What’s On

A peek inside the hermit kingdom: Dining at Pyongyang, a North Korean restaurant in Vietnam

By Trang Bui   December 3, 2017 | 02:00 pm GMT+7

We tuck into a seriously surreal meal, accompanied by captivating music, interrupted chats and strict surveillance. 

The singing is so deafening that Hoa Mai, our tall, fair-skinned waitress, almost has to yell as she tries to take our order, and still to no avail.

Up on stage, a woman wearing a hanbok is fervently hitting a jang-gu, Korea’s traditional hourglass-shaped drum. I hold my breath, eyes fixated as the drummer builds up for the finale.

The last note leaves me dumbfounded, loud and abrupt, like the way it all started.

Almost every night at 7:30, this is the scene at Pyongyang Restaurant, one of the last two North Korean eateries in Vietnam. For an hour, it felt like the hermit kingdom itself: a red stage showered with LED lights; young, slim, tall and good-looking performers with slicked back ponytails and extra-large hair bows; exuberant, half acrobatic folk dancing; songs about the Great Leader; and of course, a no-camera sign.

At one point, in almost perfect Vietnamese, the women sang a song extolling Ho Chi Minh, followed by a rendition of “I wish”, a popular karaoke hit by Vietnamese diva My Tam.

It goes like this.

For all its unusual foreign policies, North Korea’s worldwide restaurant business remains an intriguing puzzle. Although it’s dangerous and arduous to visit the country, the Kim family have been exporting their propaganda to many parts of the world since the 1990s. At its peak, there were as many as 130 "mini hermit kingdoms" from Saigon to Dubai.

The Kim's know better than anyone that authenticity sells. At almost every location, expensive cuisine and propaganda kitsch are key. The country earns up to $10 million a year from these businesses, South Korea estimates. Exporting its sought-after food and culture has not only helped lift the North out of a famine that wiped out as much as one tenth of the population in the mid-1990s; it is now one of the main sources of remittances for the impoverished country.

But whether because more have refused to indirectly fund Kim’s nuclear program just by dining, or the restaurants are simply too low-key to be noticed, the business is dwindling. Since last spring around 20 restaurants in China, the U.A.E. and one in Vietnam's Da Nang have reportedly closed.

Ryu Gyong, the only one in Saigon, also closed this October, leaving Pyongyang and Koryo as the last two left in Vietnam. International news agencies, like Reuters and Yonhap, have confirmed their authenticity. 

In Hanoi, the restaurant seems lost in a maze of South Korean eateries, hotels and karaoke bars, as it’s in the heart of Hanoi’s "K-town" and only a few hundred meters from the South Korean embassy. Day and night, curtains are closed, and few would be able to notice the gray, somewhat ominous looking building with large hangul characters that look just like their Southern counterparts.

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The entry of Pyongyang restaurant on Nguyen Thi Dinh Street, a five-story building that has its curtain closed 24/7 and is lit up by LED hangul characters at night. Outside, a sign in Vietnamese reads, ‘Now Hiring: Female only’. Photo by VnExpress/Trang Bui

Pyongyang on a Wednesday night is bleak and desolate with dusty leather tables on the first floor. Yet upstairs, the Great Leader’s garish spirit lives on.

The second floor, the size of a banquet room, though filled with cheap wooden tables and low resolution TVs that date back to the 90s, is loud and hectic with scratchy loudspeakers blasting out propaganda songs. Young women are quick on their feet: changing clothes, taking orders, serving, singing and dancing, yet without breaking a sweat. About a dozen Korean men, unclear North or South, stand close to the stage, taking turns to present fake bouquets of flowers to the girls.

Most visitors are Vietnamese and South Korean, Hoa Mai, our 21-year-old waitress, said.

Whether it is Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or westerners, everyone seems to come for the experience: the extravagant show, a sneaky photo of the performers, and perhaps, a selfie with the girls. The food, though advertised as freshly imported from the North, fails to spark much interest.

The North’s cuisine largely resembles South Korean food. But neither the cold, fancy kimchi soaked flatfish, the warm seafood pancake or the soggy icy noodles scored any points for the night.

A bill for two was around $40, but it was well worth it for the overall experience.

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A $45 meal for two: kimchi spiced flatfish, seafood pancake, cold noodles and chili fish-egg soup. Photo by VnExpress/ Trang Bu


But regardless how banal the food is, North Korean food culture doesn’t allow any waste.

“Please eat, don’t worry!” Hoa Mai gave us a frown as we hesitated over testicle-looking bags of fish egg.

In an interview with Munchies (Vice) this January, Simon Cockerell, a British tour specialist who has been eating the cuisine for 14 years, explained the people’s memories of the famine and how it affected their food culture.

"Anyone over the age of 20 there has memories of living in a famine," he told the food website. “People know that missing a meal is an extravagance that they used to not have, so they really go for it. There's no real concept of leaving food.”

Hoa Mai’s look was enough for us to reluctantly bring home four big boxes of leftovers.

At 9, the show ended, allowing Hoa Mai a chance to talk while she was running between tables.

Pyongyang is in its ninth year, Hoa Mai said, and it has welcomed at least three batches of waitresses from the homeland. All of the waitresses are female interns from Pyongyang Tourism College, doing their three-year training overseas.

Like most of her colleagues, Hoa Mai speaks four foreign languages, all at intermediate levels: Vietnamese, English, Japanese and Chinese.

“I’ve been here for two and a half years,” Hoa Mai said in Vietnamese with an almost flawless accent.

Here, though the women insist customers call them by their Vietnamese names for fear of revealing their identities, they claim to have a good life, living together in a nearby dormitory and allowed to go out at night. In six months, Hoa Mai will return to finish her last two years of college. 

“Of course we are on Facebook,” Hoa Huong, a 22-year-old waitress, said after Hoa Mai had left with the restaurant already closing. But she immediately stopped when asked if we could be friends on the social network.

Would Pyongyang fear all its propaganda would be a lie to these students? Probably. Last April, 13 workers at a restaurant in China defected successfully to the South, prompting North Korea to close 20 already dwindling businesses out of 130 worldwide.

But for now, they are living in a world with the internet, speak with foreigners every day, and probably know more about their country than anyone else at home. 

Hoa Huong ended the conversation quickly by agreeing to a picture before she left.

“Thank you, I don't think I can [add you on Facebook],” Hoa Huong said, shaking her head and smiling.

Pyongyang Restaurant

28 Nguyen Thi Dinh, Cau Giay District, Hanoi

10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article published on December 4, 2017 stated that Pyongyang Restaurant is the last North Korean restaurant in Hanoi. There is another one, Koryo restaurant, which opened last year in Cau Giay District, Hanoi.

Michael Finelli contributes reporting