Lying under the iconic Bitexco Tower and crossing the city's popular first pedestrian zone, Ngo Duc Ke Street has been dubbed the city's “bubble route”.
A quick search for "bubble tea" on Foody, one of the most popular mobile food and drink applications in Vietnam, results in nearly 1,300 destinations serving the drink in Ho Chi Minh City. On Ngo Duc Ke Street alone there are 10 of these outlets lined up along a stretch of just 100 meters (109 yards).
“Drinking bubble tea has become a regular habit among young people here,” said Ngoc Lan, the manager of a bubble tea shop. “Ngo Duc Ke lies close to Nguyen Hue pedestrian street, which is their favorite hang-out spot, so it’s understandable it has turned into the so-called 'bubble route'.”
Aside from bubble tea shops, many regular cafes in the neighborhood have also added the sweet, cold drink to their menus.
Four teahouses have bubbled next to each other on the south side of Ngo Duc Ke Street.
Not only on the menu, ca phe, or coffee, the city’s signature drink, now finds itself losing ground to the Taiwanese tea product, especially among young people.
A recent poll of 16,000 respondents in Vietnam's three biggest cities - Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City - conduted by Decision Lab showed that in this cohort, bubble tea is the queen of drinks, compared to coffee and alcohol that are preferred by older generations.
On a typical morning, 15.6 percent of respondents said they drank milk tea, 12.5 percent said fresh milk and 12.1 percent said coffee with milk.
Originating from Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea was first introduced to Vietnamese customers in the 2000s. The craze has made an impressive comeback in recent years, with foreign brands from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Singapore storming into the market through franchise deals.
With their deeper pockets, these foreign chains have upgraded the definition of bubble tea by offering an eye-catching experience for their young customers, from serving drinks in fancy teahouses to recruiting good-looking staff.
Bubble tea now is no longer just an after-school treat for students because adults have started lapping it up too, at least according to a representative from the Hong Kong-based Gong Cha bubble tea chain.
The fever has also pumped up land lease prices. The price on Ngo Duc Ke Street in District 1 has climbed from VND594 million ($26,000) per square meter in August last year to VND762 million ($34,000) this year.
Coming soon: Construction workers putting the final touches to another store on Ngo Duc Ke Street.
With the route running out of space, the tea business has now radiated out onto other streets in the area, most noticeably Ho Tung Mau.
“Most of all teahouses in the neighborhood are always crowded,” said Hoai Anh, a bubble tea store employee. “Particularly during weekends, customers have to wait in long queues for up to half an hour for their drinks.”
But this doesn’t mean smaller local shops aren't getting their slice of the action. They've caught on to the trend and small, colorful takeway stands have been popping up along Nguyen Hue Street.
Many take their cold tea away to shop in nearby stores or just hang out in the pedestrian zone.
“I’m not sure since when it became a “custom” for our group to take pictures with our tea and then post them on Facebook,” said Nam Tran, a young customer.
“I think bubble tea is a hit because it’s not just a drink, we can also enjoy the chewy tapioca balls and jellies inside,” Ngoc Yen, a twenty-year-old explained. “We have so many choices among the various brands, plus these plastic cups are very convenient to take away.”
Willing to pay the prices ranging from VND50,000 to VND60,000 (around $2.5) for a cup of bubble tea, young Vietnamese have been criticized for being self-entitled and spending more than they can earn. The country's average annual income is expected to reach $2,400 this year.
Experts, however, believe the bubble tea controversy uncovers the clash between generations more than the indulgent spending habits of a certain group.
“What we see here is an interesting generational gap, but not the gap between parents/grandparents and their children,” Phan Tuong Yen, a psychology lecturer at Hoa Sen University in Saigon, told VnExpress International in October. “It’s much closer than that and it’s clearly a conflict of personal values."
Ones born from the late 1970s to the early 1990s grew up in a transitionary period, when they experienced both belt tightening hardship before and after economic reforms of Doi Moi while becoming the first to welcome a strong wave of western culture and values brough by the internet. Meanwhile those born from the mid 1990s onward have acquainted themselves with better living standards, followed by the concepts of freedom, individuality and right to indulge along with an economic boom.
The "bubble tea" generation “feel they are part of this booming wealth, more so than in the earlier days of austerity,” added Yen. “Therefore, the notion of freedom between these two generations somewhat differs, and so does the concept of cautious spending.”
Concerns have also been raised about local eating habits, with some people saying they think Vietnamese embrace food from other countries too easily without questioning how it is going to affect their health.
It seems the one controversy that has yet to be raised is the plastic waste issue...
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By Quynh Tran, Nhung Nguyen