Beyond Pho and Convenience Stores, Vietnamese’s Struggles in Czech Lands
Updated: Feb 3
Vietnamese signs hanging up the stores; Vietnamese pop songs lingering in the air; and the aroma of a bowl of fresh pho teasing your taste buds. Despite the fact that you are only 10 kilometers away from the city center of Prague, you would think you are already in Vietnam. This is Sapa, the biggest Vietnamese gathering place in the Czech Republic.
(Sapa, some may also call it “the Little Hanoi”. Stores, restaurants, even hospitals and schools can be found here. According to its official website, it covers an area of more than 250,000 square meters and engaged with over 7,000 businesses)
Around 60,000 people who hold Vietnamese citizenship live in Czechia, the third-largest group after Ukrainians and Slovaks, according to government statistics.
Nam Ngoc Hoang is one of those 60,000. He is a 29-year-old hairdresser who works at his aunt’s salon in Sapa. He has been in the Czech Republic for 3 years. Working from 9 am to 7 pm, Mr. Hoang came here with the hope that the life here could be easier than in Vietnam.
However, he started to think differently.
“I feel so lonely, my parents are in Vietnam, my friends are in Vietnam… I made more money, but if I give a score on my current life, it would only rank 5 [out of 10]...” said Mr. Hoang.
Hard work, excellent academic performance, and low crime rate, these are the stereotypes that the Czech society holds towards the Vietnamese community, said Marta Lopatkova, a Vietnamese studies researcher from Charles University.
Ms. Lopatkova said that the Vietnamese were regarded as the “model minority”, who didn’t cause problems to the society. Their restaurants, stores, and spas are widely spread in the country, but the problems they are facing seem less to be talked about. For the newcomers, life wasn’t as bright as they dreamt to be; for the second-generation Vietnamese, the gap between them and their parents seem to be wider and wider.
As early as in the late 1950s, Vietnamese started to settle in this country. By that time, the country’s name was still Czechoslovakia, due to the same ideology it shares with Vietnam, a number of Vietnamese students, scholars, and workers came to Czechoslovakia to learn advanced technologies and skills.
“The idea was to help them learn the skills [in the factories], let them make some money and then transfer the skills to their home. So, they can build the country again after the war,” said Barbora Novakova, who is also a researcher of Vietnamese studies from Charles University.
However, some of them never decided to get back, and this is the start of the Vietnamese story in Czechia, a story of disappointments and hopes.
(Check out the infographic down below to know the brief history of Vietnamese immigration to the Czech Republic. The information below is from Ms. Novakova and Ms. Lopatkova.)
Different Than I Thought
Mr. Hoang said life here was different from his imagination. For a brighter future, he considered the Czech language is the toughest barrier he had to go through.
“Their language (Czech) is too hard. I’ve been here for 3 years but I still cannot speak it fluently,” said Mr. Hoang.
If he could speak Czech more fluently, he could find a job outside Sapa, Mr. Hoang believed. He said he tried his best to learn the language, however, being surrounded by the Vietnamese community all day long didn’t seem to help.
(Inside the salon where Mr. Hoang (right) works for. The customers were mostly Vietnamese; thus, he didn’t have many chances to practice his Czech. )
“After five years of staying here, I can take a Czech language test. If I pass it, I can get a 10-year residency permit. But now it still seems too hard for me,” he said.
What Mr. Hoang has encountered is not something new for the new arrivals, according to Ms. Lopatkova.
Integration Center Prague is an NGO that aims to help the immigrants to adjust to Czech life. They provide lecturers on the Czech language, legal services and emotional consultations for free. Ms. Lopatkova once worked there. She said that some immigrants, due to the lack of knowledge about NGOs, were very suspicious about their intentions.
“I used to walk around the city to give them information about how the NGO sector works. If they don’t use NGOs, they will have to pay a lot of money,” said Ms. Lopatkova.
