Love sans frontiers

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Vietnamese man waits to be united with North Korean love for three decades

Pham Ngoc Canh and Ri Yong-hui first met in 1971 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photos: Phan Hau

The sight of a grey-haired Vietnamese man walking hand in hand with his wife, a small woman from North Korea, has become familiar to residents of the Thanh Cong residential quarter of Hanoi.

Not many know that the made-for-each-other couple had to wait for over 30 years a lifetime for normal people, and aeons for those in love to be able to spend their days together.

For 23-year-old Pham Ngoc Canh who had arrived in North Korea to study chemistry in 1971, it was love at first sight. Ri Yong-hui, 24, was working in a glass-enclosed laboratory in the town of Hamhung, outside Pyongyang.

"My first thought was it would be wonderful if she were my wife," he recalled. At that time, North Korea strictly banned contact between their citizens and foreigners. They exchanged notes and met in secret.

Every weekend, Canh took several bus rides and walked to visit Ri's house, where she lived with her mother, about 15 kilometers far from his school. They had happy days until Canh's scholarship ended, and he returned to Vietnam in 1973.

They didn't dare to ask permission from governments to marry, Canh said. "I thought it was impossible at that time. We cried when thinking about leaving each other."

Canh advised Ri to find another man to marry, because time passes so quickly, but in his heart, he hoped this would never happen.

Love survives despite separation

After he left, Ri felt sick for a month, and even attempted suicide. Her mother helped the pair keep in touch. As years went by neither got married, and kept exchanging love letters in Korean.

Their love continued to be a secret even when after Canh returned to Vietnam. All of Canh's letters were sent to Ri under the name of her mother.

Ri worked in a fertilizer plant, while Canh found a job with a state institute in Hanoi. Canh founded the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship Association, and worked as a cycling team coach, and a translator for two North Korean taekwondo coaches.

As a translator for sports teams, he visited North Korea and met his sweetheart in 1978 and 1982. At the end of that visit, Ri gave Canh a letter which said the time they had together was too short. "I will dream of you tonight. Will you dream of me too?"

Canh has saved all of Ri's precious letters until now, but she was forced to burn his. If the letters were somehow exposed, she would be punished.

In 1992, Canh visited North Korea with a taekwondo delegation, but could not meet her. In her last letter in 1992, Ri said: "Years have passed and we have become old, but our love is forever young."

For Canh, there were times of desperation when he was told that Ri had married or died. But he refused to believe that he lost his love.

Happy ending

In early 1990s, Canh began to take action to unite with his sweetheart. He took over 40 love letters spanning almost 20 years to the North Korean Embassy in Hanoi and appealed for help, but failed.

The happy couple at their home in Hanoi

In May 2002, Canh learnt that Vietnamese president Tran Duc Luong would visit North Korea. Through contacts of his father, a retired diplomat, he wrote to the president and the foreign minister, appealing for help.

President Luong agreed to deal with the case.

After a few months, he received permission from the North Korean authorities to marry Ri. Quickly preparing everything needed for the trip, Canh rushed to North Korea. In their 50s, they met in September 2002, and held a wedding ceremony in Hanoi with 700 people in attendance.

Canh said he was not surprised to get the permission. "It was what I have waited for, for so many years."

Now, in their 60s, they couple in a modest flat in Hanoi. Every day, he goes to work as vice chairman of the Hanoi Cycling-Sport Federation, while she teaches Korean.

Canh has taken his wife to all beautiful sites in Vietnam, including Ha Long Bay in the north, Nha Trang in the central region and Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

After living in Vietnam for nearly 10 years, the North Korean woman now can speak a little Vietnamese and cook some Vietnamese food.

She is now used to living here, although it is very different from the place she was born and grew up in.

"I am very happy. Life here is very good," she said. "It is all possible because of Canh."

Canh had just one thing to say: "My feelings have remained the same, unchanged."

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