Friday, 11 November 2011

Vietnam hearts Korea

A friend of ours met his girlfriend on a plane. To me this is, first and foremost, astonishing. Who is in any fit state to woo during air travel? Not me. I have to focus all my attention on an unwavering vigilance against any unusual sounds or other indications that we’re about to find ourselves in an episode of Air Crash Investigation.  

So when I heard him tell the story of finding love in the window seat, all I could think of was “BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!” But a Vietnamese girl also listening intently to the tale replied breathlessly, “That is the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard! It’s just like a Korean movie!!!”

To the Vietnamese, Korea represents the highest possible pinnacle of romance. For this reason there is a secluded street near West Lake in Hanoi which is known as “Korea Street”. Of an evening young lovers go there on their motorbikes to pash under the stars, gaze out across the water, and paint romantic messages on the road:
Do they paint messages of love and devotion on roads in Korea? I don’t know. But it seems like the kind of romantic thing that Koreans would be all in favour of.

In Vietnam, as in many other Korea-loving countries throughout Asia, Korean stars dominate the cinema, the airwaves and the tabletops:
Which is much better than the possible alternatives:

Vietnamese television seems to consist almost entirely of Korean soap operas, dubbed using a single, emotionless female voice-over for all the characters. It doesn’t matter that she’s emotionless because there’s more than enough overwrought drama onscreen to make up for it.

According to The Economist, the rags-to-riches storylines of these dramas are “able to speak directly to audiences who have lived the Asian economic boom of the past two decades. Popular characters often abandon monotonous middle-class jobs to seek fame, or a “dream job”—perhaps suggesting that many Asians feel dissatisfied with their careers, despite the prosperity that has come with growth.”

Whatevs. It’s clearly all about the hair:
The Vietnamese news media is always concerned about what crazy hijinks the youth are up to lately, so naturally, they’re concerned about Korea. According to Dân Trí, a newspaper with really amazing columnists:

“Girls and boys try their best to reproduce love scenes they've seen in Korean movies. This influence has penetrated so deep into the national psyche that it has influenced the sacred Vietnamese wedding. Young couples now often opt to take their wedding photos dressed in Korean fashion. Korean restaurants in Hanoi, such as Sochu, Cook and Cook and Han Kanh offer young people a chance to pretend not to be Vietnamese for an hour or two. Although the "Korean Wave" may be immensely popular and satisfying for the youth, this cultural invasion, if it continues to grow, could pose a threat to Vietnamese identity.”
Vietnamese singers apparently pretending not to be Vietnamese by impersonating K-Pop stars. Because Vietnamese pop stars would never – I repeat, never – wear berets and shiny white leggings.

While Korea is busy exporting its hair-dos to Vietnam, Vietnam is busy exporting its brides to Korea. Before I moved here, it didn’t occur to me that the biggest market for Asian mail-order brides would actually be other Asians, but so it is, apparently “because fewer women in their homelands are willing to wed and take on a traditional role”.

Marriage brokers send more Vietnamese women to South Korea than to any other country. And what happens to these lucky brides who get to go to the most romantic country in the whole wide world? Well, apart from getting stabbed, beaten, imprisoned, enslaved, discriminated against, sexually assaulted, or matched with mentally ill, poor, violent, or alcoholic husbands, they’re no doubt living the rags-to-riches tales as played out on the Korean soapies.

Not to be outdone by its mortal southern enemy, North Korea has wowed Vietnam with an export of its own, in the form of Hanoi’s Pyongyang Restaurant:
The restaurant is part of a North Korean chain found in China and a few southeast Asian countries, and reportedly controlled by Bureau 39, the "money making" (and money-laundering) arm of the Korean Workers' Party. These restaurants are apparently forced to make annual payments of between $10,000 and $30,000 back to the DPRK government, “but if there's even a small default or lack of results, then the threat of evacuation is given.”

This would explain why the waitresses at Pyongyang Hanoi are extremely keen to upsell you to larger and more expensive dishes. Actually, “upsell” doesn’t really cover it. It’s more like an offer you can't refuse:

Customer: I would like this dish here please.
Waitress: No, you will have this other larger and more expensive dish.
Umm, but I don’t want that much kim chi.

The waitresses are apparently specially chosen by the North Korean regime for this privilege of working overseas, and are strictly screened beforehand for their patriotism and loyalty, to prevent defection. It’s hard to dine at Pyongyang without feeling anxious about the lives of the staff, and what happens to your money after you’ve paid for your super-sized plate of kim chi. You yearn for the soothing tones of some guilt-free South Korean K-Pop to assuage your conscience.

And because the North Korean government can read your mind (and probably this blog: Hello! Or should I say: 안녕! ), at that very moment the waitresses put away their pads and pens and this happens:

Then the song finishes, and they go back to upselling to save their lives. 


