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Crossing the DMZ: A Visit to Saigon’s North Korean Restaurant

UPDATE: We're sad to announce that as of October 2017, Ryu Gyong has been shuttered permanently, along with a few other North Korean restaurants in Da Nang, Hanoi, and Saigon.

For a rather small country, North Korea occupies a prominent position in international affairs. It has the same population as Angola, which you probably can’t find on a map, and yet the DPRK regularly makes global headlines thanks to its nuclear ambitions and bellicose government rhetoric. Unexpected weapons tests take place on a regular basis, but their repeated failures liken the country to a kid who threatens to beat up everyone on the playground, only to trip and fall on his face whenever he takes a swing. As a result, much of the world regards North Korea with a mix of fascination, fear and amusement.

Its leaders have also become media superstars through no effort of their own. Kim Jong-Il, the Dear Leader who passed away in 2011, was a major character in 2004’s Team America: World Police, albeit in puppet form. He also became the subject of a popular online meme “Kim Jong-Il looking at things”, which presents pictures of the leader stoically looking at mundane objects such as biscuits, wallpaper and concrete.

Not to be outdone by his father, Kim Jong-Un – the rotund, bouffant current leader of North Korea – has his own “looking at things” meme, though at least he usually smiles while looking at the likes of cribs, processed food and an airport lounge table. The Interview, a 2014 comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, cast the pair as lifestyle journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate Jong-Un. He has even formed an inexplicable friendship with Dennis Rodman.

Of course, I would be remiss to discuss North Korea without mentioning that these leaders are truly awful. The public is brainwashed, repressed and underfed. It remains the last truly closed country with no access to the global internet or any of the modern conveniences we take for granted. The regime’s unpredictability and desire for high-tech weaponry pose real threats to international security. However, this story isn’t about that dark side; this is a story about Saigon’s North Korean eatery.

Since the 1990s, North Korea’s government has set up over 100 restaurants abroad as a means of income for the cash-strapped nation. Today, the country operates restaurants across China, Southeast Asia and even as far afield as the Middle East. However, like most things North Korean, these businesses are shrouded in secrecy. South Korean estimates put the restaurants’ profits anywhere between several hundred thousand dollars and as much as US$10 million, and yet there are signs that business is not so great. Earlier this year, 13 restaurant employees at a Chinese branch of North Korea’s restaurant business defected to South Korea by way of an unnamed Southeast Asian nation, and several venues have closed down due to lack of customers. 

When I heard that our city was home to a North Korean restaurant, my initial reaction was: “They have a cuisine?” Indeed, can a country which relies heavily on United Nations food aid to avoid famine claim any specialties? The answer, at least according to Ryu Gyong, a restaurant on leafy Le Quy Don, is apparently yes.

Upon entering Ryu Gyong, we were greeted by a phalanx of waitresses in red dresses. The banquet-style room was largely empty, with one table occupied by three middle-aged Asian gentlemen. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined two sides, Korean watercolor paintings dotted the walls and ample red décor filled out the space. One waitress quickly asked where I was from, and I replied: “America.” She smiled. This was a promising start; no threats to annihilate my hometown just yet.

I asked our coterie of servers, at least one of whom stayed next to the table at all times, where they were from, and they all said North Korea, as if I was an idiot for even wondering. This was the first time I had ever met someone from the hermit kingdom. Specifically, they were from Pyongyang, which according to them is where everyone in Korea comes from. They are here studying hospitality and will return to the DPRK after two or three years of training.

Events took an interesting turn, however, when Brandon, the photographer who joined me on this adventure, tried to use his camera. The waitress squad looked at the machine with evident concern. We tried explaining that we would take pictures and write about the restaurant for a website, but they were not impressed. The two main waitresses, whose names translate to Snow/Hope and Flower, said they did not like pictures or the internet. Brandon was told in no uncertain terms that he could not photograph any of the staff, and they jumped away if he accidentally pointed the lens in their general direction. I wondered if taking notes would be similarly frowned upon, and decided to keep my notepad shut for the evening.

The dining room featured a small stage equipped with a karaoke machine, drum set, keyboard and bass guitar. At 7:30pm, the same waitresses who feared the camera took the stage to perform and happily allowed Brandon to take as many pictures as he pleased. We were treated to a multidisciplinary show featuring karaoke, dance, a traditional Korean kayagum and pop songs. Flower really knew her way around the drums. I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but I imagine their upbeat melodies involved vaporizing Manhattan. Once the performance ended, the strict no-photos-of-people policy came back into force. We were baffled.

Amid this weirdness, the food was actually quite good. The menu, which is fairly expensive, featured many of the same dishes you might find at a democratic Korean restaurant so it was hard to tell if anything was uniquely North Korean. We went for kimchi, dumplings and grilled pork, served with the usual array of condiments and side dishes. Nothing stood out as spectacular, but I would happily eat there again.

Once we finished our meal, Flower approached me with a list of written English words and asked if she was pronouncing them correctly. She rattled off “excite”, “decision”, “human” and “injure”, forming an odd game of word association with some dark possibilities. She also asked me to write down the names of our dishes in English, as well some sort of spicy paste that escaped my grasp of the language.

The discussion then turned to politics. I had been careful to avoid any mention of North Korea’s egomaniacal leaders since I wasn’t sure how that would be taken, but Snow/Hope and Flower decided to ask if we liked America. “Of course,” we responded.

“There is a lot of crime there,” Snow/Hope shot back.

Flower added: “The police shoot people.” Well, someone has been watching the news.

They continued: “Guns kill people. Many people have guns.” I couldn’t argue with that. They asked if Brandon or I had guns, and we both said no, not everyone does. You can’t believe everything you see on TV.

Then Flower dropped a bomb: “America commits many crimes. It commits many crimes against humanity.” I decided it was time to ask for the bill.

As we were leaving, I noticed a TV near the door showing North Korean TV news. A dour presenter reported on packed supermarket shelves and a group of people standing in formation in a field. Brandon asked if he could photograph the TV and was told absolutely not. We bid the platoon of servers farewell. The three other customers had already left, and as we got to our bikes the lights on the sign out front went out. It appeared they were closing, even though they were supposed to be open for another 90 minutes. It was a fittingly odd end to the meal.

Ryu Gyong is exactly what I imagine visiting North Korea is like. You can’t take pictures of the people outside of staged moments, you are constantly monitored and a smiling young woman might tell you that your home country is a horribly violent place. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Ryu Gyong is open from 11am to 10pm daily (unless they decide to close as soon as you leave).

Ryu Gyong

30bis Le Quy Don, Ward 7, D3

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