Reflections on tourism in Vietnam and North Korea

There were a few simple reasons why I chose to visit Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi for my summer vacation. Flights and accommodation were cheap, and August is always less popular for tourists due to the rainy season.

Overall satisfaction with travel experiences can be influenced by prior expectations and the perception of value for money. I had some gripes with the overpriced fares that the taxi drivers charged in Vietnam, and ended up installing the car-ride services Uber and Grab, which are popular in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Uber does not operate in Vietnam and Grab has a few issues, one of the more noticeable being that drivers cannot accurately pinpoint where to pick up their customers.

Hotels in Vietnam can be very cheap at about US $10 per night. But the one I stayed at had poor service, and closed its doors late at night (which once left me waiting outside the doors for around 30 minutes). And the showers were located outside my room, which was a rather unexpected arrangement.

But the places I visited during the trip were vibrant with history and culture, and I saw breathtakingly beautiful views which included a cruise in Halong Bay, Hoangiem Lake, Sungyosep Cathedral, the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Hoa Lo Prison, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Thang Long Theatre, and the Ho Chi Min Museum.  

My impression of Hanoi was continually reshaped during the trip as I learned about Vietnam’s culture and the country’s tumultuous history.

The most impressive experience for me was the atmosphere in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Inside the museum, which was one big art space, was the “mirror room” that described the history of international communism, as well as memorabilia that reflected Vietnam’s contemporary history.

Something I found interesting was that in the official photos, portraits of Marx and Lenin were present at all events that Ho Chi Minh attended. This is perhaps one difference Vietnam has with other countries like the USSR under Stalin, Mao Zedong’s China and the Kim clan’s North Korea, which all followed their own brand of nationalistic ruling ideologies.

However, I was less impressed with the pictures and the books glorifying him in the museum shop on the first floor. While Ho was undoubtedly a great leader, the portraits, paintings and books reflecting on his achievements appear to exaggerate history.

Similarly, North Korea has various organizations and enterprises dealing with the glorification of the Kim family, including the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Historic Site Memorabilia Factory established in 2016. But tourists are likely to be more interested in buying memorabilia more widely relevant to the places they visit, rather than political propaganda pieces. North Korea should consider diversifying the souvenirs available at its tourist sites.

More importantly, North Korea’s tourism bodies need to ensure they can attract tourists in the first place. The Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone, Pyongyang, the natural sights of the Kaesong area, and other notable locations could be transformed into internationally-renowned tourist sites. They are also close to each other, which means tourists can be offered affordable travel packages.

Unfortunately for tourists who are planning trips on a small budget, North Korea lacks quality hotels and options to choose from. Many of the restaurants specifically designated for tourists are too expensive. More importantly, South Korean tourists in particular may feel a bit restricted when they realize they cannot travel freely in the country.

The two Koreas have announced they will herald an “era of peace” on the Korean peninsula, but it’s unclear whether the regime will make meaningful changes to accommodate South Korean tourists. North Korea first needs to properly understand the nature of the market if it wants to become a popular tourist destination.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.