We don’t like to play favorites, but Vietnam loves South Korea. And it seems to be mutual. The Korean expat population in Saigon continues to grow. And as the Korean influence becomes more obvious, we became curious. Where do all the Koreans go to eat in Saigon? We talked to three of our favourite Saigon-based Koreans to find out.
Read on in Vietnamese
It was not until the late ’80s that Koreans were allowed to travel freely. With the nation’s 1988 democratisation came the permission to explore the world. And explore they did. Last year, 3.16 million Koreans visited Vietnam. In fact, so many have come to Vietnam that airlines have upped their flight routes and frequency to meet the demand. This year broke the record. Vietnam welcomed a whopping 4 million South Korean holidaymakers into its open arms.
Koreans seem to enjoy their time here too. From Da Nang to Ha Long Bay to Hanoi. But some have come here to settle down. Around 100,000 of them, as a matter of fact. It is one of the biggest Korean expat communities in Southeast Asia. (That’s second only to the Korean expat community in the Philippines.)
Three of our favourite Korean expats are Donny Lew, Julia Goark, and Seon Choi. Donny is a chef and entrepreneur who opened Billions Pearls and Tea. Billions was a bubble tea shop with an alcoholic twist after dark (and sometimes before) although Donny is focusing on some exciting new projects now.
Julia is a business development manager at Daewon Real Estate who you may have seen at one of Saigon’s coolest co-working spaces and Daewon project, Publik Office. And Seon is a production manager for a Korean garment company that has major clients in the States. And he hopes to soon dive into his own business tailoring bespoke menswear. Besides their professional responsibilities, Donny, Julia and Seon are all obsessive foodies.
“Vietnam is chock full of Korean expats. But District 7 is basically Koreatown!” says Donny Lew. “Alternatively, there is District 2’s Thao Dien,” he adds excitedly, “where I set up Billions!” While Thao Dien is smaller and more contained, it still has a good-sized population of Korean expats and a good handful of establishments that cater to Korean comforts.
We decided to meet in the middle, at a District 1 Korean restaurant constantly regarded as one of the best, Kyung Bok Gung. There we asked Donny, Julia and Seon to tell us where they like to eat Korean food for our unofficial guide to the best Korean restaurants in Saigon.
Which Korean restaurant offers the best value?
If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, look no further. BBQ Plan-K in Thao Dien has got you covered. It’s one of the best Korean restaurants in Saigon. Donny, who happens to know the owners, tells us that they are also butchers. Cutting out the middlemen, they can prepare fresher cuts of meat than other restaurants as well as serve heftier portions. They have even expanded their culinary business into supplying restaurants and homes.
There’s a dish called Bean Sprout Hangover Soup for only 150,000 VND. “It’s a good one for settling the stomach on a rough morning after,” Seon assures us. There are also a couple of different types of Korean cold noodles (for when there’s a craving for soup but also a need to keep cool in the Saigon heat). Diners can order a set of cold noodles with marinated pork for only 169,000 VND.
The restaurant is streamlined, well-lit, and quiet…and one of the best Korean restaurants in Saigon. While many Korean restaurants tend toward long tables, BBQ Plan-K seats its guests in diner-style booths. But while the dining environment isn’t very grand or distinctively Korean, Korean expats keep coming back for quality eats that don’t break the bank.
Winner: BBQ Plan-K
Location: 14A5 Thao Dien, District 2
Where’s the best Korean fine dining in Saigon?
“Kitchen Seoul is new to the Korean food party,” Donny tells us about the restaurant that’s already regarded as one of the best Korean restaurants in Saigon, “and it specialises in ageing its meat.” “They call it ‘House Ageing Korean BBQ'” Seon interjects. The chefs age their own beef and pork by hanging the meat up to dehydrate in sub-freezing temperatures. Wet ageing is when meat is sealed in bags and kept in the fridge for natural enzymes to tenderize it. Different lengths of time spent in the process bring out different flavours and aromas.
A new opening in An Phu is Kitchen Seoul. It’s in a building that is virtually indistinguishable from small apartment blocks surrounding it. This adds to its charm. Diners can sit at a booth, the octagonal marble tables, or in the omakase-style seating upstairs where they watch the chefs prepare and serve the food.