  1. The "threat of evacuation" - that sounds really sinister. Or, what you're faced with after eating at Taco Bell.

    Vietnam's obsession with Korea has amazed me ever since I started teaching - all of my students know what kimchi and bimbab are, and those horrid Kpop bands like Big Bang and Super Junior are gods to them. Fun fact: South Korea is also the creator of the most annoying tourism ad ever:

  2. Damn South Koreans and their poisonous reactionary capitalist propagandas masquerading as halcyon tinged soapy tear jerkers and suspiciously androgynous boyband's sing songs shall cease and desist corrupting my Vietnamese compatriots' collective psyche, the Central Committee of Thought Directive of the Communist Party of Vietnam will see to it.

  3. Is it weird that in my mind I can see Nathan wearing EXACTLY what the guys in that Korean movie photo are wearing? The clothes, not the hair, I mean.

    Simon (formerly of rhino (RIP))

  4. I did find it slightly disturbing that Seoul Airport has scantily-dressed teenage K-Pop music videos blaring out of every available tv screen. The Asian businessmen wolfing down their noodles didn't even seem to notice. National export.

  5. Michael: That's not a tourism ad, that's a work of art! I'm flying to Seoul immediately. BOOM BOOM BOOM. I guess it's pretty tough being the South Korean Tourist Board when North Korea's slogan is the irrefutably awesome "North Korea is Best Korea".

    Robert: I agree. It's extremely concerning. Those sweeping fringes seem innocent enough at first, but then next thing you know, your whole nation is addicted to Choco Pies and Lotteria.

    Simon: No, that's not weird. Unless you're imagining him in the pink dress, in which case it is weird. Also, the rhino's not dead. We found some baby rhino footprints in our bath just now.

    Lani: Apparently K-Pop is actually driving international tourism numbers for Korea, so it sounds like the airport is right on target. And now you're trying to pretend that you DIDN'T go to Korea for the K-Pop, aren't you, Lani.

  6. Hey Tabitha,

    it's my second day in Hanoi and I am still in the culture-shock mood. But somehow reading your blog really enlighten my spirit :)

  7. I'm really glad to hear that! I hope everything goes well for you in Hanoi.

  8. Hi Tabitha,
    I am just dropping here by chance. I am a Ha Noi person and I was interested in your blog. I want to say something about the "Korea Wave" you've mentioned from an used-to-be Vietnamese student's perspective. When I was studying in my highschool, nearly all the girls in my school was affected by this "Korea" trend.They dressed like Korean celebrities, and their hair style was no more than a mess! 50% of girls in my school could remember the birth of dates of all the 12 members of a Korean music band. I want to say that not all the young in Vietnam like this trend. For me, I felt sick of them. It seems that they had nothing to do except chatting about Korean stuffs...
    PS: nice to meet you, I am not very good at English :p

  9. Nice to meet you too! I'm glad the pop bands I was into as a teenager didn't have 12 members. That sounds like a lot of work. And good on you for taking a one-man stand against K-Pop! I'm sure you're just ahead of the trend.

  10. You are a fear-of-flying type as well? I wonder about the rest of the family... ;p

  11. Datakid: Well, I didn't used to be at all, right up until a particularly death-defying experience in Bangladesh. Now I'm a big fan of Restavit. That stuff is amazing.

  12. @michael That clip is pretty staggering. And essentially a remake of this this clip with Mr Zoolander + Chums:

  13. The first thing that comes to my mind reading this: Don't post this on Dan Tri :P.

    I have a feeling whilst Vietnamese people can't deny that Vietnamese youth are more obsessed than healthy with the Korean waves, we won't be overly happy to hear it from *gasp* a foreigner.

    I have never got onto the Korean bandwagon, and have only watched about 2 Korean dramas but an evening of downloading K-Pop for my little sister probably meant that I died a little. But even then I do have to admit that though the songs contribute little in the way of music, they can be rather catchy and have a tendency to stick in your head.

  14. TheComicalHat: My god, you're totally correct.

    Hien: Thanks for your insightful comment, as always! I'll make sure to keep my thoughts on the Korean Wave to myself from now on! :)

  15. A thousand year ago, before the times of soap opera, junk muzak, canned romance, and bad hairstyles, there used to be a healthy and highly civilized 'Vietnamese Wave' in Korea, courtesy of two exiled Vietnamese princes. You might want to check it out:

    Too bad that no Korean prince come to Vietnam nowadays. Only farmers and psychos looking for Vietnamese brides. What a shame.

  16. So that restaurant does exist! I keep hearing about it and dismissing it as fiction.

  17. Evil: Hey, thanks for that link. Ly Long Tuong - what a guy! And on a white horse too...

    Sarita: Oh it's very real indeed! Very, very real.

  18. hey tabs - what on earth is britney doing on that tabletop exactly?? also, sbs have started playing a k-pop hits show on weekends. it seems the passion for korean romance is spreading. hope all is well! wx

  19. Hi,

    Living in Korea for the past nine months, I found this post extremely interesting to read. It's so funny to hear that Korean culture has been seeping into other Asian cultures, because before I came to Korea I was barely aware of things like K-pop and Korean movies.

    I also found it interesting that you should mention the idea of Vietnamese brides coming over to Korea to look for husbands. I came across a video recently called 'How To Get a Korean Boyfriend' (which you can view here: At first I thought it was made by two Korean girls, making a joke at Korean dating culture, but when I brought it up with my Korean friends they angrily told me that it was made by two Vietnamese girls, and that many Koreans are not happy about this.

