A recent visit by two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has provided a rare insight into the isolated nation.
To prepare for the trip to North Korea, a tour was booked via a travel agent in prefecture-level Dandong City, located in southeastern Liaoning Province of China.
The journalists and their tour group had to find their own way to the remote border city, which faces Sinuiju, North Korea, across the Yalu River.
This is the river that demarcates the Sino-North Korean border.
Everyone in the group counted on Hai, one of the members, for his competence in Chinese and vast experience in getting around China.
The group flew from Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi to Hong Kong with a seven-hour transit before flying to Beijing. This route saved the group nearly US$300 in fares on a direct flight to the Chinese capital offered by one Vietnamese airline.
They arrived at the airport in Beijing at almost midnight, and covered 40 kilometers by taxi before finally reaching their hotel at 1:00 am.
Early the following morning, the reporters found their own way to southern Beijing and bought train tickets for Dandong.
The train, which can travel up to 300 kilometers per hour, rumbled out of the station at 10:00 and reached Liaoning Province at dusk.
While the group were waiting to board the China-North Korea train the following morning, Sun, one tourism insider, urged that they delete any footage and photos of South Korea and state leaders of other countries, including Vietnam, before entering North Korea. This would ensure they would not have their devices confiscated.
Other behavior to avoid included not leaving the hotel at night alone, as this would be construed as spy activity, and taking photos in unpermitted places. This would result in them being deleted beyond repair, Sun added.
The journalists were also warned against posing questions to locals everywhere they went. According to Sun, around 100 holidaymakers, mostly Chinese nationals, travel to North Korea by train via Dandong each day.
Tourists like the Vietnamese group are rarely seen in the East Asian country.
Two minutes before departure, the China-North Korea train rumbled slowly past the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge on its way to North Korea.
The train slid its way into Sinuiju Station in P'yongan-pukto Province, North Korea.
The station is dilapidated, yet spacious and tranquil.
A few armed “comrades,” as people address one another in North Korea, stood solemnly in army uniforms at intervals of around 100 meters on the cement floor.
As the train drew to a complete stop, two officers boarded the train and collected passengers’ passports.
One of them then asked for visas.
This was a collective visa known as a “tourism card.”
On the card’s rear side was a photo of a Chinese woman, the tour leader, along with her own and nine other group members’ identity information and tour duration.
The group included six Vietnamese members, one mother and her child from Hong Kong and a married couple from Beijing.
After obtaining the visa card, the officers probed the cars meticulously, paying attention to electronic gadgets, particularly smartphones, computers as well as any printed publications.
One official checked every single photo and app on everyone’s smartphones.
One was forced to show all of their clothing items inside their suitcases. A number of objects were looked at closely.
After the two-hour search, a male officer held a stack of passports, shouting “Vietnam, Vietnam!” and delightedly handed them back to the group.
The train resumed its journey around midday.
Due to the deteriorating infrastructure, the train rolled by sluggishly at a speed of 60-70 km/h and caused a lot of noise.
The vehicle shook violently when it gained speed in certain places.
Tap water in the cars trickled and one could relieve themselves at restrooms designed to send the waste directly onto the tracks below.
The train wound its way through lush paddy fields bearing a striking resemblance to the rustic landscape of rural Vietnam, particularly the central region.
Locals were also growing dark green vegetables or beans around their fields.
Spontaneously formed markets offered a wide array of fruits, and seafood.
Surrounded by simple bike-repairing tools, some elderly men sat on the trails along the two fields, waiting for customers.
The rail route from the border to the capital of Pyongyang snakes through two distinct areas of terrain and soil conditions.
P'yongan-pukto Province boasts vast areas of wet rice dotted with narrow rivers.
By contrast, P'yongannam-do Province is home to low mountains and paddies of corn and cereal.
In each residential neighborhood, most houses are built in the same style and have a similar size and homogenous tiled roofs.
Dominant in each residential cluster is one tall structure filled with machinery and items.
The building is perhaps a gathering place for production, similar to the cooperative model adopted in Vietnam in days gone by.
Flat-roofed buildings, which may serve as schools, local committees or some government agencies, are also spotted around every five to seven residential clusters.