A long time ago, my buddy was telling me about Tokyo. We were sitting on my couch, and he was reminiscing about the ten hour layover he had there during a flight back to the U.S.
“It was cool, man. I jumped on the train from Narita, and got off an hour later at Shibuya. I highly recommend Shibuya. There’s a Starbucks there where you can just watch all the people crossing the street from the front windows. They walk in all these crazy angles! It’s really famous, and it’s pretty awesome to just watch the people walk. I posted up there for a couple hours, and then I checked out a temple that was nearby.”
Several months later, when I had a similar layover in Tokyo, I didn’t go to Shibuya: I got off at the previous stop, Shinjuku. I ate some of the best fried chicken of my life, some grilled fish, and some rice. I walked around and watched people walk. I got lost in the Shinjuku train station on my way back, which is officially the busiest train station in the world. There I was, surrounded by hundreds (no, thousands) of people, trying to find the Express Train back to Narita…and I couldn’t find it. AND NO ONE SEEMED TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK ENGLISH. Beyond that, no one seemed interested in stopping to help me out. Everyone just walked by me like robots, as it dawned on me that I might miss my flight back to Boston. But then a young woman did help me, and she showed me the way to the correct track, and I thanked her profusely and complimented her English, and we parted ways as I got onto my high speed train back to the airport.
But I don’t want to get off track…
During my time at Shinjuku, I kind of kept thinking about Shibuya and Starbucks: should I have gone on one more stop? I kept hearing my buddy’s voice in my head: “you just watch all the people walking, it’s amazing, you should go there, go to Starbucks, it’s not for the coffee, it’s for the view.”
I came back to Ho Chi Minh City five weeks later and informed him that I didn’t go to Shibuya or Starbucks. But I silently vowed to return, and to see Starbucks in Shibuya.
About a year later, I made it to the Shibuya Starbucks. I was visiting a friend from home, who was in Tokyo for work. We did a number of interesting things: walked around Ginza, played video games in Akihabara, ate street sushi near Ueno Station. But I was adamant that we do one thing: go to Starbucks in Shibuya. My friend and his wife were a little confused.
“What, do you like Starbucks? I thought you like Vietnamese coffee.”
“No, I don’t like Starbucks, but I’ve been told by a reliable source that we need to go. You watch the people cross the street. It’s famous.”
“Wait…we watch people walk. Dude, what the f**k?!”
“Well, I think it’s cool. Here, even this Lonely Planet wrote about it.” That was true. Lonely Planet wrote about the “Shibuya Starbucks” as a place to see. If it’s being mentioned in LP, it must be important, right??
“Alright, well….I can always use some coffee.”
And that’s how I convinced my friends to go to Shibuya Starbucks.
It was not easy finding Shibuya Starbucks. We got off at the massive Shibuya Metro station (almost as intimidating as it’s neighbor, Shinjuku), and walked out expecting to just see Starbucks sitting there, sparkling. But it wasn’t. We had to walk for awhile, crossing crazy intersections, and walking under long, dark passages beneath bridges where people were sleeping on the sidewalk. But lo and behold, after emerging back into the sunlight, there was Shibuya Starbucks.
We went in. We ordered drinks and snacks. We went up stairs. The apprehension was high. It was mid-morning…walking-time. What would it be like? Would it be life changing? Would the people be out there, walking?
The people were out there, walking. But it was somewhat underwhelming. Lots of the curtains were closed to protect the customers from the sun, and where there were no curtains…well, the sun was sort of blinding and hot. Hot and uncomfortable. Lots of seats were taken (because this is not your ordinary Starbucks), so we had to settle for uncomfortable seats with curtain views, blocked additionally by a pole. To view the street, we had to get up out of seats, pull back the curtain, and watch while standing. It was okay. But after awhile we stopped watching the walkers, and just chatted while eating our snacks and drinking our drinks. And after an hour or so, we left.
And that was it.
But the Shibuya Starbucks is something. It is a landmark. A landmark signifying the victory of multinational, culture-murdering, mass-consumerism loving conglomerates….but a landmark nonetheless. That’s good enough for me.
And while it’s maybe not quite as comfortable as most Starbucks, and maybe it’s a bit contrived at this point (people come to watch the walkers, not to drink coffee)…it’s important, dammit. It’s the most important Starbucks in the world.
