February 18, 2019 | 05:13 am PT

Stuff of legend: a Vietnamese-North Korean love story

A Vietnamese man and a North Korean woman waited for each other for decades, knowing they might never meet again.

Last Friday afternoon, in a cozy house in Hanoi’s Thanh Cong residential complex, Ri Young-hui and her husband Pham Ngoc Canh hurried about, preparing to attend a dinner at the North Korean embassy.

Canh, 69, has been a familiar guest at the embassy in Hanoi since the 1990s. 

He is the only Vietnamese man to marry a North Korean woman, but behind this simple fact is a very complicated, moving story of love overcoming all odds.

"I am currently the only Vietnamese ‘son-in-law’ of North Korea," Canh said, showing his invitation for the dinner.

Since North Korea does not allow its citizens to marry foreigners, Canh and Ri’s marriage could very easily have not happened. 

In 1967, Canh was among 200 Vietnamese students sent to North Korea to learn necessary skills to reconstruct the country after the war with the U.S.

Four years later, while he was doing an internship in a factory in the north of the country, he met Ri Young Hui, technician in a chemistry lab. 

For Canh, it was love at first sight.

Their first photo together taken in Spring 1971. Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Canh

Their first photo together taken in Spring 1971. Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Canh

Ri, a skinny girl with a gentle disposition, also showed affection for him, and their relationship began in secret.

On his return to Vietnam, Canh decided to leave his engineer’s position at the General Department of Chemicals, and moved to the Hanoi Department of Sports, where North Korean experts frequently taught Taekwondo. He did so with the faint hope of getting some news about the woman he loved.

In the initial days after his return, Canh wrote to Ri, but in the backdrop of some major political developments, they lost contact. 

At that time, both countries forbid citizens to marry foreigners. Any meeting had to take place in secret and keeping communications discreet was not easy. 

Later, Vietnam scrapped the rule about marrying foreigners, but North Korea retained it. 

In 1991, Canh initiated the establishment of a Vietnam-North Korea Friendship Club to connect people who had studied in North Korea.

A year later, he had the opportunity to return to North Korea for a sports tournament, during which he sent Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s leader then, two big paintings. Later, each of the Vietnamese sports team members received a gift from the president. 

Canh received a set of green cups which he cherishes to this day. But the gift also served to nurture his love.

During all the years that he pined for his live, Canh tried everything he could to facilitate the reunion, particularly prayers at the Tay Ho Temple, where he made offerings year after year. 

In the late 1990s, when North Korea suffered a serious drought and famine, Canh decided to raise rice donations to ease the suffering.

For many days, Canh wrote letters to each and every person in the Vietnam – North Korea Friendship Club. He posted letters to club members living in other provinces, and drove his bike to deliver the letters personally to those living in the city’s suburbs. 

Eventually, seven tons of rice were delivered to North Korea.

He also wrote three letters to the then North Korean President Kim Il-sung, confessing his love for Ri, and expressing his hope that he would allowed to marry her. 

Canh also sought help from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

When former President Tran Duc Luong and former Foreign Minister Pham Dy Nien went to North Korea in 2002, Canh sent yet another letter, asking for help in marrying his sweetheart. Their story was introduced in a section of the meeting.

Canh’s tireless efforts finally paid off. 

Seven months after the meeting, Canh was officially allow to marry Ri.

Pham Ngoc Canh (L) and Ri Young-hui at their wedding held in Hanoi on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Canh

Pham Ngoc Canh (L) and Ri Young-hui at their wedding held in Hanoi on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Canh

54 years old at the time, he ironed his suits, withdrew money from the bank to prepare some tea, wine and sweets, and to buy a pair of rings. Then he set off to marry the love of his life.

Transiting in Beijing, China, Canh bought a few more kilograms of beef and pork to cook some meals on their wedding day in Ri’s hometown.

The first time they met after three decades was also their wedding day at the Vienamese Embassy in North Korea. Canh’s fiancé was 55, and time had left wrinkles on her delicate face. She had used up her youth waiting for him.

"Looking at her, I said ‘We’ve been through a lot, right?" Canh said, recalling that important day. 

"My wife just nodded in tears."

Their second wedding was held on December 13, 2002 in Hanoi, with blessings from many friends, colleagues and representatives of the Foreign Ministry and North Korean ambassadors.

That day, everyone was happy for the couple, but Hoang Vinh Giang, Canh’s colleague and master of ceremonies at the wedding, was wistful.

"Perhaps many people shared my feelings. Both Canh and his wife were old and could not have children anymore. If only happiness had come to them sooner," Giang said.

Stuff of legend: a Vietnamese-North Korean love story - 2

Canh with the set of ceramic pots and cups given by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. Photo by VnExpress/Nhat Minh 

This is a regret that Canh shares, the only about his love life. He is the eldest child of a family of four children. Two of his sisters have married, and a 63-year-old sister with a special condition still lives with him. 

When he was younger, his father urged Canh many times to get married, but he would just smile, saying he could not find the right woman for him.

"When we got married, I was 54 and she was 55, so there was no question of us having a baby." 

However, as he looked at leaves falling from a tree in front of his house, Canh seemed to accept the bargain he had struck with life. 

"That's the price for what I tried and waited for years to get."