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Exploring Japanese Lifestyles in Vietnam

A chorus of irasshaimase, Japanese for welcome, greets guests as the building’s traditional shōji door slides shut, obscuring all views and feelings of Saigon.

The city’s hectic pace and vibrant culture is replaced with a distinctly Japanese atmosphere in countless restaurants, shops, spas and pubs throughout the city. Kanji stands in for diacritic-laced latin font, ramen takes the place of phở and visitors are more likely to have grown up in a Tokyo skyscraper than a Saigon hem.

In the 1990s, Japanese people began arriving in Saigon to work in many of the factories and businesses established with foreign investment. They brought with them their culture’s distinct dining, drinking, shopping, entertainment and lodging preferences as well. Numerous areas in the city show signs of their presence and allow people to witness and indulge aspects of Japanese lifestyles, often accompanied by one of Japan’s favorite beverages, Pocari Sweat.

Umami-succulent udon, rich curry, crisp katsudon (deep-fried pork cutlet with rice), fluffy omurice (rice filled omelet covered in ketchup) and the delicate desserts made with rice and complex bean fillings called mochi -restaurants across the city serve authentic Japanese food. Stands, small noodle shops and fancier restaurants feature dishes that pass the strict taste tests of natives who grew up enjoying them. Whether in the food courts of the massive Japanese malls or the tiny stalls serving delightfully moist, tentacle-laden morsels known as takoyaki, Japanese people are able to get a taste of home nearly anywhere in the city.

Peering into many of quaint izakaya - Japan’s version of pubs - reveals shelves filled with a vast array of imported sake, shochu and whiskey. Late into the night, businessmen and groups of friends can be seen tipping back tumblers complimented by small plates of gyoza, fried tofu and yakitori (chicken skewers) - the tenants of a typical night out in Japan. As dawn approaches, they stumble onto the streets, feeling like conquering samurai thanks to the glorious mix of greasy food and strong booze. Unfortunately, by the time they’ve woken up the next morning, hangovers have set in and their heads are throbbing like tempest-rung temple bells. It’s no surprise then that many Japanese people in Saigon keep bottles of Pocari Sweat chilling in their refrigerators. It quickly replenishes the body’s potassium and magnesium that was flushed away by an evening of unending kampai (cheers). Many in Japan consider the beverage the ideal hangover cure, a belief they have brought with them to Vietnam.

Pocari also caters to Japanese living a more healthy lifestyle here. The same way the beverage helps people regain their strength after a night of drinking, it helps them recover from vigorous exercise - be it swimming, running, playing tennis or practicing tai chi in the park at dawn. When Japanese people partake in these activities amongst locals, they usually do so with a Pocari Sweat in hand because of its ability to replenish water and electrolytes.

Japanese convenience store chains like 7-Eleven and Family Mart have been rapidly expanding across the city, bringing with them exotic treats like poki, onigiri, chūhai and other goods straight from Japan. Whether it’s makeup, stationery, seaweed snacks, packaged curry, salad dressing or dried soba noodles - shelves in speciality stores are crammed with imported products whose packaging is exclusively written in Japanese. In every retailer’s refrigerator, Pocari Sweat maintains a prominent position, an obvious sign of its centrality in Japanese consumer habits.

Pocari Sweat serves as a tremendous partner for one of the main ways to witness Japan’s influence on the city: simply walking around and noticing the sights, sounds and smells. The brand’s newly released 350 mL bottle design is created with less plastic than the average beverage container, which makes it lighter to carry, but still sturdy enough to toss in a bag while strolling pastbuildings whose architecture has taken on unique Japanese characteristics. Once inside the tiny snack bars with high counters and tall chairs, quaint tea shops with austere wood aesthetics and restaurants where guests sit on the floor, it’s easy to assume one is somewhere in the heart of Kanto. For example, Hachi-Juu Hachi Shouten restaurant, a Saigoneer favorite, illustrates how Japanese design can transform Vietnamese buildings.

Saigon’s position as a global city is nowhere more obvious than in the many Japanese people speaking, eating, drinking and shopping just as they would in their home country. The fact that restaurants, stores and homes often contain cold bottles of Pocari Sweat is proof not only of the drink’s delicious taste, but its intrinsic role in daily Japanese life.