Fast-forward to now. The multinational fast food chains continue to work their way into Vietnam. KFC has been here for over a decade now, but just a few months ago a new player arrived on the scene: Burger King. Starting small at first (only at the airport), it has since popped up all over the city. McDonald’s can’t be far behind. There are shirts that say “I lived in Vietnam before McDonald’s got here.” Maybe I should buy one.
But when I heard that a certain coffee chain was opening it’s first store in Ho Chi Minh City, I couldn’t be more sickened. My skin began to crawl. Vietnam has great coffee. Check that….Vietnam has OUTSTANDING coffee. It is known to be some of the world’s best, up there with all the major coffee players. So why in the world, WHY WHY WHY IN THE F**KING WORLD WOULD VIETNAM NEED OR WANT STARBUCKS?!?!?!
The simple answer is they don’t need it (ofcourse!), but they do want it. It’s something the whole world (bar a few countries) knows besides them….why wouldn’t they want it? And on the surface, it’s not so different from some the other coffee chains floating around town…Trung Nguyen, Highlands (rumored to be in the process of being bought out by Starbucks), Angel-In-Us (Korean). But of course it is different. It’s Starbucks. It’s EVIL.
I’ve never understood when some Westerners bitch about how they can’t get a good cup of Western coffee here…first of all, you can, but second of all….YOU’RE IN VIETNAM! DRINK THE VIETNAMESE COFFEE! Now they have Starbucks, and some wild, animal part of me is terrified…terrified that Starbucks will swallow all of the small cafes in town, killing everything in it’s path, ruining a perfect coffee heaven. Ofcourse, this won’t happen. But it’s a fear. It’s a fear inside me.
I kept hearing about Starbucks being built. I never saw it. I kept missing it every time I drove by. And then one day, I saw it. And everything changed.
Because what I was looking at wasn’t Starbucks at all. It was something bigger. Something more grand. Special.
It was Shibuya Starbucks. Here in Vietnam. And oh my God, how brilliant it was!
All of my hatred of the idea of Starbucks being in Vietnam dissipated. For that minute when I first laid eyes on Starbucks, I was in awe. I was won over by the brilliant example of international branding that stood before me.
I’ll tell you a story. Don’t worry, it’s quick. A long time ago, when I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I was excited and overwhelmed. It was a fast, noisy, big, bustling city…and I wanted to see it. I set out walking one evening from my hotel room down in Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker’s area), just looking to see what I could find.
But it wasn’t an easy city to navigate on foot. It was hot, dirty, and sweaty. I bought a banh mi (my first ever….I was so excited!), but almost threw up when I realized it was almost entirely made from processed fish. Disgusted and repulsed, I left it on the ground, so as to not waste it. I had a guide book with me, which said something along the lines of this: go to the traffic circle, and relax while you watch the mesmerizing traffic. But I couldn’t relax: I was being swallowed by the mesmerizing traffic. There was no where to sit. It was hot. It was uncomfortable. It was getting dark. I didn’t know what to do. Still excited, yet slightly dazed and overwhelmed, I made my way back to my hotel room, where I watched The Usual Suspects on my computer.
The story above took place at the very circle where Starbucks now sits, open to the public. That same traffic circle where once there was nowhere to sit now has a place to sit. It’s called Starbucks. Or maybe someday it will be the Trung Hung Dao Circle Starbucks. And maybe someday this Starbucks will aid weary foreign travelers in search of a something to drink, a place to sit, and a chance to watch the traffic. And maybe that’s a good thing.
As much as I still despise the idea of Starbucks being in Vietnam, I can’t help but appreciate brilliant marketing when I see it. Starbucks created something unique when they built their now world-famous Shibuya Starbucks: they created not just a coffee shop but a landmark, a place that people like me seek out, if only to drink one drink and watch some people. And they are now attempting to do that here Ho Chi Minh City as well.
It’s inevitable that globalization will continue to change the face of the world that we live in, for good and for bad. The fact that I am living in Vietnam and blogging about Starbucks is a case in point. But I will be interested to see how the new Ho Chi Minh City Starbucks fares. Will she live up to her older sister’s fame in Tokyo? Will people seek her out? Will she make it into Lonely Planet, as a good place to watch the mesmerizing traffic while drinking a Western coffee?
Or will she just blend in with everything else, becoming just another Western business in an Asian world?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I’m thinking about going to Starbucks, to watch some traffic and post up on the internet for a little while. But I don’t know if I’ll make it. I may need some time.