This kind of “pay-fees, get-services” concept is widely accepted among Vietnamese, Ms. Novakova said. When they came to the Czech Republic in the first place, they had to prepare a large amount of money to pay the agencies to prepare the visa and plane tickets. This is because people some of the Vietnamese who had the intention to immigrate, but they didn’t understand the language, thus they had to hire an agency to help them.
Ms. Novakova said agencies charging their clients for such services is legal, but it would indeed make those people get into huge debt. She said they had to pay US$6,000 to US$10,000 to successfully come to Czechia, while according to the World Bank, the GDP per capita in Vietnam was only US$2,563 in 2018.
Mr. Hoang went through the same procedure.
“I don’t know what did I sign on and what did I pay for. I paid them, and I am here,” said Mr. Hoang.
(A Vietnamese store in Sapa)
Ms. Novakova added that the Vietnamese saw coming to Czechia as a prestige. When they go back to their home country, they would tend to pretend that life abroad was perfect, which would create an illusion for people who stayed in the country that there is a paradise in the west.
Here Is My Home
Half of a century has passed; some Vietnamese came here with family; some chose to make their own family here. However, between the first and second generation of immigrants, an invisible gap has opened up.
“I feel like a banana child, which means I looked Asian from the outside but behaved like a Czech from the inside,” said Phuong Anh Lackova, 17, a second-generation Vietnamese who was born and raised in the Czech Republic.
The 17-year-old said that conflicts would inevitably appear between her and her parents due to the different mindset.
“Sometimes I wanna go out at night, but my parents would stop me by saying ‘a good Vietnamese girl will not go out that late, you should listen to your parents’,” Ms. Lackova said with a smile.
The problems she encountered with her parents are not something new in most of the Vietnamese Czech families, said Ms. Lopatkova. She said it was because the second-generation Vietnamese have more contact with Czechs, while their parents focus on work.
“The parents had to work really really hard, they didn’t have enough time to stay with their kids so they hired a Czech nanny very often,” said Ms. Lopatkova.
The “Czech nanny” phenomenon was quite significant in the 90s. Ms. Lopatkova said in some cases the kids would live with nannies for weekdays but only go back to their parents on the weekends.
“The kids absorb Czech culture, Czech customs, Czech language… They didn’t have much time with their parents. This is where the gap starts.” According to Ms. Lopatkova, the kids would find it difficult to understand their parents since they were brought up in a “completely different environment”.
Thus, for the second-generation kids, it is easier for them to integrate into the Czech society than their parents, said Ms. Lopatkova. She said that the second-generation people were breaking the stereotypes that all the Vietnamese were store or restaurant owners.
“20 years ago, it wasn’t really possible to see a Vietnamese nurse or doctor in hospitals, but now it’s happening,” said Ms. Lopatkova.
Ms. Lackova’s family runs a supermarket in Prague. But she said it was unlikely for her to take over her parents’ business since it was a difficult job which required a huge amount of time and effort to take care of.
“I just want to work in a comfortable environment, not like my parents,” said Ms. Lackova.
Such concepts of not taking over the family retail or restaurant business were common beyond the second-generation kids, said Ms. Novakova.
“Finally, Vietnamese are not those who are selling stuff in convenience stores, but they are doing lots of different things in all the sectors,” said Ms. Lopatkova.
(A Czech woman and a Vietnamese man waiting for the bus together)
“Many second-generation people want to go to Vietnam, but for vacation. The first-generation people want to go back to Vietnam after they made enough money,” Ms. Lopatkova added, “but there was never enough money to make.”
The same situation also applies to Ms. Lackova’s family.
“When I go to Vietnam, I really enjoy the food there. But if I stayed more than one month, I just want to dig a hole and go back to the Czech Republic,” said Ms. Lackova, “for my parents, I think in 20 years they will go back to Vietnam, but for me, here (the Czech Republic) is my home.”
Special thanks to:
Bang Anh Bui, Anh Quynh Dang, and Erik Citterberg. This project cannot be done without your help!