North Korean Dining
Vang Vieng is a river-side town in central Laos, that serves as a rest stop for tourists crossing overland from the capital Vientiane to the northern city of Luang Prabang. Scenic backdrops, an abundance of water sports, raunchy free-flow parties — it’s got everything you’d expect from a tropical tourism destination; well, everything except a lone North Korean restaurant: state-operated franchise abroad that help generate foreign currency for the North Korean regime. There are approximately 130 of such restaurants across Asia and Russia and beyond, with most located in China.
It was after 8 p.m. and my friends, Jess and Ave, laid in the room snoozing after a long day motorbiking around town. With nothing better to do, I opened up Google Maps and began looking around for a restaurant to venture to for dinner before we called it a day. Lazily lying in bed in the dim room, something caught my eye and I zoomed in — Pyongyang Restaurant Vang Vieng. I sat up immediately as gourmet memories from my visit to North Korea 4 years ago filled my mind — neatly arranged banchan (side dishes) of seasoned bean sprouts, stir-fried fish cake, spicy radish with a side of rice, and let’s not forget the fragrant barley scent of North Korean brewed beer.
“The food is not very good, but the people who serve and perform are very pretty.”
“Tsunami moment of tearful impression “I wish for the unification” when I sang, tears dropping (bad Google translation of Korean),” the Google reviews read.
I gave my friends five more minutes of snooze time before I woke them up to tell them my find. Jess, being a Korean pop culture fanatic, and Ave, who doesn’t know anything about North Korea outside of American mainstream media, were just as excited as I was about our forthcoming dinner plan.
Located within a large shack-like structure within a short alley, the place was easy to pass at night, with nothing to distinguish it aside from a poster sign perched in front of the alleyway that printed the name of the restaurant in Lao, Chinese, and English. The opening and closing time faded into the background of the poster.
It was 9 p.m. when we arrived, and the shack didn’t seem to have any activities inside; it didn’t even look like a restaurant. “It might have shut down,” I murmured, though I kept walking forward determined to check out the strange shack-like structure.
Posters and artworks of North Korea decorated the walls of the staircase that led up to the second floor and we breathed a sigh of relief — it’s the right place.
As I warily pushed the glass door, I found inside a large room with twenty or so round-tables draped in red tablecloths under rows of glaring florescent lights. Not a single soul was in the room.
Suddenly, a waitress, dressed in a two-piece dress in the same color as the tablecloths, came out from the backroom. She was a perfect representation of traditional Asian beauty — tall, slim, pale-skinned with delicate facial features and long dark hair.
She seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see her. Before either one of us spoke, I rose my arms and held up three fingers. She nodded gently and guided the three of us to a table by the window. After placing the menu in front of us, she nonchalantly walked away and disappeared from view once more. There were no cheerful greetings, chit chat, nor recommendations.
My friends and I spoke in hushed voices, debating our order choices, almost as if we weren’t supposed to be there. Soft music filled the space playing various Korean or Chinese song melodies. Familiar tones of Kam-sa-ham-ni-da flowed into my ear: a song I heard almost every day in North Korea. We’d missed the daily cultural performances at 7 p.m. but were glad that the restaurant was still open for food.
Starved as we were, we plowed through the menu and opted for everything from mul naengmyeon (Korean cold noodles), kimchijeon (kimchi pancakes), japchae (stir-fried glass noodles), to tteobokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes). Menu items averaged to be about US$6–7 each, which was fair.
We waited patiently for the waitress to come back and take our order. She finally came moments after. When we asked her questions in English, she looked to us with an expression of charming puzzled-ness. We realized that she didn’t speak much English.
She smiled and said a few words of apology in Korean.
That’s when we had to turn to Jess as our point of communication: she picked up quite a bit of Korean from binge-watching Korean dramas and was able to communicate basic phrases.
There was a bit of humor to it all as we watched Jess struggle to find the right words to form complete sentences but applauded her for utilizing her language skills in the strangest of circumstances.
After we ordered all the dishes, I picked up the liquor menu and wondered out loud why there weren’t any beer options.
Jess translated, and our waitress proceeded to ask which beer I would like.
“Is there any beer from North Korea here?” I asked.
“Yes, Taedonggang, but it is more expensive — US$10.”
My eyes widened. That’s ten times more expensive than Lao beer and close to New York beer prices on a night out. I hesitated, but after debating it over with Jess and Ave, we decided we might as well since we’re already here.
“Sure, ten dollars,” I nodded to her.
She smiled and walked away.
“You can tell that she’s from North Korea by her ascent and some of the words she used,” Jess told us, “her tone of language is more formal than that of South Koreans.”
Our beer came right away, and I sipped on it as I focused my attention on observing my surroundings.
