Prominent no photography signs. Poorly hidden cameras. A potentially bugged air conditioner.
These aren’t the things you notice walking into most restaurants, but Pyongyang restaurant isn’t most restaurants. No, this is an establishment owned and operated by a country: North Korea.
There’s a lot we don’t know about North Korea, seeing as it’s the world’s most secretive state and a pariah in the international arena. This veil of mystery makes the country interesting as its human nature to want to peak behind any curtain, which is why I decided to visit Pyongyang restaurant.
Hanoi isn’t the only one housing a North Korean eatery. In fact, there are about 130 Pyongyang restaurants across Asia, with most located near China’s border with North Korea. Vietnam is home to three of the franchises, with branches in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City alongside the Hanoi version at 28 Nguyen Thi Dinh Street, Cau Giay District.
Run by a North Korean state-owned company, the restaurants serve a few purposes for the hermit kingdom. The business model was launched in 1990s to provide foreign currency, with the regime struggling to pay for imports from China.
As foreign travel is off limits for most North Koreans, the mostly female staff are supposedly selected from well-off families that are fiercely loyal to the regime. Visiting a Pyongyang restaurant becomes even more troubling when considering workers in one branch risked life and limb to escape their jobs. In April last year reports surfaced of the entire staff of a Pyongyang restaurant in China defecting to South Korea. Xinhua News Agency, (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/22/c_135303569.htm ) among others, reported 13 workers fled to South Korea, a move which can lead to dire consequences for a defector’s family.
From the outside, Hanoi’s Pyongyang restaurant looks like any other Korean joint in the city. The restaurant has a large, blue neon sign outside in Korean, a common site in this part of the city.
As my partner Amanda and I approached the entrance, we were greeted by giggling. Two waitresses stood just outside the door welcomed us, laughing playfully as they ushered us inside. The schoolgirl giggling routine seems to be an unsubtle ploy to lure in the large groups of South Korean men.
As we took our seats the unique features of a restaurant designed to fund a totalitarian communist regime began to stand out. There were ‘no photography’ signs everywhere, patriotic music spilled out of the speakers and pictures of brutalist architecture adorned the menus.
The first North Korean flag I noticed was a badge fixed on our waitress Ri Yeon Hui’s blouse. Ri, like all the waitresses, was a young, attractive woman who smiled or laughed at everything we said, whether she understood it or not. She told us she had worked there for a year, before proceeding to ask where we were from, like many young people in Asia do to westerners.
While I was busy checking the table for bugs, Amanda ordered us some kimchi pancake, dumplings, ribs and Pyongyang cold noodles.
Each serving was huge and despite the waitresses’ being focused on keeping two large groups of Korean men happy, the food came out fast. Our dumplings and pancake arrived first and were duly scoffed, the kimchi on the pancake in particular was a spicy, crunchy delight.
The second half of our meal was less impressive, as while the ribs were cooked to perfection I couldn’t get on board with cold noodles. We were almost finished when the speakers by the stage in the centre of the restaurant roared into life. The entertainment was about to begin.
While we were busy eating, Ri had begun fiddling with a keyboard on the stage. Once the music began we turned to see her with two other waitresses, stood in front of the red backdrop with more lights than a tasteless Christmas display surrounding the stage.
Over the next 30 minutes Ri played keyboard accompanied by other waitresses who sang, danced and played guitars and drums. There were even multiple costume changes, with a small changing room in the corner of the room allowing the women to switch into bright yellow and blue Joseon-ots, traditional North Korean dress.
The tightly choreographed performance was gripping, with each waitress well-versed in her role. One drum solo in particular stood out, with the young woman bashing a sideways drums maniacally. Other patrons took the opportunity to buy flowers for VND200,000 to present to the performers and pose for pictures.
The routine ended with a nod to Vietnam, North Korea’s brother in socialism. The waitresses finished with a stirring performance of a song I hear often, but only know by its refrain of ‘Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!’
After a round of applause for some of the most captivating live music I’ve heard in Vietnam, we paid the bill and headed into the night, with perhaps less patriotism stirred in our hearts than other customers.
The nuclear missile-sized elephant in the room that is this article has to be discussed: should you patronise a restaurant that funds North Korea?
There are powerful arguments for steering clear. I would argue that we make morally questionable decisions like eating in Pyongyang restaurant every day; the only difference is the consequences of these decisions are less obvious.
Wherever you live, the tax you pay will inevitably go towards causes you may not support. Whether it funds bombing campaigns, destroys the environment or pays the President’s salary, we all indirectly support the unsavoury.
Of course it’s a personal decision, but I think Pyongyang restaurant is worth a visit to sate some curiosity. We live in a capitalist world where consuming almost anything is morally questionably, ethical consumption is almost impossible.
Perhaps communism and kimchi is the way forward. Or perhaps I was brainwashed by Ri’s patriotic performance.