Store felt like an invasion, not part of a process of improvement.
In contrast, today I went to Ben Thanh market, just reopened after Tet. This is in the centre of HCMC, and it is the best market I’ve seen in SE Asia, and I’ve seen a few. By best what I really mean is cleanest. The place had a red tiled floor, rather than earth or concrete. The noodle soup stalls were fantastic, made with white tiles, and they felt safe. The whole place must be thoroughly scrubbed every day – as are all the roads and markets I’ve seen in Vietnam. In Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta I watched a market from my hotel room. It was messy, dirty, covered with rubbish by the evening when I went to sleep. In the morning, I awoke to a clean empty street. Similarly in HCMC, somebody comes along at night and clears up the streets. Better than parts of London!
The thing about Ben Thanh market is that it felt like a natural improvement of SE Asian markets. It still sold all local and fresh foods, and a whole range of clothing, both local cloth and cheap international clothes by Nike or Ralph Lauren. You could still find fresh living fish, but admittedly meat still wasn’t refrigerated despite the heat. There was real proper free market competition, between lots of shops owned by different people, selling similar products so you can compare and negotiate prices. Yet it had been improved, to be more organised, and cleaner, and could be improved more. On the bad side, the service is partly only so good because of the working hours market people put in, they are in their shops for 12 hours a day, and 7 days a week.
Before I fall into the soup of my own rhetoric, I’ll give a different example of the point I’m trying to make. Just opposite the market there is a fast food noodle soup place called Pho 2000. Bill Clinton stopped there for a bowl when he visited Vietnam as president in 2000. It’s basically an improved, easier version of your normal noodle soup stall. It’s inside a building for one, with decent, clean chairs and tables, waiter service, and a fixed menu in English as well as Vietnamese. I could easily see them franchising it, and opening up shops all over the country. What I really want them to do is move into Europe, compete with and cause the shutting down of half the Burger Kings, so we have a good cheap Asian choice of fast food.
Anyone think they can do it? What, you mean you couldn’t compete with McDonalds’ marketing? Or perhaps you believe that the Burger and Fry is fundamenally superior to Noodle Soup, so it would never catch on? Noodle soup certainly seems popular enough here, and these human beings don’t seem that radically different. No, the hard bit is cultural, how would you promote such a thing, and get it to reach a tipping point where it becomes as popular as an American burger chain?