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The Inimitable Charm of Prague's Little Hanoi

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

When you look at Google Maps, there’s a little spot on the southern outskirts of Prague called Little Hanoi. This means exactly what it says: Little Hanoi, or, officially, Sapa, is basically Prague’s only distinctively ethnic neighborhood, a Vietnamese Town of sorts. Given the sheer number of Vietnamese people in the capital, this probably comes as little surprise. What is surprising, though, is how easy it is to get lost in its unique charm and atmosphere.

Of course it’s fairly common to get lost there not only figuratively, but literally as well. If you go out to Sapa on your own, without any prior knowledge of its rules, streets, and ambiance, chances are you’ll soon forget you’re still technically in Prague.

Sapa is not a residential neighborhood, but rather a huge market comprising of rusty old huts haphazardly scattered around, seemingly without logic. The steel roofs, the containers, warehouses and dozens of little bistros create a distinctively Asian atmosphere, complete with the ubiquitous smell of Vietnamese street food. The easiest way to get around is just to follow the locals. What’s so puzzling is that almost all buildings are one-story high, and you never see farther than just around the corner. No matter where you stay, Sapa always looks roughly the same. How can you ever know where you are if you can’t even figure out where the whole area starts and ends?

“There are some meeting points, though,” says Oliver Lowe, an MC who makes his living both as a musician and a Sapa tour guide. “There’s a water fountain near the rear gate… Gates in general are important for navigating around. There are three of them — two for pedestrians, one for cars. Furthermore, there’s a specific spot in the middle of Sapa where the concentration of bistros is the highest, and, of course, a Buddhist temple.” Logically, we’d think that a website called Sapamapa should do this job, but it… often doesn’t. Thus, you have to either find a local guide, or trust your instincts.

Worse yet, the official website looks like it might remember the times when Keith Richards was actually sober. It seems like the people at Sapa have more important things to do than to update a website. And that’s fine. The area, basically a large chunk of land south of Prague proper where you can get either by taxi or by taking a bus at Kačerov or Budějovická metro stops, doesn’t really need any outside recognition. Everyone’s happy as they are.

Oliver fell in love with the place years ago. He started thinking about moving in, and even found a nice cheap little flat right inside the area. But when it was time to sign the papers, he found out that the place he’s renting is, in fact, an office. There are no residential flats in Sapa. Because it’s forbidden to actually live here.

“I think the reason is that it’s so remote — which means the crime rate might skyrocket. But that’s not a Vietnamese thing of any kind. Literally any community will be at higher risk during nights.”

“It’s a pity, though. How great would it be to stroll in during long summer nights, sipping sugarcane juice with vodka, and just hang around with friends and relax?” That definitely sounds cool. But alas, the area closes every evening.

Street food is an integral part of the Sapa experience. There are some thirty place where you can get a bite; we chose a little bistro called Sành Quán, mainly because some of us don’t eat animal products, which is a big problem here — traditional Vietnamese cuisine is very meat-heavy. But hey, a Bún bò Nam Bộ with tofu tastes terrific here! You just have to make it past the initial shock, as the Vietnamese lady taking your order stares you down, trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with you.

During the day, the Sapa area is filled with people that usually live in nearby neighborhoods of Krč and Písnice. But some workers commute from the city center, and even from outside Prague. There are plans to extend the metro, adding a new line which should end right here, a few hundred steps away from Sapa. The question is, how long will it take?

And, of course, there’s also the bigger picture: If Sapa was more readily available (thanks to the metro), wouldn’t it lose its charm? The place is authentic and remote. What will happen when anyone will have the option to just get here comfortably in a few minutes?

“It’s possible that Sapa will change,” admits Oliver, but according to him, the biggest threat lies elsewhere: “Metro won’t strip it of its soul. But the new generations of Vietnamese-Czech people could. Will these kids want to continue what their parents started? Will they continue to prepare food in a traditional, meticulous, hard way? Vietnamese life is not hectic; it’s not centered around being everywhere on time like here in the West. So far, Sapa holds on.”

“Another cultural threat would be food bloggers who fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine but can’t be bothered to respect its rules. They change the recipes, omit important ingredients that are hard to find, mix up herbs and so on. These are people who’ve realized that Vietnamese cuisine is ‘cool’ now and jumped on a bandwagon. But they rush it. They don’t do it properly. People in Sapa know this and point it out themselves.”

To actually chat with the Vietnamese here can be an obstacle. The elders usually know only very basic Czech, and given that Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses a completely different set of grammar and syntax rules, it can be almost impossible to learn it.

Yet, if people are willing, communication is not a problem. “I’ve found a guy here who teaches Vietnamese kids Czech,” says Oliver. “It didn’t surprise me. Lots of young teacher, often students, try to find work like this. And the Vietnamese are great clients. They tend to work hard, so they need a hand with raising their kids in a way that would allow them to fit in Czech society.”

“My mum takes care of two Vietnamese girls who live with her at our house in the town of Domažlice. They’re like one big family; the kids call my mum their ‘Czech grandma’. In fact, this was the very first reason why I started to take interest in Vietnamese culture.”

Sapa was founded in 1993. Back then, it was a whole different world. Tourists started discovering it some five, six years ago — authentic Vietnamese cuisine was just getting big in Prague, and people found out that lots of ingredients cannot be bought anywhere else.

The Vietnamese in Sapa are different from those living in the city. Their lives are less hectic, less intertwined with Western workaholic attitude. But there are problems emerging, too — the idyllic, slow-paced lifestyle is slowly withering away.

Some of the Vietnamese live in Czechia for half a century now. Oliver points out that the people we meet outside at Sapa fall within three generations — the oldest guy might be around eighty. He sits in front of his little shop, selling Bánh rán (fried balls of rice, coconut, and mung beans). “He’s a great guy, if a little quirky. He speaks almost no Czech, so there’s no way he could sell anything to Czech people, but he gets by.”

