Middle class loosens purse strings for healthy stuff

By Long Nguyen   October 15, 2019 | 05:44 pm PT
Vietnamese middle class households are willing to pay more for safer food and healthier living environments.

Tran Van Tuan, an IT engineer in Ho Chi Minh City, recently spent nearly VND30 million ($1,300) for three air purifiers in his house in the Thao Dien area of District 2, a place favored by the well-heeled, including expats.

But he is not at ease, still, because he feels the family is surrounded by unsafe food, dirty water and now, dirty air.

Increasing awareness of worsening air pollution and food safety issues over several years now have made the more affluent urbanites willing to spend a small fortune on safe products that will not compromise their health.

Smog covers Ho Chi Minh City, September 22, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Smog covers Ho Chi Minh City, September 22, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Results of a recent survey by market research firm Nielsen found 44 percent of Vietnamese respondents citing health as their key concern in the second quarter of 2019. 

Louise Hawley, managing director of Nielsen Vietnam, said: "Vietnamese consumers care about their health more than ever. Pollution in the air and in the environment is a hot topic increasingly top of mind for people."

With legions of Vietnamese joining the middle class ranks every year, their health concerns are giving more than whiff of business opportunity to many entrepreneurs and companies.

The demand for air purifiers skyrocketed since mid-September in Hanoi and HCMC, when worsening air quality in both metropolises had reports come out saying the two were among the top cities in the world for air pollution.

Electronics chain Dien May Xanh, which has 900 outlets in the country, said it sold 1,500 air purifiers last month, up 197 percent year-on-year.

"There is a rising demand for air purifiers as customers are concerned about their health. Some of our models are temporarily out of stock," a representative of the chain said.

This also pushed many electrical appliances sellers to promote these devices with unrealistic claims, saying that they kill airborne bacteria, viruses, and so on. Some customers ready to pay up to VND20 million ($863) for a machine that could reportedly filter out PM2.5 particulate had to wait several days to get one after placing an order.

Tuan also has a water purifier system, which he says is "an indispensable item" for every Vietnamese household in cities. The family only drinks and cooks with water filtered through this pricey system. His older daughter also takes the water to school, since her parents do not trust the water sold by "unlicensed or shady firms."

The 42-year-old father is now considering the installation of a filter system with a higher capacity for the apartment so that the family members can use cleaner water in the bathroom, because dirty water can affect their skin and dental health.

According to a study done by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2017, around 9,000 Vietnamese die every year of causes related water pollution.

Imported foods

Apart from devices for healthier air and water, there is also greater demand for safer food among the urbanites, which has popularized imported items.

Truong Thu Thuy, a 41-year-old mother in Hanoi, has vegetables and fruits delivered to the front door of her apartment in Tay Ho District twice a week.

Over the last two years, Thuy has ordered organic vegetables and imported fruits from an online store, which costs her up to VND4 million ($173) per month.

Shoppers look at fruits at the Central Group Vietnams Big C supermarket in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Shoppers look at fruits at the Central Group Vietnam's Big C supermarket in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

"Food at traditional markets is cheaper, but no one guarantees their origins, so I have given up on them. I need to know that my family is consuming food without banned preservatives and chemicals," said Thuy, who also has several types of purifiers in her apartment.

Among middle-class citizens in several cities across Vietnam, buying imported food has become a norm, based on the assumption that imported products are safer and of higher quality. Up to 86 percent of consumers that the market research firm Vietnam Report surveyed in Hanoi and HCMC in 2018 said they were willing to buy organic and environment-friendly products for better health.

Australian avocados, American oranges and cherries, Japanese beef and many other imported food products are now sold at a host of stores and supermarkets in Hanoi, HCMC and Da Nang, despite their higher prices than those of local products.

"The most important thing is that we have to know the origins of the food we eat, the higher price is not a really big deal," said Thuy.

The rapidly growing middle class is also willing to spend money on getting fit. They are joining expensive gyms where they can get trained by qualified instructors. Over the past 10 years, regular workouts have become a mainstream activity of many people.

Local residents keep fit  at a gym in Saigon’s District 3. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Local residents keep fit at a gym in Saigon’s District 3. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Thuy paid VND10 million ($432) for 24-month memberships at a gym. She also plans to buy a membership for their 10-year-old son at a special gym for children.

A survey by local market research firm Q&Me last year found that 80 percent of men and 73 percent of women, aged 18-39, are interested in going to the gym.

Twenty-six percent spent from VND400,000 ($17) a month on gyms, the survey, which polled 868 respondents in Hanoi and HCMC, found.

Walking to a supermarket after an hour-long yoga class on Sunday morning, Thuy said: "From the moment we wake up until the moment we rest in the evening, we face so many dangers from food, water and the air."

"We could spend whatever it takes to mitigate the risks," she added.

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