Prague exhibition showcases Vietnamese culture and community

In this week’s Spotlight we focus on a small exhibition at the City of Prague museum which aims to cast some light on the centuries old links between Czechs and Vietnamese and the culture of the large Vietnamese community in the capital. The exhibition "Vietnam in Prague" is running at the City of Prague museum until mid-September. Organisers say the number of visits has already exceeded their expectations.

"Vietnam in Prague" is an attempt to present Vietnamese culture from the country itself as practiced by the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic. Its scope covers the arts, religions, long history of Czech-Vietnamese relations, cookery and family life. As museum curator Karel Kučera explains, one of the main reasons for the exhibition was the 60th anniversary this year of diplomatic relations being forged between the then Czechoslovakia and North Vietnam.

"The original idea was to present some of the minorities who have in some ways contributed to the development of Prague. The Vietnamese were chosen in the first place because it was the 60th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations between Czechoslovakia and Vietnam."

But the broader aim was to explain to Prague citizens the rich cultural life of the Vietnamese community in the capital, a community from a far away country of which they know little. Officially there are 8,000 Vietnamese in the city, but the real figure is likely to be considerably higher. Overall, the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic is the third biggest in Europe after that of France and Germany though it is often viewed by Czechs as a community which sets itself apart.

"Another reason why we decided to stage this exhibition was the fact that Prague people know nothing about the Vietnamese. They just see them as stall holders or running small corner shops or small businesses. That is why we wanted to present some aspects of Vietnamese art and culture as well as religious beliefs and such like."

Mr. Kučera was without doubt one of the driving forces behind the exhibition and attempts to draw on the local Vietnamese community for help. He is proficient in the difficult language after studying in Vietnam for a year and later visiting several times during research aimed at adopting traditional Vietnamese treatments and medicines for Western use.

Surprisingly perhaps, as the exhibition recounts, Czech-Vietnamese relations go back all the way to the 14th century when one Czech arrived in the then central Kingdom of Aman, or Cham, on his way to China and Tibet.

"The first Czech, who however was not born in the Kingdom of Bohemia, was Oldřich Čech of Pordenone, a missionary who reached Central Vietnam and the then Cham empire at the beginning of the 14th century."

The Italian town in his name derives from the fact that Čech’s soldier father decided to stay on in part of Italy that was then under Czech rule thanks to an inheritance of Bohemian King Otakar II.

More substantial relations came three centuries later, again as a result of missionary zeal.

"There was then the celebrated period of the first half of the 18th century when seven Jesuit missionaries were at the Vietnamese court. Probably the most well known of these was the German-speaking Prague citizen Jan Koeffler. He wrote the first European history of the Vietnamese kingdom. He served at the court as a mathematician, astronomer and, primarily, as a doctor. He stayed at the court for several years and was even able to remain when the other Christian missionaries were expelled from the country. But in the end he too was expelled, though this was years after the expulsion order for the others took effect."

The young Czechoslovakia tried to push business relations with Vietnam, then a French colony, in 1919. The exotic country also attracted Czech writers and artists during the inter-war period.

The first real movement in the other direction came in the late 1940s when some Vietnamese students were invited to study. Many more Vietnamese students followed in the 1960s. The two countries, North Vietnam and Czechoslovakia, were both under Communist rule and US intervention in the south was escalating, prompting ideological and practical support for the North. The students were supplemented by trainees and apprentices in the 1960s. But the main Vietnamese influx followed the signing of new cooperation and friendship treaties in 1979 and 1980. As a result 35,000 Vietnamese arrived in Czechoslovakia between 1980 and 1983. The records show around 4,000 living in Prague by 1985 with many working in some of the capital’s major engineering and construction companies.

Ján Ičo is a Vietnamese lecturer at Prague’s Charles University and leading light in the association Klub Hanoi, which aims at promoting friendly Czech-Vietnamese relations. He was also a speaker at one of the 11 seminars that have been organised to accompany the exhibition.

He thinks Prague citizens and Czechs in general can learn quite a bit from the fact that around half a dozen religions exist in Vietnam side by side in harmony with no apparent conflict. One local religion, Coa Dai, even borrows various ideas from several religions with French writer Victor Hugo amongst its saints.

"There are many different religions and somehow they cannot find a problem that they have to solve between them. It is incredible. It means for instance that for some Vietnamese there is no problem in visiting temples, being a Christian or talking with Moslems."

The special "brotherly" relationship between Socialist-bloc countries obviously ended with the Velvet Revolution that spelled the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989. For Mr. Ičo this meant that a top down relationship dictated by party leaders took on a more natural form based on individual relations and decisions.

The change also allowed the Vietnamese to make their mark on the Prague landscape, not only with the explosion of small stalls and shops but also the large Vietnamese markets such as SAPA in the suburb of Libuš, popularly dubbed little Hanoi, and the smaller version at Holešovice.

Today, if anything, Mr Ičo sees a stronger two-way relationship with Czechs able to travel freely to discover the country and many young Czech-born Vietnamese seeking to get in touch with their roots.

Photo: CTK
"There is a large community, we call them the banana children. They are the second generation who have Vietnamese parents and were born here and need to find their own identity. That is the reason that they discuss with the majority more. That means maybe another kind of discussion between us and the Vietnamese."

The exhibition continues at the City of Prague Museum until September 19 with the last of the accompanying lectures on September 14.