The restaurant, Kitchen Seoul, is a small but Insta-worthy space. Its decor takes on a sixties retro vibe with furniture and walls in tones of camel and muted teal. And it’s the perfect place for a one-on-one or small group dinner. (And remember, it’s only open from 5pm to 10pm everyday.)
Winner: Kitchen Seoul
Location: 10 Vu Truong Toan, An Phu, District 2
Which is the best Korean street food restaurant in Saigon?
“Toppoki!” Julia’s face lights up immediately. Toppoki is Korea’s most popular street food. The dish contains rice cakes boiled down in a bright red chili paste. It’s a sweet and spicy treat with an addictively chewy texture. There are many toppoki places in Ho Chi Minh City. Julia vouches for Kimbap City in D3. “I can even have Kimbap City food when I’m lazy,” Julia shrugs, “Grab Food takes care of it.”
Then there’s the Korean fast food place, K-market Korean Fast Food & Fine Grocery. Their hearty, spicy rice bowls are popular here. They make for a filling lunch. Donny loves getting quick and easy kimbap, or Korean rice rolls, here. But, they also have toppoki, fish cakes, and ramen. All perfect for a person who doesn’t have time to dilly dally. Donny gives us another timesaver, “It’s adjacent to a K-Market, so I like to pick up some groceries or some Korean snacks and beverages for home.”
Winner: Kimbap City and K-market Korean Fast Food & Fine Grocery
Kimbap City, 107 Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, District 3
K-market Korean Fast Food & Fine Grocery, 27 Thao Dien, District 2
Which is the most authentic Korean restaurant in Saigon?
The vote is unanimous. Kyung Bok Gung. It’s a restaurant has the remarkable reputation of doing Korean food better than most places in Korea. “My Korean friends and I miss this place when we go to Korea!” Julia exclaims. It’s no question that Kyung Bok Gung is the place that won the hearts of our three Koreans and that its reputation as probably the best Korean restaurant in Saigon is justified.
Located at 52 Hai Ba Trung, Kyung Bok Gung is a tall unadorned building. It mostly caters to corporate bookings. It has a lobby in the front and waitstaff who escort restaurant goers upstairs. There are private rooms like karaoke rooms, perfect for a lunch or dinner meeting with Korean clients.
The establishment is decorated with old Korean memorabilia, ceramic pots from various different dynasties, and paintings and photos of prominent royalty of old. One hears the clacking of small plates, the trolley carts rolling plastic wheels, and the low roar of conversation.
“In a flood of Korean BBQs,” Seon remarks, “it can be a challenge for us Korean expats to find Korean staples.” Fear not. Your search is over. Kyung Bok Gung offers comfort food like kimchi stew and pork knuckle on a bed of bed. Korean expats come for the comprehensive array of banchan, tiny servings of side dishes. They’re laid out like a mosaic on square-shaped white plates along the length of the long tables.
Donny adds, “Kyung Bok Gung is good. You keep seeing Koreans there, like the staff of South Korean multinational conglomerate Samsung.” They can’t get enough. Neither can our three Korean expats.
Winner: Kyung Bok Gung
Location: 52 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
And where’s the best Korean BBQ in Saigon?
“Arirang has always been a staple for me,” Donny says rubbing his hands together excitedly. “I always get the Korean set lunch. Great Value.” Marinated grilled pork, very shareable amounts of soybean paste, beef stew and two bibimbaps for just 300k. Of course, they serve much more than just marinated meat. There are rice and noodle dishes as well as vegetarian and seafood options, if meat is not your thing.
One of the more luxurious spaces to eat Korean food, Arirang boasts long dark wood tables with plush booth seating. Its dim lighting creates a romantic ambiance. Between booths, parchment paper dividers bring about a sense of intimacy in this otherwise large venue. It even has a wall adorned with an assortment of K-pop photos and posters that lends to giving Korean expats a sense of home.
Arirang sits on the third floor of a Dong Khoi building amongst a handful of cute restaurants and cafes. Right off the Saigon bridge, Arirang claims a spot that overlooks the Saigon river. Here, diners feel they’re floating above all of Saigon’s hustle bustle. Day or night, it’s sweet view.
Winner: Arirang Restaurant
Location: 3rd Floor, 2 Dong Khoi, District 1
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.