Sapa in Prague. A gate for the Vietnamese into the Czech society. Or vice versa?

In Czechia, Vietnamese immigrants managed to establish one of the largest Vietnamese Diaspora in the world. While scattered all around the country, the cultural and commercial centre of Sapa in Prague plays a key role for them acting as a refuge, providing help, opportunities and jobs. Although the Czech majority currently perceive it with suspicion, Sapa could prove to be a gateway, giving Czech citizens access to and educating them about Vietnamese culture and traditions.

Photo: Archive T.Freidingerová


With its approximately 65,000 inhabitants of Vietnamese origin (0.65 % of the total Czech population), Czechia ranks 12th out of the 40 countries where the Vietnamese reside. When one looks at the share of Vietnamese compared to total population Czechia ranks fourth in the world – or third really, if we do not count Cambodia, where the Vietnamese are a historical ethnic minority.

Immigration of the Vietnamese to Czechoslovakia, or Czechia respectively, started in the 1950’s, mostly as a result of Vietnam’s split along ideological lines: pro-Western Southern Vietnam and pro-Eastern Northern Vietnam. The first of them, minors – mostly the orphans of Northern-Vietnamese soldiers – came in 1956. 1 However, just like the subsequent groups of Vietnamese arriving during the socialist era, they came for only a limited period of time.

The immigration of adults, mainly trainees, apprentices and workers began in the 1960s, when a couple hundred Vietnamese arrived. Nevertheless, this was just the beginning of a further collaboration between two socialist countries that was followed by the arrival of thousands of predominantly manual guest workers. So, while there were only 2,100 Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia between 1967 and 1974, there were nearly 35,000 of them later, between 1980 and 1983. 2 During the socialist period, the Vietnamese had almost no opportunities to settle, become citizens or invite their relatives. Moreover, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, they were expected to return to Vietnam, but some of them did manage to stay even after 1990 and invite their relatives and friends.

Since the establishment of the Czech Republic in 1993, the number of registered foreigners with Vietnamese citizenship has grown from 9,000 to almost 60,000. It is also estimated that there are another 5,000 Czech citizens of Vietnamese origin who are not included in these immigration statistics. 3 The diaspora is also growing due to high birth rates – between 1995 and 2011, 8,028 citizens of the Vietnamese Socialist Republic were born in Czechia.

The growing number of permanent residence holders, their average length of stay, family way of life and tendency to buy property leads one to believe that the majority of Vietnamese residing in Czechia have chosen this country to be their home. However, their interest in obtaining Czech citizenship has been rather low with only 979 Vietnamese granted citizenship between 1993 and 2011. One of the main obstacles dissuading them from applying for the citizenship was the fact that until 2013 they were obliged to give up their Vietnamese citizenship. However since January 2014, Czech law has allowed those immigrants who were born in Czechia or came as minors to maintain multiple citizenships as well as obtain Czech citizenship more easily. Thus it can be assumed that the number of Czech citizens of Vietnamese origin will be growing.

The diaspora

Over the years, the Vietnamese diaspora in Czechia has internally differentiated, mainly according to their migrant cohorts or generation, and their socio-economic status. Nowadays we can find Vietnamese in their 50s, who came under socialism, Vietnamese adults who arrived after the fall of the Eastern Bloc or during the economic growth of the early 2000’s, and recent migrant “newbies” who have come in the last 10 years. There are also groups of children who migrated to Czechia with their parents (the so called “one-half generation”) and those born here (second generation and now even third generations). In fact it is estimated that 12-14% of all Vietnamese residing in Czechia are not immigrants, but children of immigrants who were born in Czechia, yet they still possess the legal status of a foreigner.

Another aspect of the internal differentiation within the community is the Vietnamese province migrants come from. Based on their regionalism (đồng hương), several organizations gather people together from certain provinces and provide for them mutual support, but mostly in emergency cases. Thus the regionalism does not constitute a firm base for long-standing interconnectedness within the community.

The structure of the Vietnamese diaspora can also be identified by their language or length of stay. The Vietnamese residing in Czechia sometimes call themselves Việt Xù. The adjective , however, is not a translation of “Czech” (which in Vietnamese is Séc), but is a phonetic derivative of the last syllables of the word Vietnamců (“Vietnamese” in the Czech genitive case); the Vietnamese often heard this from Czech speakers and identified it as a separate word with the letter “c” understood as “s”. 4 Other commonly used terms are: mọc gốc, which refers to those who are “rooted”, or have lived in Czechia for a long period of time and thus know the local environment very well; or tây hóa, which means “westernized”, or behaving more or less like the Czechs, as perceived by the community.

