The expanse of Korean influence in Vietnamese culture has only widened as time has went by. Vietnamese students are eager to learn Hangul, K-Pop is on shuffle, and not to mention the array of kimbap restaurants and Korean BBQ joints springing up across Hanoi. With a blossoming Korean community making My Dinh district their home, the whole area is furnished with authentic tastes of South Korea. But the impact of Vietnam has also went global, especially on the streets of Seoul. Vietnamese food has recently exploded onto the Korean market, with Seoul being the most heavily saturated city where you can get a taste of Vietnam.
With some 170,000 Vietnamese living in South Korea, a nation of 51.2 million people, they make up but a small portion of the population and yet their cuisine has, in recent years, began to mirror the love for Korean food seen in Vietnam. The success of chains like Pho Mien, who’ve been operating across South Korean cities for over 12 years, has been reliant on the similarities in flavours that southern Vietnamese food holds to Korean preferences and as such, they now operate over 70 branches across the country.
In more recent times, northern Vietnamese cuisine has been making gains on their southern compatriot’s turf in Korea, with Bun Cha Ra Boom opening up four locations since 2016. Taking a slightly more gourmet approach to the Hanoi classic, this isn’t something you’d find being grilled on the side of the road, or being slightly smoked with exhaust fumes – which some might argue detracts from the authenticity.
Bun Cha Ra Boom swaps out the traditional pork belly for charcoal-grilled beef, but stays true to the Vietnamese recipe with the grilled meatballs, vermicelli and assortment of garlic, chilli and herbaceous add-ons, but somehow forgets to include the all important ingredient, fish sauce. This fancy methodology, however, costs extra and nowhere in Hanoi could you find a bowl of bun cha that weighs in at KRW12,000 – which is about VND248,000. I love bun cha as much as the next human with functioning taste buds, but I’m not selling a kidney for it.
Meanwhile, Emoi – referencing the standard beckoning call for a waiter in Vietnam – has adopted the northern style of pho. Itaewon is arguably Seoul’s sketchiest neighbourhood, probably somewhere you could sell a kidney if the need arose, but with great shadiness comes great nightlife and so the home of “Hooker-Hill” and a US military base (I see no possible correlation between these whatsoever) has also become home to a 24 hour pho joint. Armed with a noodle-making machine, Emoi has come to symbolise the start of a new generation of Vietnamese chain restaurants in Korea. Despite having only been open since 2015, Emoi now claims over 80 locations nationwide in Korea – further proof that the taste of Vietnam is spreading across the Korean peninsula.
Anyone familiar with the constant disappointment of Korean bread will usually complain that sugar is just not something anyone ever asked for in a tuna sarnie, but the love for sweeter bread that gripped Asia was a bullet semi-dodged by the Vietnamese on account of French bakers. Not that I’m advocating for the brutal horrors of French colonialism just so I can enjoy a proper baguette while in Vietnam, but in Korea it’s only recently that the sandwich in general has caught on and guess which sandwich has come out on top. Vietnam may have won Korean hearts and stomachs with a shared powerful lust for noodle dishes, but the banh mi is Seoul’s go-to sandwich.
Lie Lie Lie is a bread of fresh air (pun intended) in Seoul, where owner and baker Moon Gi-duk arrives promptly at 7am to set about creating a lighter, airier baguette reminiscent of the ones that await unsuspecting stomachs on any given street corner of Hanoi. Moon was allegedly inspired by his visits to Ho Chi Minh City, where his younger brother works and – as almost everyone visiting Vietnam has done – fell in love with the humble banh mi.
What’s happening with Korean and Vietnamese food taking off in one another’s countries seems to be more of a mirror image, and in that reflection is the recognition of similarities between the two cultures. Both boast a younger generation with a developing taste for foreign foods as a slow but certain shift away from their traditional native dishes and surely the mark of any good partnership is a mutual appreciation for one another’s cuisine.