Down a narrow backpacker alley in southern Vietnam, an idea that never quite took off in Utah is thriving. Visitors from around the world have left their mark on the walls of the Nonla Guys restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.
Some identified their homes on a large hand-drawn world map, while others wrote messages in their native language. Pictures of superheroes, like Batman and Spiderman, wearing the traditional Vietnamese cone-shaped straw hat called a “nonla” are also on the wall.
The diverse group of customers and decorations match both the concept and the history of the business opened two years ago by a group of friends from Korea.
Jangrak Choi was so impressed with the documentary "The Rebirth of Korean Comfort Food in America," he watched the film several times.
“That documentary made me want to run a business. Not in the U.S.A — I didn’t know where—but that program made me really inspired,” Jangrak said.
While Jangrak was dreaming of becoming a business owner, his brother Sungrak and one of his brother’s friends were falling in love with Vietnam. Sungrak attended a university in China. He lived with a Vietnamese roommate who introduced him to the country’s culture and food.
Sungrak’s friend Dongrin Kim stayed in Korea for school, but went to Vietnam as a volunteer and also developed a fondness for the country’s culture and food.
“They really liked Vietnam, and I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. I just knew about the hats, traditional in Vietnam, and the traditional clothes,” Jangrak said.
The men visited Vietnam together in 2016. During their trip, Jangrak also caught the Vietnam bug and the trio decided this was where they wanted to start a business — especially after they realized it would be easier to do so in Vietnam than in Korea,
At first, they considered starting a coffee shop, but there were already so many in Ho Chi Minh city they weren’t sure what would set them apart. Opening a Korean restaurant presented the same challenge. They needed to think of something unique.
Dongrin had studied in the United States for a year and enjoyed the Mexican food he tried there. After taking an inventory of the food options in Ho Chi Minh, the men decided this was a niche they could fill. They just had to learn how to make the food.
That wasn't going to be easy. Jangrak had only eaten tacos three or four times in Korea.
“We choose to make Mexican food, I watched a lot of Mexican food videos, how to make. And I would go to other Mexican food restaurants and I would eat a lot of Mexican food,” Jangrak said.
Because Mexican food isn’t very common in Vietnam, the friends weren’t sure how people would react to the flavors. To make their dishes a little more familiar, they decide to create a menu that incorporated more general Asian flavors into quesadillas, tacos and burritos.
The restaurant's specialty is bun cha, a traditional Vietnamese pork dish. At Nonla Guys, customers can order bun cha tacos, quesadillas, burritos or rice bowls.
“There are many Vietnamese that have said, ‘this is not bun cha,’but we want to introduce Vietnamese food to many foreigners,” Jangrak said.
In designing their menu, Jangrak said he and his partners tried to mirror the quick-serve, inexpensive style of Cupbop. He wanted a menu that would provide healthier options in comparison to other fast food joints.
Of all the items on the menu, the rice bowls are the most similar to what is served at Cupbop. These dishes include rice, one of the menu’s signature fillings, vegetables and sauce. Like Cupbop, customers can customize the spice level of their bowl.
Just over half of the restaurant's customers are from North America, Europe and Australia. The rest are locals or come from other Asian countries.
Chin Say Cheah was traveling in Vietnam for the first time in July and decided to try Nonla Guys after reading about it on a blog. During her visit, she tried the Korean rice bowl and a quesadilla, which was the first Mexican-style food she had eaten.
“It is quite different from the Korean food I have tried before, but it is also quite delicious. If I come to Vietnam again, I think I will come here,” Chin said.
Although many people are excited by the idea of fusion food, the unique nature of the menu isn’t for everyone. Jangrak said western tourists are sometimes looking for more authentic Mexican food and locals may want more traditional dishes.
Over the past seven years, the Utah-based food truck Cupbop has grown from one truck in Salt Lake City to more than a dozen storefronts in Utah, with other locations in Colorado, Idaho — and even a restaurant in Indonesia.
But the story of Nonla Guys gave Cupbop co-owner Junghun Song a new feeling of success.
“That means we are doing well. If we are not doing well, they are not going to follow us. They are not going to copy us, right?” Junghun said
Nonla isn't the first business to be influenced by Cupbop. Junghun said copy-cat joints, bearing the restaurant's name and sharing a similar menu, have popped up in many places throughout Asia and North America.
These stores are a violation of Junghun’s trademark on the name, he doesn’t mind. As a small business owner, he wants others to be successful too.
“I like it. If Korean food is getting popular in the United States, it’s got to be good for everyone,” Junghun said.
Feeling successful after their first few years of business, Nonla Guys is looking to expand; the owners are working on turning their business into a franchise.
Although there has been a lot of interest, finding an investor who is serious has been a challenge. Jangrak is confident, however, that he and the other owners could have a second store running within the next six months.
Could there be a Nonla Guys in Utah someday?
If a few guys from Korea can be inspired to do Mexican-fusion in Vietnam after watching a documentary about some restaurant owners in the United States, anything can happen.
Vietnam feature programming on UPR is made possible in part by our members, and USU Office of Global Engagement – providing global learning opportunities at the study abroad fair – Wednesday, September 25 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Taggart Student Center. Details at studyabroad.usu.edu.