Sapa – commercial, cultural and community hub

Unlike neighbouring states of Germany, Poland and Slovakia, where the Vietnamese have concentrated in big cities, the Vietnamese residing in Czechia are literally scattered all around the country, even in villages with less than 2,000 inhabitants. 5 However, there are several locations that have attracted Vietnamese merchants since the early 90’s: mainly the regions along the Czech-German and Czech-Austrian borders and cities such as Pilsen, Brno, Ostrava and in particular the capital city of the Czech Republic.

Prague plays a very important role for the Vietnamese, mostly because of the existence of the trade and cultural centre of Sapa (Trung Tâm Thương Mại Sapa), which is located in a former meat and poultry factory at the Southern edge of the city in the Prague’s Libuš district. Sapa, named after a Northern Vietnamese city Sa Pa where the country’s highest mountain, Phan Xi Păng, is located, was funded in the late 1990’s as a Vietnamese trade center providing warehouses, import and export services. Until 2008, the center was strictly designated for tradesmen only and trade licences served as a permit to enter the complex. Today, the center is open to everyone and with over than 35 ha provides a wide range of services. However, even though the gates of the center are open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the vast majority of Czechs believe they are not allowed to visit Sapa freely.

In public discourse Sapa is often viewed as a commercial center, but in reality this place has additional functions than that of a trading place. At Sapa you find restaurants, grocery shops, hairdressers, nail studios, travel agencies, medical doctors, a nursery, a translation bureau, a wedding studio and a Buddhist pagoda. For many Vietnamese, and not only for those living in Prague, this place offers a refuge where they can turn for help of any kind and where they feel safe. However Sapa is not a place where people live, as the overwhelming majority of Czechs thinks; merchants, tradesmen, customers and others arrive and leave the complex every day.

Work, earn and go

Sapa offers a plethora of job opportunities; therefore the most common reason the Vietnamese residents of Czechia, come to live in Libuš is due to job opportunities at Sapa. For most of them Libuš is not their first residence in the country, nor a place for them to settle permanently – it is more a transit space where people just come and go – some stay longer, some shorter. The reason they choose to live in Libuš is not because they want to stay there forever, but because they want to improve their economic position, or just survive a bad financial period in their lives.

Those who fluctuate are mostly people under 50 who came to Czechia during the new economic wave and who we define as “people with lower incomes”. Although there is no statistical evidence about the distribution of income among people living and working in Libuš, it is estimated that those employed at Sapa, mostly in under-skilled and non-attractive jobs, represent more than half of the Vietnamese population in Libuš. Very often these people do not have a regular work contract, but work under a trading license. They probably came to work in Czechia as contract laborers in factories all around the country during the economic boom of the early 2000’s, but lost their jobs soon afterwards during the crisis, which for them not only meant the loss of stable income, but also the danger of losing their legal migrant status. In Libuš, these workers often choose to share an apartment with other people in the same situation in order to save money. As soon as their financial position improves, they try to find a house or an apartment where they can stay with their family.

While conducting research in Libuš, we spoke to a young Vietnamese man, who said: ‘in my opinion people cannot endure working here longer than 10 years. They are here momentarily to save some money, start a business and leave for elsewhere, so that others can take their place.’ According to him, it is not possible for someone to be engaged in such exhausting work forever: ‘if they, for example, have a takeaway restaurant, they have to be there from 7a.m. to 10 p.m. I cannot imagine that someone could work like this for too long,’ he says. 6

There is also a specific group of people who wish to live somewhere other than around Sapa; these are the young Vietnamese who were either born in or raised in Czechia from an early age. They like to visit Sapa for many reasons and occasions, but are not interested in living in its neighbourhood at all. This is due to practical reasons like long driving distances to schools and the absence of leisure opportunities, but there is also another reason: Contrary to those people who see Sapa as a haven, seeking help and work there, many of the young do not see Sapa as a safe place. They do not feel comfortable with the concentration of so many Vietnamese people in one spot, and some of them even perceive Sapa as dangerous. This is even true in instances where they have never faced some dangerous situation that would justify the negative feelings they foster towards the place.

Some of our respondents think that the reason they have chosen to live near Sapa is not because of their co-ethnic’s presence, but because their prosperous economic activities are interconnected with other subjects involved at Sapa. ‘I don’t think they try to concentrate – quite the opposite – sometimes they try to live where there are no Vietnamese at all. They like to be in a place where they have family and friends whom they can visit often, but they also like to have some of their own space and distance’, said one respondent. Today because there are not many opportunities to buy a house in Libuš, people who have the means, go to live in locations within a 15 km circle of Libuš – in particular in Prague districts Vestec, Kolovraty, Modřany, Krč, Háje and Kunratice.

