Generational clash? Demystifying Vietnamese millennials' 'obsession' with bubble tea

Over the past month, Vietnamese netizens have been eagerly discussing the 'paradox' of low wages and 'wasteful spending'. We're here to dissect it.

The new school year had already kicked in but a tea house overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake on a Thursday afternoon was still packed with students.

In groups of four or five, the so-called bubble tea generation was either busy discussing trending topics or staring at their phones.

As one pact had just left for a new picture perfect spot in Hanoi, four 19-year olds were busy discussing the recent H&M opening in Saigon and why it hadn’t made it to Hanoi. The conversation then quickly turned to the latest beauty trends, including the pros and cons of microneedling, a procedure which involves using fine needles to create hundreds of tiny puncture wounds in the top layer of skin. It it said to minimize the signs of aging and improve the appearance of acne scars.

“We meet up everyday at cafes, mostly for bubble tea. It's sweet and tasty,” said second year university student Ha Trang to the approval of her BFFs (best friends forever) from middle school, Phuong Linh, Trung Hieu and Le Hieu. Three of the four are studying business and management at different universities, a major they consider to be "hot" and highly employable, but Le Hieu failed to make the grades to continue his education in Vietnam and is hoping for an opportunity to study in the U.S.

A survey conducted in May of 350 men and women aged from 15 to 39 in Hanoi and Saigon by Vietnamese market research firm Q&Me revealed that 50 percent of them drink the tea at least once a week. Bubble tea fever even increased land lease prices on “teahouse streets” in Saigon by 20-90 percent in August compared to a year ago, according to a report by Gachvang, a city-based property research firm.

Urban Vietnamese, especially young people in large cities, have recently found themselves at the center of online criticism over their “wasteful spending habits."

It all started with an article on the Vietnamese edition of VnExpress written by Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen, a recent PhD graduate who found city life too expensive for her level of income.

She compared it to her lifestyle when she was still studying in the U.K. Working three hours per week earned her GBP26, which was enough to buy food for an entire week. In contrast, her full time job as a lecturer in Saigon paid only VND5 million, the equivalent of GBP165 or $220 per month, just enough to pay for meals which she made sure never exceeded VND100,000 each.

This left Huyen baffled because she had no idea how fancy restaurants and cafes in HCMC were always packed, especially tea houses selling bubble tea to students, many of whom still depend on their parents.

The article garnered dozens of follow up pieces and comments, each with its own reasoning. Those who agreed with the author said spending so much on bubble tea was shallow and inconsiderate, while the other side of the debate stressed on freedom of choice. 

“What we see here is an interesting generational gap, but not the gap between parents/grandparents and their children” said Phan Tuong Yen, a psychology lecturer at Hoa Sen University in Saigon. “It’s much closer than that and it’s clearly a conflict of personal values."

The majority of comments criticizing the "wasteful spending" came from young people who had been working for quite a while, aged from 28-40. Those who defended these habits were mostly aged from 18-25 or young people with high incomes.

The former, born from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, grew up in a transitionary period when traditional Confucian values still largely shaped lifestyles and moral standards. These were tough times economically and tightening your belt became part of life, even a worthy “trait”. This generation was also the first to access the internet and western cultures and ideals.

But it’s those born from the mid 1990s onward who have welcomed a strong cultural wave that carried the concepts of freedom, individuality and right to indulge along with an economic boom.

While the average Vietnamese worker earned only $2,200 last year, according to the World Bank, around 450,000 people now make more than $100,000 per year, three times the current number of tea houses.

The so-called "middle and affluent class" earning $714 a month or more in Vietnam will double to 33 million people, about a third of the population, between 2014 and 2020, according to Boston Consulting Group.

The bubble tea generation, globally referred to as millennials, “feel they are part of this booming wealth, more so than in the earlier days of austerity,” said Yen. “Therefore, the notion of freedom between these two generations somewhat differs, and so does the concept of cautious spending.”

Promotional photo for "Buoc nhay xi tin" (Cool dance moves), a popular TV show in 2009. Photo by Galaxy Studio

A decade ago, hip hop, Converse shoes and smartphones were considered cool. Today, it’s the experience you get from fancy services.

Phan Tuong Yen, psychology lecturer at Hoa Sen University, HCMC.

Checking in on Instagram is "customary" for millennials when they go for bubble tea. Photo by linhchimm on Instagram

While Huyen, the lecturer, argues that $2 for a cup of bubble tea is too much -- twice the cost of a typical office lunch -- the millennials see it differently.

“Our time together is more valuable than a cup of bubble tea,” said student Trang. “Bubble tea shouldn’t be a reason for us not to meet. Just a short walk together is already tiring and we have to drink something. I can’t think of anywhere else we could go.”

Her group has already tried everything in Hanoi, a city notorious for lacking public space. In March, the Administration of Technical Infrastructure under the Ministry of Construction warned that Vietnam’s biggest cities have only two to three square meters of green area per person. That is less than a third of what the World Health Organization has recommended for a healthy urban life.

Trung Hieu, the quiet one in the group, added his own two cents on the economics of bubble tea.

“I don’t think bubble tea is expensive. I only need to work for two hours to pay for it.”

Three members of the gang work part-time in cafes, fast food chains or cinemas in the evenings, which pays them on average VND15,000 per hour. In a day, the young Hanoians who still largely depend on their parents but don't want to ask for extra pocket money can make from VND100,000 to VND250,000.

“He [Le Hieu] is the exception,” they laughed, pointing at the "joker" of the group and the only one without a job. “He’s rich.”

It’s now quite common for students, especially those in their third or fourth years at university, to work part time or even run small online businesses.

“The money they earn during their studies helps prove themselves and opens opportunities for them to live freely and ‘enjoy life’ as they wish, going beyond the enclaves of family or other financial barriers,” Yen, the psychologist, told VnExpress International.

And so the bubble tea group shrugged off the notion that their long chit-chats reflect they’re lazy and waste money.

“We put a lot of effort into work so we deserve time to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. I can go out, but when I’m home, I still have to do chores like cooking and washing the dishes,” said Linh. “Whatever I earn, I spend so we can all have a good time. I’ll start saving once I start work,” she added, referring to a full-time job after graduating, preferably as a manager of a big company.

With “a lot of free time at university”, as Linh put it, they can divide their time among things that matter to them. Studying for a better future, going to the gym to stay healthy, family, shopping, holidays and of course, meeting up with friends.

When their pockets are half empty, they go for cheaper alternatives like iced tea.

“It’s not just today’s youth but people aged from 13-23 in any generation want to prove themselves,” said Yen, referring to psychological research that shows in this period each individual tries to define him or herself through talent, character or social status.

“What’s important is that society accepts this and gives them a sense of direction instead of criticizing them,” said the psychologist who’s been working with Vietnam’s urban youth for six years. “The question is whether they take responsibility for how they spend, not what they buy.”

The bubble tea group tries not to take the online criticism personally, saying every story has two sides to it.

“They wrote these articles from a point of view of an older person. Our parents don’t like bubble tea; they like tea and coffee,” said Trang. “You can’t compare two generations. […] Living standards are increasing, we just want to perfect ourselves.”

Or as Le Hieu said: “Today's parents do as their children say” - a way of twisting a saying to describe the previous generations - “Children do as their parents say” (Cha me dat dau con ngoi day).

The group quickly jumped to dismiss it as a joke, saying young people today have simply more freedom to do what they want, and that parents are more ready to trust their decisions.

Lam Le

By Lam Le