Published on Wednesday, 04 July 2018 21:00
Written by Khoi Pham. Illustration by Le Rin.
You wake up in Saigon in the 1980s in your apartment overlooking the Saigon River. While yawning, you put a dollop of Da Lan toothpaste on a brush. Using a bar of Co Ba soap, you wash yourself up and step into the kitchen, where a bowl of hot Hai Con Tom noodles and a bottle of Con Cop fizzy drink await.
There was a time in Saigon when you couldn’t go ten meters without bumping into a colorful ad for a Vietnamese-sounding product catering to your everyday needs, from transportation to food and beverage to personal hygiene. While most of the aforementioned brands have tragically disappeared over the years, relegated to an existence purely confined in old photographs, one of them has managed to defy expectations to survive well into the late 2010s: Hai Con Tom noodles — but you’ve probably guessed that after seeing the top image for this article.
Hai Con Tom, meaning “two prawns” in Vietnamese, is iconic thanks to both its longevity and simple package design. In 2018, the Two-Prawn brand is most commonly recognized as the signature product of instant food company Colusa–Miliket. Finding a packet of Hai Con Tom in the wild in bustling metropolises like Saigon or Hanoi might be a tall order, however, no thanks to an influx of flashy, visually bombastic newer instant noodles brands in recent years.
Hai Con Tom’s modern descendants have flooded the market and given consumers a seemingly infinite amount of choices, pushing Colusa–Miliket noodles away from urban areas and deep into the villages and hamlets in the countryside. Nonetheless, if you’re a frequent patron to many a casual hotpot eatery in Saigon, there’s a chance that you might have consumed Saigon’s most enduring living fossil.
The package of Two-Prawn noodles is a prime case study in utilitarian design: off-white or white paper with red copy and a repeated pattern featuring a prominent pair of crimson prawns. The cover itself is made of kraft paper, which is responsible for its durability and muted wood-pulp shade. Inside the packet is a dried noodle block and a single sachet of flavoring powder, again, a testament to Miliket’s preference for substance over style.
In the late 1980s, Hai Con Tom noodles were sold for VND500-1,000 per pack, which might seem like a ludicrous bargain by today’s standards, but believe it or not, instant noodles used to be a luxury. In an economy driven by coupons that covered everything from rice to pork, matches and soaps, households weren’t starving, but they weren’t thriving either. Products that could only be bought with money — like Two-Prawn noodles — were seen by many as a treat for a special occasion.
Visitors from northern provinces to Saigon brought back packets of Hai Con Tom the way one hoards Japanese cosmetics and Australian cherries today after each overseas trip. For birthday celebrations, often the entire family would huddle over a pot of instant noodle soup — purposely made with half a liter or so more water, so there was enough MSG-laden, warm, flavorful broth for everyone to slurp up some. The noodles itself were usually reserved for the kids.
Hai Con Tom’s enduring brand identity slowly cemented in the minds of generations of Vietnamese after moments like this: a reminder of a childhood marred by poverty, but intimate and impossible to forget. Most Vietnamese today link the striking image of the two red prawns with Miliket, but it’s a little-known fact that Miliket wasn’t the original creator of the red prawn design.
In her personal essay, Mi tom soi van soi dai, writer and journalist Trac Thuy Mieu chronicles the story of Vietnam’s first domestic instant noodles producer Thien Huong, the brainchild of Teochew business mogul Tran Thanh. Thanh is a member of Saigon’s Hoa community — immigrants and descendants of immigrants from China. In 1964, Thanh started producing MSG powder in Saigon, disrupting the duopolistic reign of Japanese Ajinomoto and Taiwanese Vedan in the local market.
Building off the momentum created by his brand of soup powder Vi Huong To, Thanh launched his own instant noodles line in 1972 called Vi Huong with a design featuring two red prawns. His operation was headquartered on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in Cho Lon. Vi Huong instant noodles was an instant success and spawned a host of knockoffs. At the time, copyright laws were non-existent, hence most subsequent competitors also spotted the iconic twin crustacean design.
Some sources believe that Colusa-brand instant noodles had already existed by the time Tran Thanh premiered “Two-Prawn” Vi Huong, but Mieu thinks Colusa only started pumping out similar products after the immense success of Vi Huong. In 1983, Miliket was founded by the state-run Southern Food Corporations (now Vinafood II). In 2004, the government merged the two into the Colusa-Miliket Food Company.