A group of people who could be perceived as a stable population of Libuš are the Vietnamese that we refer to as the “middle class” or the “elite”. These people are predominantly the ones who came before 1989 and to some extent during the first years of the 90’s. In contrary to the migrants of the late 90’s and onwards, they came to a country with no established diaspora and without any kind of support from their co-ethnics. They were thus forced to find a way to earn a living on their own and had to communicate with majority population.

Moreover, many of them were employed in Czechoslovak companies with Czechs and Slovaks with whom they become friends, and thus they created contacts outside the community. Thanks to this they were able to take advantage of being “the pioneers”, establishing prosperous business functions within their community, and these were both outwardly and inwardly focused. So today shop, storehouses and restaurants owners, successful lawyers, translators and those who provide consulting and other services (like photographers, cameramen) can be found among them.

The Vietnamese – the “new” Praguers

From our interviews it is evident that mutual ignorance and an unsatisfactory level of awareness creates problems for Czech and Vietnamese coexistence. When quoting Dinh Van Hoi from the infoserver Viet Info, 7 the incoming Vietnamese know almost nothing about Czech society. As he sarcastically says, except from the reality show Wife Swap they do not have a chance to get acquainted with Czech culture. Our respondents confirmed that they do not know much about Czech festivities but primarily they do not know what the majority’s expectations are of them – how they should behave and what they should do etc.

According to available statistics, only 5-8% of the Vietnamese between 18 and 26 residing in Czechia study at universities; meaning that there is a high probability that the majority of them are solely economically active, in the areas of retail, restaurants, bistros or cosmetics. We can infer that the majority of newly incoming young Vietnamese do not pursue a university education and instead remain embedded in the economic activities of their families. As a result, they have only minimal natural non-work-based contacts with the Czech majority and subsequently limited opportunities to learn the local language, habits, culture or unwritten codes of behavior. As such, they could possibly transform into a risk group, excluded from Czech public life.

Over the decades, the Vietnamese have become an integral part of Czech society as a whole and also a significant element of the Prague “ethnic mosaic”, where they represent 1% of all inhabitants. Until recently they have been perceived mainly as merchants and shopkeepers and aside from their shops, were rather invisible in the public space. However the situation has changed during the last few years. Authentic Vietnamese cuisine has emerged and become very popular among the majority; as well as some cultural traditions such as the Lunar New Year celebrations or beauty contests, which have brought the Vietnamese closer to the Czechs. 8

Other big trade centers and places like Sapa in Prague (An Dong Center in Prague 10 – Malešice or Holešovice Market in Prague 7) have acquainted Czechs to Vietnamese culture and tradition. Even though the number of people who are afraid of these places is still high, more and more people are intrigued by them and long to visit them. Activities that have emerged in the past years, such as guided tours, cultural events organized at Dóng Dó restaurant (like Vietnamese cultural day and the Lunar New Year Festival with the Czech Carnival) and a blog that reviews Vietnamese fast food are helping people to overcome their prejudices and learn more about their Vietnamese neighbors. Maybe, in couple of years, Sapa will become an attraction for tourists as well like Chinatowns in Western countries.

Notes:

  1. Martínková, Š. (2006): Chrastavské děti. Klub Hanoj. Klub Hanoi 2006-07-11.
  2. Heroldová, I., Matějová, V. (1987): Vietnamští pracující v českých zemích. Český lid, Vol 74, No. 3, pp 194-203.
  3. Freidingerová, T. (2014): Vietnamci v Česku a ve světě: migrační a adaptační tendence. SLON, Praha, 235 p.
  4. Vasiljev, I. (2006): Dynamka národních tradic a vlivů nového prostředí v životě vietnamské komunity v České republice. In: Kocourek, J., Pechová, E. (eds.). S vietnamskými dětmi na českých školách. H&H, Praha, pp 118-125.
  5. Freidingerová. (2014): Vietnamci v Česku a ve světě: migrační a adaptační tendence. SLON, Praha, 235 p.
  6. Kušniráková, T., Plačková, A., Tran Vu, V.A. (2013): Vnitřní diferenciace Vietnamců – pro potřeby analýzy integrace cizinců z třetích zemí. Research report, Ministry of Regional Development of the Czech Republic.
  7. Vietinfo.cz
  8. Kušniráková, T., Plačková, A., Tran Vu, V.A. (2013): Vnitřní diferenciace Vietnamců.
Tereza Freidingerová

Tereza Freidingerová

(Kušniráková) received her PhD in social geography at the Faculty of Science – Charles University. She works in the Migration Awareness Programme at the People in Need and is also an independent researcher.

Andrea Svobodová

Andrea Svobodová

(Plačková) works in the Multicultural centre of Prague and is doing her PhD in the field of Social Geography at the Faculty of Science – Charles University.