The interior of the room was decorated with tacky landscape posters. Surprisingly, there were no portraits of the Kims hung anywhere on the wall — a common practice in most North Korean establishments — or any excessive displays of propaganda.
The propaganda, if it was intended to be, was much more subtle: a TV blared near the stage, and it appeared to feature a Youtube video where a young Westerner vlogged about his trip to North Korea, displaying positive images and friendly locals. I have yet to figure out who this particular youtuber is, though there is said to be others like him who are used for propaganda.
Just then, a group of young Korean men strolled in and naturally communicated with the waitress in Korean.
“I can tell from their accent that they’re from Seoul,” Jess whispered to me.
Then, I realized something quite incredible at that moment: North Korean restaurants like these were one of the few places where North and South Koreans can interact with one another.
I wondered what they must think of each other.
South Korea is a democracy while North Korea is an authoritarian state; South Korea has fully embraced Capitalism while North Korea stuck to their Communist roots; even their common tongue is no longer quite the same. Scholars state that as much as a third of everyday words used by the two countries are different. Due to American cultural influences, the daily Korean spoken by South Koreans have come to incorporate many English words (for example, ice cream is simply pronounced aiseukeulim).
Even so, both North and South Koreans I’ve spoken to have told me the same thing when I asked about their common ancestry, “we share the same blood and we are all Korean despite everything.”
Another waitress came out from the backroom and chitchatted with our waitress by the front desk.
I wondered what the lives of girls working in such North Korean establishments must be like. By standard, they were handpicked from the elite families in North Korean, not only for their loyalty to the party, but also for their beauty — they are, after all, the face of North Korea abroad. By regulations, they are not allowed to freely move about outside of the restaurants and live heavily controlled lives under the eyes of minders.
To go abroad was a privilege, but to remain non-tempted by the allures of the capitalist world and to ignore the status of their country — when they encounter so many wealthy South Koreans who may freely travel across borders — must be a challenge for any human being under such situation.
Sitting there at that restaurant, I was right at the intersection of two worlds that rarely crossed paths. The sense of marvel made up for the less than stellar dishes that, although filled my tummy, did not live up to my expectations.
For starters, there were no banchan (small side dishes), not even kimchi; the kimchi pancakes were way too oily, and the cold noodles had no flavor. Beggars can’t be pickers though. It was nearing 10 p.m. and we devoured everything.
As stuffed as I was, I still found myself gazing at the ice cream machine in the corner of the room. Curious to learn more about our hosts, I decided to use my longing for ice cream as an excuse to try to speak with them in Chinese — to get a sense of their foreign language skills — and to take a sneak peek into the mysterious backroom where they all disappeared into (It’s common for North Koreans who are sent abroad to learn Chinese and there were Chinese characters on the menu, so I thought I’d give it a try).
I slowly approached the dividing wall and peeked behind the curtains; that’s when I realized they had all changed into an identical sort of after-work clothing or were perhaps just trying out a new uniform. There were about 5 girls and they seemed startled to see me. There was also a man in the back kitchen arranging incoming supplies.
“qing wen you tian dian ma (Is there any desserts)? They stared at me blankly and murmured to each other in Korean. I asked again in English. More stares and murmurs. That’s when one of them decided to follow me outside as I pointed at the ice-cream machine.
“Oh no,” she smiled as she said and waved her hands, “break.” I smiled back and told her it’s okay and walked back to the table empty-handed.
“Well, I got my answer, they only speak Korean,” I told Jess and Ave.
There’s is no lack of South Korean tourists in Vang Vieng. Judging by the round-table set-up of the restaurant, most customers must have come in large tour groups. Jess explained that the popularity of this small riverside town with Korean tourists was largely attributed to a recent Korean reality show that featured celebrities traveling to the region. That figures why a stroll through the Vang Vieng night market can feel like Korean town.
As we got up to pay the bill, I implored Jess to ask our waitress how long she’s worked here and who owns the restaurant. Our waitress replied that she’s worked at the restaurant for two years and the business is a joint venture between North Korea and a Laotian businessman.
“The pretty waitress complimented me and said that my Korean was very good,” Jess beamed as she told us. We all laughed as we left.
Stepping out into the darkness once more, I looked back at the unassuming shed grateful for a thought-provoking dining experience.
Disclaimer: In this experience and my visit to North Korea, I was faced with the ethical dilemma of my actions contributing to the economy of an authoritarian regime that has little regard for its people — which I absolutely do not wish to support. I do believe, however, that such interactions play a key role in helping outsiders step away from the lens of mainstream media and humanize the North Korean people, putting people above politics. I also believe that a cash-strapped North Korean regime would not collapse, but rather, would increase its extortion of resources from its own people. Therefore, isolationism is not the solution for it hurts the people the most.