    Korea has a widespread sentiment of looking down on SE Asian countries, and I wonder how well the Vietnamese brides fare when they come over to Korea looking for love? I somehow doubt that they are met with the same appreciation as the Vietnamese have for Koreans.

    1. Actually, the two girls in the video are Filipinos, not Vietnameses: the names and their facial features are dead giveaways.

  20. Wendy: Every time I see that Britney photo I immediately avert my eyes, so who knows what she's up to there. And good old SBS: always head of the game!

    Natalie: Thanks for some Korean perspective! BTW at least one of the girls in that video is Filipina, judging from her blog, so it's definitely not two Vietnamese girls. And you can follow some of the links in my blog post to see how some of the Vietnamese brides fare in Korea (not very well unfortunately!).

  21. Interestingly I read this article some weeks ago, really enjoyed your writing as usual and especially liked the hilarious restaurant exchange that resulted in a humongous kim-chi plate.

    2 idle weekends youtube-ing at home later and I am now a dedicated SNSD/ Girls' Generation fan, who might as well be the epitome of the current worldwide invasion of the K-pop wave. Clips of fans in Paris and New York singing along to their song in Korean with complete fluency (and possibly thorough understanding of the lyrics) completely overthrew me. Having listened mostly to American and Western alterntive music all my life, my SNSD fandom is not exactly musical. But I can see how their appeal has grown so successfully and exponentially: they are perfectly packaged entertainers complete with both pretty faces and long legs. Also from my personal point of view, it is fascinating to observe the K-pop industry as it is no doubt the model that the Vietnamese music industry is now trying to replicate.

    But of course much more is left to debate about the merit and the cultural impact of the kind of screaming, fainting, crying, waiting-6-hours-to-meticulously-film-idols-on-handheld-cam kind of fandom. Strategic corporate-produced entertainment often leads to far-fetched, potentially deluded, hope about life's possibilities. The unfortunate fate of exported Vietnamese brides that you mentioned is a sad living proof.

  22. Scrbbld: Thanks for your comment! I feel proud that I might have, in some way, earned K-Pop one more much-needed fan. And yes, there's a lot to admire about the K-Pop machine in pure marketing and merchandising terms. It makes the Western boybands look like grungy, authentic artistes by comparison.

  23. Hello Tabitha, I was surfing the net for some Korean restaurants when my search led me to your blog. Some Angel got me here for sure..You see I just came in Hanoi last June and until now I can't say I have adapted to the Vietnamese way of life.
    And since I came here I started to write a blog about my life here but I got confused so I think I made a mess on my page.(^^)
    When I read through your posts I felt like 'wow, I'm not alone experiencing all those new stuffs..well I wasn't the first though..
    I almost want to give up staying in Hanoi, well, in Vietnam generally. I am a woman full of complains about this place. I once asked,what's wrong with this place?? Then I realize there isn't anything wrong's just me. I've never been so alone, I couldn't even share my everyday thoughts to anyone.
    But then again, I have to face that I am here now, and that I am living the expat life.(that word feels weird). I am inspired by the way you are fascinated of Vietnamese life.
    You got me to write about Hanoi again,.THANKS
    GREAT BLOG by the way!

  24. Hi oWy, thanks for your comment and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. You're definitely not alone in finding adapting to living in Hanoi difficult. We've been through more than our fair share of ups and downs too. I think writing about it, staying curious, and keeping your sense of humour are the key to more and more ups and less and less downs. Good luck!

  25. is restavit that good for fear of flying? I've spent thousands and tryed everything,eventually restavit and it is good. I am going to try the max dose of 50mg this weekend to see if it has the desired effect...

  26. Hmm, well, I'm definitely not qualified to give medical advice! For me, I find it's pretty effective given it's just over-the-counter medication; one tablet is enough to knock me out for nine hours or so. Good luck!

  27. To be honest, a lot of the "Korean fashion" is actually influenced from Japan and the western world.... a lot of Korean entertainment and fashion come from influences of the west. And as a Vietnamese, not everyone is obsessed with Korean stuff or "Korean romance". It is quite popular among the younger kids in Vietnam but for those 18 and older, we're not that into Korean stuff although a lot of Vietnamese people do tend to compare things like pretty streets, events, etc. to other countries like China, Japan, Korea, etc. I do agree that this Korean Wave is causing a threat to our Vietnamese identity among younger generations. I feel that the younger generation needs to feel more proud of their roots, their culture, and support the local Vietnamese artists. It's okay to be open to other cultures but don't forget your own culture. I wouldn't mind Korean entertainment but over the years, the arrogant behavior Koreans have cause me to take even less interest in their culture and entertainment. I have no problem with seeing/watching entertainment from other countries because I feel I actually enjoy those because I'm not obligated to. Lots of Korean people and some other Asian people are pushy when it comes to K-drama, Kpop, etc. etc. Just my thoughts on this. Thanks for sharing your blog. :)


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