Is the Czech Republic's Vietnamese community finally starting to feel at home?

Photo: Juraj Gazovciak,

According to official estimates there are now around 40,000 Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic. Many of these immigrants first came to this country in the Communist era, when Vietnam sought to bolster its skilled workforce by sending thousands of students and guest workers to socialist Czechoslovakia for training and experience. When the Iron Curtain disappeared, a large number of the Vietnamese here decided to stay rather than return to communist Vietnam.

Market stall in Prague
Although a lot of them were highly qualified, their inability to speak Czech meant that they followed the lead of countless Asian immigrants elsewhere by opening shops or stalls in markets. Not speaking Czech also meant that this older generation also kept themselves to themselves.

As a result, many Czechs now view the Vietnamese as a closed society of foreign market traders, who live in the country but are not really part of Czech society.

One organisation that is trying to change this perception is Klub Hanoi, an association of Czech and Vietnamese students, which seeks to forge links between both communities.

Hana Damkova is a volunteer from Klub Hanoi. She says it's high time for many Czechs to reassess their views on Vietnamese immigrants:

This stereotypical view of Czechs is one of the reasons why Klub Hanoi organised a special festival last weekend to celebrate Vietnamese culture and to give Czechs a chance to sample some aspects of the traditions and cultural life of a significant minority living in their midst. Appropriately entitled "Beyond the Marketplace", it sought to highlight the richness of Vietnamese society and traditions, whilst also featuring things like fashion shows, exhibitions and workshops showcasing the achievements of young second-generation Vietnamese who are working and studying here.

One member of this new generation of Vietnamese is economics student Thu Ha Nguyen. She first came here at the age of ten with her mother and brother to join her father, who had been studying here in the 1980s. Although her mother now runs a shop, Thu Ha has no intention of following her behind the counter and instead wants to forge a career in the business world once she graduates from university.

Although she still feels very Vietnamese, Thu Ha has lived here so long, she admits to not being sure sometimes precisely which culture she belongs to:

"It's a combination of Vietnamese and Czech and it's very strange, because sometimes I want to do something, which would be frowned upon in Vietnamese culture. So sometimes I feel it's better to be Czech. But I always say that I am still a Vietnamese girl so have to behave like a Vietnamese. I look like an Asian girl, so I can't go around behaving like a European girl. That's why Vietnamese culture is still closer to me than Czech culture."

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the Czech way of life which Thu Ha clearly appreciates:

"What I like most about being here in the Czech Republic is that we don't have to study all the time. In Vietnam, we have to study, study, study morning, noon and night. I also find that my parents and other Vietnamese parents are much stricter than Czechs because of their Asian mentality. They have raised us to respect teachers, old people and to behave politely in society."

In many ways, says Hanka Damkova, Czechs could learn a lot from the Vietnamese here, with their work ethic, traditional values and strong sense of community:

"I think the thing that the Vietnamese can bring to Czech society is the ability to hold together. Maybe it's a legacy of communism, but Czech society is very fragmented. People have few friends and very often it's difficult for them to establish a deep social network. Often they are living for their own sakes. This does not exist in Vietnam, because traditionally Vietnamese society has been built not on the individual but on the community style of living. So people really hold together and cooperate with each other. That's why they are so successful here. Just imagine, this is a nation that has come from the other side of the world from a totally different culture and they are successful here because they are very hardworking and they support each other. I think this is something we Czechs can learn from them."

Any influence, the Vietnamese minority might have on Czech society would perhaps require further interaction between the two communities. One obvious example of this would be more interracial marriages. Although Czech-Vietnamese couples are far from unknown, Thu Ha says she's not sure if her parents would welcome her marrying a Czech boy:

"I'm not thinking about marriage right now. But my parents would like me to have a Vietnamese boyfriend or husband, because my mother doesn't speak Czech so well and she wants me to have a Vietnamese boyfriend because she would be able to talk with him and the relationship would be closer than if I had a Czech boyfriend. As for myself, I don't mind if it's an Asian boy or a Czech boy or a black boy. What's important for me is that we understand each other."

In some ways, the upcoming generation of Vietnamese has integrated so successfully that there are fears in the community that their Vietnamese identity is gradually being eroded. With so many pupils of Vietnamese origin winning Czech-language competitions and assimilating smoothly into Czech society, it's little wonder that Vietnam is becoming an increasingly distant and even foreign country for some ethnic Vietnamese, particularly those who have been born here

It's a problem many older Vietnamese have acknowledged. As a result, a number of Vietnamese schools that teach the language and history of that country have opened up in the Czech Republic in the past few years.

Having lived in Vietnam until she was ten, Thu Ha still has a strong sense of her Vietnamese identity. Nevertheless, after growing up in the Czech Republic even she hesitates to call Vietnam home, and is not sure if she wants to go back there to live some day:

"I've been thinking about that a lot. I have Czech friends here and I have been here for a long time, so it would be difficult to be in a new environment. But I think I want to go to Vietnam for a year or two so that I can find out if I really want to stay there. Because it's now a new environment for me. It's been a long time since I was there. I think it will have changed a lot and the people and everything else has changed as well. So I have to go there and find out if it is 'my Vietnam' - the place I've always imagined it to be..."