“The youngest generation call themselves ‘Banana kids’. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”

Jirka, a friend of Oliver’s, is a Vietnamese college student. A proud Banana kid. He runs a bistro in the city (called Bao Bao), right next to I. P. Pavlova, along with his father, Mr. De. As such, he has a great insight into both worlds, Sapa and the center. As he joins us for a walk, he confirms that the young Vietnamese often abandon their culture: “Kids speak Czech among themselves, even at home. They just… don’t run into spoken Vietnamese in their day-to-day lives. And their parents adapt to it. What else can they do?”

“Me and Jirka met by accident,” Oliver recalls. “I used to go to a bistro called Lan De, owned by Jirka’s mum, to eat her delicious Xôi Thập Cẩm. Mrs. Lan was curious: Why is this guy in Sapa so often? Why does he care so much about the specific ingredients in the food? At first she thought that I was a cop, that I was working around here, or that I had a Vietnamese wife.”

“I had to explain that I lived around the corner and just loved Vietnamese cuisine and culture. That I was always keen to learn about new things. As I was leaving that day, she wrote a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. She explained that the number was her son’s and that she’d love for the two to us to meet and become friends. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Culturally speaking, there’s not much going on inside Sapa. It’s still a place for business, first and foremost. The close proximity of the Krč forest makes for some great hiking opportunities. But concerts? Parties? Places like galleries or concert halls would feel weirdly out of place here. However, there are options: “The Dong Do restaurant has a big hall where bands sometimes play. It’s mostly a place for weddings and ceremonies, but gigs are being held there, too.”

But if there’s a big Vietnamese artist in town, they’ll usually play in SaSaZu, a large club located in Holešovice. They’ll fly in specifically to perform there — and they know the place will be absolutely packed, with all three generations of the Vietnamese-Czech community. And everybody knows the songs. We try to find out more about the most popular genre: Is it techno? Indie pop? Post-metal? “Look, it’s pop. Pure, radio-friendly, sweet-as-fuck pop,” Jirka explains. “Songs about love and stuff.”

What about the pub scene? Not much — the Vietnamese are not used to spend their evenings in pubs. That’s a distinctively Czech thing. There are some places where you can get a drink, but they’re scarce and generally not lively. “When I think about it, I’ve never seen a Vietnamese person really drunk,” Oliver muses, adding that we’d still probably find some Finnish vodka hidden in most of the bistros. “They just… don’t go all the way. We were at a party, there were fifteen people, we had some pigeon meat on grill… and yeah, some beers, too. But it was never about the beers. Just friends hanging out. No need to get hammered at all.”

“People will sometimes ask weird shit, like whether there’s a brothel in Sapa. Those are Czech guys who want to get on it with Vietnamese girls. What the fuck. Of course there isn’t.” We are standing in front of a building that has this bizarre, ‘Las Vegas roadside motel’ vibe; it wouldn’t be totally out of place to think there’s something like that going on there. But, as Oliver ensures us, it’s simply a warehouse with some offices. The Vietnamese don’t even understand the concept of a brothel. They often don’t get the supposed appeal of it.

Is it even possible to just arrive in Sapa and get around on your own? Oliver says it is — but there are some basic rules to be followed: Be respectful. Be open-minded. Don’t give up when things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like — for example, if you order a Bún bò Huế for lunch, you’ll get a strong soup seasoned with shrimp paste. It’s an acquired taste that might easily throw you off.

“I myself try to listen to the locals, to connect with them. That’s my job as a Sapa tour guide.”

There are no days that’d be ideal for a visit, and vice versa. Sapa looks the same on weekdays and weekends. After 6 PM, everything starts falling quiet. We know this firsthand: As we were having some Bánh bao (dumplings with pork, eggs, noodles, and mushrooms) for dinner at Jirka’s mom’s bistro, the evening fell, and people started to pack everything for the night.

The last stop before heading home was at the local Buddhist temple. We have to take our shoes off and turn off our cellphones. “The Vietnamese are a religious people,” says Jirka. “They are keen on rituals, especially during holidays. Altars in Vietnamese homes are commonplace. You’ll prepare a special meal and put it on the altar. That’s the tradition.”

Oliver is aware of it, too: “Usually there will be some fruit on the altar, mostly apples and oranges. During the season, bushukan also appears — that’s an exotic citrus fruit nicknamed ‘Buddha’s Hand’. In Sapa, you’ll also find commercially made sweets or bottles of water on the altar. In Asia, not so much.”

“When I was working in a Vietnamese shrimp company, I had an altar right there in my office. Every morning at 9 AM, my boss would come in, light up the candles, and pray that the company does good. Sometimes, she’d put food there, too — like Bánh chưng, a traditional New Year’s dish. It was really atmospheric.”

“Personally, I’ve never liked organized religions — or, more specifically, people trying to persuade me that their faith was the true one,” says Oliver. “But the Vietnamese in Sapa’s temple aren’t like that. They don’t say they know the secret of life — on the contrary. They realize they really don’t know anything and are learning their entire lives. I find that beautiful. It’s humble. I can relate to anyone who thinks like that, be it a ‘civilian’ teenager, a monk, a simple worker… or someone like Michal, a Czech guy who shaved his head and now goes to Sapa to study Buddhism.”

“That’s basically what I love the most about Sapa, and the Vietnamese as well — they don’t act like they’re better than you, nor do they bend over. They just… live.” Our tour guide finishes his speech and takes out back to the car, outside Sapa’s main gate, back to the ordinary world. “You’ll be back soon. Nobody comes here just once,” he adds. We can feel it. He’s right.

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