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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Supermarkets in Vietnam

Maximark Logo
You often hear me talking about shopping at the supermarket.  So I figured it would be interesting if I elaborated a bit more on how supermarkets are in Vietnam.  For the most part they are very much like their western counterparts but they do have their differences.  From the minute you park your motobike to the minute you pay at the cashier there is something different.

In California, I'll say that we usually shopped for groceries either at WinCo or Food4Less so I'll base my experience on that.  In Vietnam, depending on where you live (north or south), your choices for shopping at a supermarket are limited.  My choices in Ho Chi Minh City are Co.op Mart, BigC or Maximark.  According to Wikipedia there are other smaller chains but I've never seen them.  It's kinda weird having only 3 choices seeing how there are so many different supermarkets in the west.  But to be honest it didn't really bother me too much.  I shopped at all 3 stores before choosing Maximark as "my" supermarket (Co.op coming in second and BigC third).

BigC Logo. Roughly translated "Cheap price for everyone"
Now back home in California going to the supermarket was a simple, if sometimes boring chore.  Here in Vietnam it's a bit different.  The first thing that comes to mind is the parking.  When you arrive at the supermarket the first thing you'll notice is the row after row after row of parked motobikes.  The parking area usually has an entrance and an exit.  Usually, there is a line, and I use the term loosely, of motorbikes waiting to get in.  In reality it's just a clusterfuck of people trying to get to the front. When you finally enter the parking area the security guard will write down your license plate and give you a ticket/receipt.  Then you are free to park wherever you wish (some supermarkets have designated parking for manual motorbikes and automatic motorbikes).  When you are ready to leave you must again "make line" to get out of the parking area.  When you get to the attendant you will hand them your ticket, this is to verify that the ticket matches your motorbike in theory to combat theft, and then pay for parking which is usually around 2,000VND.  One thing I never considered was how the heck am I supposed to fit myself, my S.O., and 4-5 grocery bags on one motorbike.  Back home I would just throw the bags in the trunk and be on my way.  Something to consider if you are new to shopping for groceries here or you could call a taxi.  Because of this we go to the supermarket at least 2 times a week so that we only have to carry 1 or 2 bags at the most.  It's not uncommon, however, to see a family of 3 riding down the street with 4-5 bags so it can be done.

BigC typical store.
The atmosphere for most of the supermarkets here in Vietnam is that of a shopping center.  Most supermarkets here resemble that of a mini mall.  You'll find clothing, electronic, cosmetic, cellphone, and toy shops in the same building and yes even restaurants.  It's pretty convenient if you ask me.  You can go shopping for groceries and then pick out some new threads at Blue Exchange or Levi's.

As I mentioned previously in other articles, I hate absolutely HATE shopping at the supermarket during rush hours.  It's wall to wall!  Crazy long lines, people walking around everywhere, and parking is a nightmare.  However, one thing I do enjoy is how the Vietnamese do promotions.  In USA if a company like Colgate, for example, was having a promotion or sale they would do something like this:

"Buy Colgate mouthwash and get a free tube of toothpaste"

What usually sucks is that that "free" tube of toothpaste is by mail and after a coupon.  Here in Vietnam they just tape the free tube of toothpaste directly onto the mouthwash!  Great!  I can't count the times I've gotten free toothpaste, or cooking oil, or cups, or bowls, or containers, or cereal.  Something the North American markets need to pick up in my opinion.

Let's talk about the difference in shopping carts.  The supermarkets in USA are usually huge stand alone buildings.  In Vietnam they are significantly smaller and like I mentioned earlier usually share realty space with other merchants.  So how to you maneuver the shopping cart here?  Well first in Vietnam they have 2 different size shopping carts.  The first size could only be pushed by, what I would imagine be, children and the second size is a bit bigger but nowhere near the size of the "Canyonero's" we have back home.  Since the aisles here are smaller they also equip the carts with 4 rotating casters!  When you push the cart it'll go in any which way it wants.  Forward, backward, side to side.  I found it very difficult to use although with some practice I'm sure it's easier and better in that environment.  So usually I just stick to the hand basket.

Shoppers at a Co.op Mart by SGGP
Needless to say the main difference between Vietnamese supermarkets and western supermarkets is the products they sell.  Vietnamese supermarkets cater to the Vietnamese flavor but you'll still find plenty of western products.  One American product that I wish was more widely available (and cheaper) is USDA meat.  My S.O. and I agree that the meat here tastes just a bit different.  Not sure how to explain it.  I mean it's not bad but it's just different.  Also, to quickly mention, even at the big name supermarkets I think they could take a lesson in sanitation when working with meat and poultry.  Many times I'll see the employee just grab the meat with his or her bare hands and the cutting board looks like it hasn't been cleaned in ages.  Good news is in my months of living here I haven't once gotten sick because of it.

Well that about does it for what, in my opinion, are the biggest differences in Vietnamese and western supermarkets.  For the most part it's like shopping at a supermarket back home but like most things it's the little differences that matter.

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