Talking Point A glimpse at Prague's secretive Vietnamese community

25-10-2004 | Rob Cameron

The Czech Republic boasts a large Vietnamese community, dating back to the days when the two countries were part of the Communist bloc. Today there are an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese here, the large majority of them working as market traders. The focal point of Prague's Vietnamese community is a huge open-air market known to Czechs as "Little Hanoi", and to Vietnamese as "Sapa", after an area of outstanding natural beauty in Vietnam. Rob Cameron was given a guided tour of Sapa by Mimi Nguyen, a 26-year-old student from Hanoi.

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Mimi NguyenMimi Nguyen We've come to a large grocery story now in the middle of Sapa, and there's a marvellous array of different kinds of Vietnamese vegetables and fruits and food, all sorts of things. Mimi, tell me about some of the things they have on sale here, some of these fruits and vegetables I don't think I even recognise. What are these for example?

"This one I think they call in English lychee."

Ah, lychees, of course.

"Yes, lychees. They import it from Vietnam. And this one is some kind of vegetable, and her name is Quo Qua, and this vegetable has a very strong taste, very very strong taste. But it's very good for your body, a lot of vitamins, some kind of gengseng. It's very good also for children, so Vietnamese and Chinese people love this. I will buy it."

In the back of the shop there's a woman cooking over a stove. Can you tell me what she's cooking?

"In Vietnamese we call it Banh Qun, it's some kind of rice pancake. And they put meat and black mushrooms. This is very typical Vietnamese food. We are going to taste this."

We're going to taste some now?

"Yes."

Great.

So the food has arrived Mimi, there's a plate of rice pancakes in front of us, and also three bowls of soup with what look like lumps of chicken in it. It's not chicken though is it?

"Actually the sauce is fish sauce."

Fish sauce

"Yes, and fish sauce is very typical sauce in Vietnam. And here is some kind of Vietnamese ham."

Fish sauce, or soup, with lumps of pork in it, and you eat that with the rice pancake.

"Yes, with the pancake."

And how do you eat a bowl of soup and pancakes with a pair of chopsticks?

"First you should take the pancake..."

Right, I'm going to try and hold the microphone in one hand and with a pair of chopsticks in the other pick up a pancake...I'm not very good at chopsticks so...right, OK, I've got one.

"And then you put it in the soup..."

OK, I'm dunking the pancake into the soup...

"Yes, but I think you need to do it like me because otherwise..."

...Yes, it's now dissolving...I'll try it though...mmmm....that's delicious!

But food is not all that the sprawling Sapa market has to offer homesick Vietnamese. Sapa also boasts several rental stores, offering Vietnamese magazines, films and music.

Who is this group Mimi?

"This is a new group, they're called The Vietnamese Long-Legs Women".

The group is called The Vietnamese Long-Legs Women? They do have extremely long legs, it has to be said. On the cover there are six young women, all of whom have very very long legs indeed. Are they any good?

"They should be, because they are new, so they need to show the quality of their band. I will ask her to put the CD of the Long-Legs Girls."

The manager, an economics graduate called Hung, explained to me why the shop is so popular.

"Here the Vietnamese community is quite large, and they come here to borrow some video, DVD and CD just to make them feel like in Vietnam. Because they are here in a foreign country, and they really miss home very much."

Vietnamese tearoom in Prague, photo: Tomas Tesar, ReflexVietnamese tearoom in Prague, photo: Tomas Tesar, Reflex And when they get really homesick, they book a flight back to Vietnam. Le Anh Hung is the deputy general director of a highly successful travel agents, catering not only for Vietnamese, but for people from all over Asia.

"We wanted to offer to the Vietnamese community a service, because the Vietnamese community is very closed, and they don't want to deal very much with Czech people, so we tried to offer a service, and it happened."

What kind of services do you offer?

"We offer flight tickets and tours."

Are all your customers Vietnamese, or do you get Czech clients as well?

"We also have Czech clients, and Chinese clients. Not only Vietnamese."

Tell me a bit, if you will, about your life here in the Czech Republic. Are you married, do you have children?

"Yes, I have two children, a boy and a girl, and I think we have a happy life here. We've been here more than 20 years, so we think this life here is acceptable for us."

Would you describe yourself as very well integrated into Czech society? Do you have Czech friends, do you go to Czech pubs, do you watch Czech films?

"Yes, of course. I have many Czech friends, and I can live here like a Czech person."

Have you had any bad experiences in this country?

"Yes. I personally have had some bad experiences. In 1991 I had a bad accident with racists, and I'll never forget it."

What happened?

"We were at a bus stop, and some Czech people beat us up."

Were you injured?

"Yes, I was hurt."

Did that experience change the way you look at the Czech Republic?

"I don't think so. It's only a small group of people, and the situation is better now."

You're a successful businessman, you're happy here, you have children you go to school here. Do you want to stay here? Can you see yourself living here for ever?

"I don't think so. I think one day we'll go home to Vietnam."

Why?

"Because I think Vietnam is my home."

And that's something you'll hear again and again speaking to Vietnamese in Prague, even those - like Mr Le - who've lived here for years and have become well integrated into Czech society: while they enjoy and value their life here in the Czech Republic, few want to stay here indefinitely. Most, it seems, are still planning - one day - to go home.

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