Recap/Commentary: The Amazing Race Vietnam 2019, Episode 9 – North Korea (!)

As a Filipino-American, it’s certainly not strange for me to enjoy foreign, especially Asian, entertainment. Even if it’s in a different language I may not understand, I’ve perfectly enjoyed everything from Korean music to Japanese anime to Thai drama. And I’ve also enjoyed The Amazing Race Vietnam even if I might not understand a single word the teams ever say.

But as a Filipino-American, it is very surreal and strange to be watching The Amazing Race Vietnam make the franchise-first visit to North Korea.

Yes. That North Korea.

North Korea has been one of, if not the most isolated country in the world. For decades, the country has been the source of nuclear provocation while tensions with South Korea continue to quietly simmer since the end of the Korean War. Presistent reports and first-hand accounts of human rights abuses accompany defectors who are lucky enough to not only escape from the country, but survive to tell their stories.

There have obviously been many developments in just the last few years. Namely, a more open dialogue between the two Koreas as well as the intriguing roller coaster of a relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But even so, the news that The Amazing Race would be Racing to North Korea for a Leg was still very shocking. Yes, it may be The Amazing Race Vietnam. But any foreign reality show deciding to film in the oft-called “hermit kingdom” will obviously be surprising and unexpected news.

Now certainly, Vietnam and North Korea have a far different relationship than, say, the Untied States and North Korea. A more friendly relationship, for sure. That’s one of the reasons Vietnam hosted the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi last February.

But as someone from the outside looking in, what other possible way can you come into this historic and unprecedented episode of The Amazing Race Vietnam than with an awestruck, critical and suspicious eye. The Amazing Race format is a usually simple and straightforward reality competition program. One that can definitely be eye-opening and enlightening.

But when you take that simple concept and bring it to North Korea, with all the extra knowledge of the country, it results in a very surreal viewing experience.

You can watch the episode (and other episodes of The Amazing Race Vietnam) here:

The actual tasks in this Pyongyang Leg weren’t all that different from a typical Amazing Race Leg. The teams learning traditional Korean pungmul dances or having to write in Korean Hangul are tasks you could easily see in a hypothetical Leg staged south of the DMZ.

But the rest of the Leg highlighted possibly everything you might expect from a foreign television program filming in Pyongyang.

The episode immediately starts off awkward and uncomfortable. You just know something is off, even if you didn’t know they were traveling to North Korea.

First, the show surprises teams at their hotel rooms with a mysterious clue telling them to head to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. They then get a clue telling them simply to fly to Beijing. And it was only at the airport in Beijing where teams were shocked to learn they would be flying to Pyongyang, North Korea.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, teams were loaded onto a bus after changing out of their Race clothes and into formal suits and Vietnamese áo dàis. And as it turned out, it was so teams and host Song Luân could honor former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by placing flowers and bowing in front of their huge statues.

Teams then magically appeared at the Korean Stamp Museum where they had to search for a commemorative stamp depicting the friendship between North Korea and Vietnam.

Next were the tasks having teams learn and perform traditional Korean pungmul dances and recreating the text of a poem written in the Korean alphabet, Hangul.

(There was also an unaired task involving identifying local craft beers.)

Ther were no Detours or Road Blocks on this Leg of the Race. And rarely, if ever, did you see teams frantically running around Pyongyang like they would be in perhaps Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi or almost any other capital city in the world.

Throughout the episode, there were well-dressed Korean men in suits almost ominously lingering around in the background. I assume they were the teams’ North Korean handlers carefully keeping watch over them and the production.

Apparently because of certain (expected) rules in North Korea, teams would be timed at each task instead of the usual “Get to the Pit Stop the fastest to avoid elimination.”

While it was a welcome and not-surprising Non-Elimination Leg (especially considering the restrictive design and logistics of the Leg), the Leg and episode played out like how one would expect anything international media-related would play out. It was carefully orchestrated, highly structured and with zero chance for anything to go off-script.

Interestingly enough, there have been worse, less competitive and uncreative Legs of The Amazing Race around the world than this one. But it really is difficult not to come in to this episode without thinking about everything you may have ever heard about North Korea.

This almost wasn’t an Amazing Race Leg, so much as it was another one of those shows North Korea has been known to stage for international media. The happy people dancing in the square. The fancy mountain resort. Things that contradict the nuclear provocation or the very real hunger and oppression outside of the capital city.

There are obviously places in the world that are friendlier to certain countries than others. Put simply, there are countries other Amazing Race franchises can easily go to that The Amazing Race US would likely never go to. Like TAR Australia Racing to Cuba or Israel. Or TAR Asia and Australia Racing 10 or 11 teams in the Philippines when TARUS (inexplicably) wouldn’t dare Race more than four teams there at a time.

The Amazing Race Vietnam‘s visit to North Korea surprised even the teams. (And the show obviously kept it a secret to them until the very last minute.) The Leg was highly restrictive. The episode carefully orchestrated.

What was The Amazing Race Vietnam‘s goal in visiting North Korea for their one international Leg this year? To push the envelope? To display the good relationship between the two countries? Or simply just because they could?

But perhaps it takes something like The Amazing Race to bring light to the very real situations in our world today.

I’m certainly not suggesting TARUS fly to North Korea next season. But watching this episode of The Amazing Race Vietnam can remind anyone watching of the difficult situation on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, remind everyone that the world really is a big place. And whether or not it comes from a reality show, it is important to keep an open mind, but also to be aware and informed.

As an Amazing Race Leg, it was very lackluster with competition at a bare minimum. As a viewing experience, it was a very blunt and stark reminder of our world today.

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