Thanks to the prevalence of the crimson prawns on practically every brand of instant noodles, Vietnamese started using the term mì tôm, or prawn noodles, to refer to instant noodles. Honda and Coca-Cola also entered Vietnam’s daily lexicon through the same pathway — Honda used to mean “motorbike” while Coca used to be synonymous with all soft drinks.
After 1975, most private companies in Saigon started suffering, including Thien Huong. Regarding the fate of Tran Thanh, there are conflicting accounts on what happened to him. Macabre rumor mills say he went bankrupt and committed suicide, but others think he followed the footstep of his business contemporaries and escaped overseas. Regardless of the owner’s fate, Thien Huong, like other thriving enterprises, fell into grave decline.
Production in Saigon plummeted sharply over the next few years and the city was on the brink of starvation until 1981. Nguyen Thi Rao, better known by her nickname Madame Ba Thi, was the then deputy director of the City Food Company. She spearheaded a food reform with her daring decision to convince Mekong Delta rice producers to sell the city rice by offering them VND2.5 per kilogram, five times more than the state-mandated price of just VND0.52.
What she did was scandalous and pretty much unheard of, but no one could fault her for trying to save three million Saigoneers who were barely alive. The move pushed the rice price in the delta to VND2.5, which quickly spread to the rest of the country and eventually rippled to other products, including Hai Con Tom noodles.
Miliket had an incentive to start to rebuild the Hai Con Tom brand. Of course, it wasn’t the same product that Tran Thanh’s company created, but it was the only option available in the market at the time. The two iconic prawns were once again prancing around the city in family meals and mom-and-pop shops, at least for the next few decades until the early 1990s when it reached peak market penetration at around 80-90%. Miliket’s unbelievable monopoly didn’t last long once Doi Moi opened up a new chapter for the country’s economy in 1986.
The 100% Japan-funded Acecook was established in Vietnam in 1993 and slowly ate away Hai Con Tom’s popularity with its new noodle flavors, packaging and powerful advertising campaigns. Since then, Vietnam’s instant noodles market is now a crowded collective of brands, including Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, South Korean and more.
On its part, I have to laud Miliket for its resistance to change. After all, if something isn’t broken, why change it? The Two-Prawn staple stays the same: kraft paper wrapper with crimson prawns and trustworthy block of instant noodles inside. The company also presented a few other versions of packaging, including one with whiter paper and one with a red nylon cover and white prawn logos.
In 2016, according to official statistics, Colusa–Miliket only held 4% of the instant noodles market, a far cry from the 80% of its heyday. That year, it produced some 15,000 tons of noodles, earning VND461 billion in revenue, but only VND25 billion in profits. At the glance, it may seem like peanuts compared with its competitors. However, for a company with only VND48 billion worth in authorized capital, a yearly earning of VND25 billion was impressive.
Miliket is well aware that it cannot combat others in high-income segments, despite Hai Con Tom’s enviable brand recognition across Vietnam. It focuses on the budget segment, appealing to buyers in rural provinces. In the eyes of urbanites, Two-Prawn noodles has earned the nickname mì ăn lẩu, or “hotpot noodles,” referring to its common appearance as an add-on in hotpot restaurants.
According to the owner of a hotpot place on My Dinh Street, Hanoi, Hai Con Tom noodles are very suitable to dip in hotpot: they’re quite chewy, not too salty, and extremely affordable at less than VND3,000 per packet.
Personally, I can’t confidently attest to this because the last time I had Hai Con Tom noodles was almost two decades ago. We were visiting my dad’s hometown in Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. It was a chilly morning. The fog blanketed my grandma’s house in a sheen of opaque chill. In the distance, the engine of motorized boats roared amid the sheepish coos of chickens. We were ravenous, so my dad started ransacking the cupboards for snacks. And guess what we found: two packets of old Hai Con Tom.
The noodles were indeed chewy and I remember thinking that the broth tasted like a chemical potion of just pure MSG and salt, but it was an unforgettable meal. I guess this little shared of memory of mine is very much akin to the relationship between Hai Con Tom and many Vietnamese who were born in the 1970s and 1980s. Our affection towards Hai Con Tom noodles isn’t inherently rooted in its sublime taste or eye-catching design, but because it serves as a timeless and sentimental reminder of the hardships of eras past.
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