February 26, 2019 | 06:04 pm PT

Old Vietnamese students remember a North Korea the world has forgotten

Over 100 students from Vietnam were sent to North Korean universities in 1965; to this day they cherish the experience.

Le Ngoc Tuc (right) and his wife look for the photos taken in North Korea at their home in Thanh Hoa City, Northern Vietnam. Photo by Hanh Pham.

Le Ngoc Tuc (right) and his wife look for the photos taken in North Korea at their home in Thanh Hoa Province. Photo by VnExpress/Hanh Pham

Cheerful chatter and laughter filled the Hang Co train station in Hanoi on an early summer morning in 1965. More than 100 young men and women between 18-20 years of age were eagerly waiting to board a train to China en route Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

The youth were most outstanding high school students picked from all over northern provinces to study at North Korean universities. The students were seen off by some North Korean embassy officials.

"We couldn’t prepare much for you guys now, but when you get there, you will be taken care of thoroughly, for sure," the officials told the students.

Among the 1965 overseas students group were Nguyen Quang Thuyet, 18 and Le Ngoc Tuc, 21.

Thuyet hails from Thai Binh Province, 105km south of Hanoi, while Tuc’s hometown is central Thanh Hoa Province. The two later became classmates in polymeric chemistry major at the Hamheung University of Chemical Industry, two hours from Pyongyang by train.

"In 1964, the American War in Vietnam had entered a fierce period, but the Party Central Committee believed that victory was imminent and the country would soon need manpower to serve post-war reconstruction," Thuyet told VnExpress.

"I just wanted to go to the battlefield, so I secretly enrolled in the army, but my high school principal found out and confiscated my army job offer," said Thuyet, 72 years old now, recalling the revolutionary fervor that year.

From the 1960s until the 1980s, socialist countries like the Soviet Union, Cuba, Romania, China and North Korea received thousands of Vietnamese students every year to attend universities in these countries. "So we were extremely favored by international friends," Thuyet said.

When VnExpress reached Le Ngoc Tuc’s home in Thanh Hoa, he was teaching Korean to a young man about to migrate to South Korea for work.

At 76, Tuc has difficulty walking due to war wounds sustained at Vietnam’s southwest border in 1979. Tuc was obviously happy as he rediscovered one photo after another of his time in North Korea between the pages of a huge pile of books.

"It took a week to arrive at Sinuiju station, which is close to the North Korea-China border," said Tuc. When the Vietnamese students got off the train, a group of young North Korean men and women rushed to welcome them with singing and dancing.

"We were very shy when we met girls in our own hometown, so when the Korean girls held our hands and danced with us, we were nervous. There were some boys so timid they just stood in a corner."

Le Ngoc Tuc shows photographs taken in North Korea from 1965 to 1971. Photo by Hanh Pham.

Le Ngoc Tuc shows photographs taken in North Korea from 1965 to 1971. Photo by VnExpress/Hanh Pham

Tuc recalled being dazzled by the tall buildings and wide streets in the country. For a few days in the capital, the Vietnamese students experienced for the first time the luxury of being in a fully-equipped hotel room with soap, toothpaste, pen and even sewing needles.

"I don’t mean to exaggerate, but in my hometown, I was sleeping on a pile of straw, and only got to know what a spring mattress was when I got there," Tuc said.

The students had been advised before their departure that if they see anything good and beautiful abroad, they should try to learn it so that they can use it for their country later.

Tuc was particularly impressed with the water system with 0.5m-diameter pipes leading straight from the mountain. "At that time, I only had water ditches at home."

Education was one of North Korea's advantages, Tuc said, adding the government made special investments in children. "All the best of society was reserved for young children." He said every kindergarten had a piano, the teachers were highly skilled in playing the instrument and could dance well, too.

"Mothers could leave their children at daycare for as long as they wanted, even for a week. Everything was covered by the state.

"We were not only studying for free, but we also got free meals and decent places to sleep," Tuc said. After a year of language study, the students were sent to different universities. Two people lived in a fully-equipped room. Students got new clothes every season, and the tailors went to each room to get students' measurements.

The students are not exaggerating.

According to a report by economist Joseph Sang-hoon Chung published by the University of California, from 1954 to 1956, North Korea embarked on rebuilding the country and increased its national income by 220 percent and industrial production by 280 percent.

"North Korea's economic growth during this period had no rivals in the world," the report said. By 1960, gross national income had skyrocketed by 680 percent compared to 14 years earlier. The report viewed the capital and technological progress in socialist countries as "the main material in the reconstruction process".

Statistics show that North Korea's per capita income in 1967 was $222, 1.2 times larger than previous five years and 1.6 times that of South Korea.

They really cared

Tuc said that once he went to the hospital to have his tonsils removed. When the doctor saw how small and skinny he was, they asked him to stay in the hospital for further checkups and nourishment.

"A friend visited me in the hospital and jokingly asked in Korean: 'Tuc, you’re not dead yet?', The doctor was standing right there and overheard it. He rolled his eyes and scolded my friend [for the joke]," Tuc chuckled. "That’s how I saw they really cared about me. How much they really loved me."

In addition to their major subjects, the Vietnamese students also studied political subjects like the history of the North Korean Labor Party, the revolutionary history of President Kim Il-sung and his family.

Nguyen Quang Thuyet holds a poetry book in his hand containing his original compositions inspired by all the memories he made in North Korea. Photo by Hanh Pham.

Nguyen Quang Thuyet holds a poetry book in his hand containing original compositions inspired by all the memories he made in North Korea. Photo by VnExpress/Hanh Pham.

"Time spent in North Korea was a beautiful time of youth," said Tuc and Thuyen. Both said they were "country boys who were obedient and cowardly and only focused on studying and did not dare to think about love," but they gossiped about love stories between Vietnamese students and North Korean girls, though citizens of the two countries were not yet allowed to be together then.

Tuc talked about a Korean girl who was so madly in love with his roommate that every week she took a train from Pyongyang to Sinuiju station, about 300km away, to meet her boyfriend.

"After that, I think the Vietnamese embassy almost begged her to keep the diplomatic principle between the two countries," Tuc said.

The youthful vibrations remain though Thuyet and Tuc are their 70s. In 1970, before graduation, Thuyet and Tuc were assigned to do internships at a metallurgical factory. Thuyet still has a notebook of poems he penned about a Korean girl he was in love with.

Nguyen Quang Thuyet shows a poem he wrote Visiting the homeland of Kim Il-sung in his handwritten poem notebook in North Korea. Photo by Hanh Pham.

Nguyen Quang Thuyet shows a poem he wrote in North Korea called "Visiting the homeland of Kim Il-sung." Photo by VnExpress/Hanh Pham.

"My life was transformed because of North Korea," Thuyet told VnExpress in his spacious home of over 100 square meters, a high-class apartment building in the heart of Hanoi.

In 1989, just a few years after Vietnam opened its doors to the world, Thuyet worked as an interpreter for South Korean garment processing enterprises, besides his main job as a chemical engineer.

"At that time, $250 per month was a huge sum," Thuyet said. Later, he was promoted as manager in a South Korean factory with a monthly salary of several thousand dollars, supervised 5,000 workers.

"Thanks to North Korea, now that I’m old, I can not only take care of myself but also help my children", he said.

"I have two homelands. North Korea is my second home. Their affection for us was very deep," Tuc said. Reacting to the Trump-Kim summit frenzy, he said, "seeing that the two countries are getting closer and closer to peace, I feel really happy."