Way back in Myanmar, Erin and I were on a walk in Yangon when we spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It looked fantastically out of place, all new and sleek and glossy amid the crumbling British colonial architecture. We weren't particularly hungry, but we had to check this out. The interior was empty, except for a ramrod straight cashier in an impeccable uniform and a haute couture couple eating chicken like it was luxury dining. I caught a glimpse of the menu and felt my eyes goggle... the cheapest items were five times the price of a meal at a local restaurant. And there were even security guards on the door. Let me repeat that: guards, with an 'S.' The Yangon KFC employed more than one man as a protective measure. Because apparently, defending the Colonel's secret spice blend was serious business.
No, the fashionable diners were not undercover celebrities with armed guards. And no, Yangon is not a lawless realm of violent mobs and murderous thieves. Aside from the traffic, it's one of the safest cities we've visited.
At the time, I figured our experience was simply an artifact of Myanmar. The country is poor, and western dining options are new and very, very exotic. But as we traveled across Southeast Asia, we kept finding luxury fast food. KFC is by far the most popular brand. The one in Ho Chi Minh City was so luxurious, it featured a jewelry case obstacle course, just to gain entrance!
But we've seen Pizza Hut and Dominos, Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins.
Heck, Việt Nam even has Popeyes.*
In America, this is the stuff you eat when your hunger puts your self-respect in a sleeper hold. In Southeast Asia, it's an expensive and high-brow culinary experience.
That's not to say that Việt Nam doesn't have its own fast food. It definitely does. It just doesn't look anything like the American version. When Erin and I want something quick and easy, we go out for cơm tấm.
These restaurants are everywhere, selling rice and vegetables with a variety of mains. Ordering is easy - just point to the dish you want.
I usually get pork chops with an egg on top. If she's feeling daring, Erin will opt for squares of fried tofu. We walk in, take a seat, and within three minutes we're eating dinner.
All this decadence comes to between 20,000 and 25,000 VND per person depending on the entree ($0.90 to $1.10). The food is delicious, relatively healthy, and wildly popular. And it's considered reasonably cheap in the Vietnamese economy. Pricier, 'family style' dining would be 40,000 VND to 60,000 VND per person ($1.80 to $2.70).
But if we go to our local Burger King, meals are 100,000 to 150,000 VND per person ($4.50 to $6.75). That doesn't sound like much to a westerner, but to Vietnamese, it's ludicrously expensive. And though the restaurants look like American fast food joints, they have a subtle aura of decadence. It's hard to put one's finger on. Maybe it's the way everything gleams like it was buffed to a shine ten seconds before you entered. Or the swish adverts that make burgers look like Gucci originals. Or the uniformed valet at the door.
Either way, I prefer fast food pork chops. Now, if Việt Nam discovers applesauce, I'll be in heaven.
*There are hardly any McDonalds in Việt Nam. People often use this as proof of the country's resistance to foreign consumerism. Apparently they didn't notice all the Burger Kings, Carl's Juniors, and Lotterias.