SAPA: Prague’s ‘little Vietnam’
SAPA is about as close as you are going to get to feeling like you are in Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh City, while you are still, in fact, in Prague. At certain moments, and from certain angles, you can almost forget the prefab housing which surrounds the Vietnamese market, and believe that you are on a completely different continent. SAPA is the heart of the Czech Republic’s rapidly-expanding Vietnamese community, and not for nothing has it been dubbed ‘little Vietnam’. But unlike the Chinatowns that form an integral part of many a city, SAPA is miles away from Prague’s city centre. I ventured out to SAPA, where I was met by my guide for the day:
“I’m Linh from Vietnam and I have been studying here for two years.”
Okay, and what about SAPA, is this a place you have visited a lot before?
“Sometimes I come here to buy different foods, like vegetables and rice.”
But surely you can buy vegetables and rice in Czech shops?
“But it’s really expensive there, and the rice here is different, it is Thai or Vietnamese. Here I can also find some different sauces, like shrimp sauce and fish sauce from my country, and spices.”
Are there things that you miss about Vietnam that you can come and find here – does this sometimes feel like Vietnam when you are here?
“Actually yes, sometimes it does feel like Vietnam here, because this is a place where the Vietnamese people gather often.”
At SAPA’s main entrance a fountain trickles. It looks like a massive candle with wax running down the sides. But it is actually made out of concrete or stone.
“Often in Eastern culture you’ll find a motif of a mountain and some water. This fountain here is made up of a mountain and water running down it. It is for decoration, but it is also ying and yang. The water represents ying, while the mountain represents yang.”
Right beside the fountain stands the gate which leads into the market. The gate is inscribed with a welcome message in both Vietnamese and Czech, but the style it is built in doesn’t look very Central European at all:
“This might be a symbol of the Literature Temple in Vietnam. In Vietnam we have a very famous Literature Temple, which maybe this is in the style of. It was the first university in Vietnam, built in the 13th century, and it is where all of the talented people graduated from in Vietnam. So maybe the design is supposed to allude to that.”
The market itself is massive, and made up of several different sections. There are little portacabin offices offering long-haul flights and visa services, there are vast barn-like buildings in which rows of vendors sell dried flowers and fashion, and there are nail salons, restaurants and even a shop selling wedding dresses. Vietnamese pop periodically wafts its way over from a small tent with some of the largest loudspeakers I have ever seen:
“The market divides into services and goods for sale. The services include education, translation services and legal consultation.”
There is a school standing right in front of us, who is it for?
“It is a primary school which teaches Vietnamese children Czech. It’s a kindergarten for young children. In this country Vietnamese children often only learn Vietnamese at home and they come here to play and learn the Czech language.”
On this particular rainy Tuesday there were no children to be found in the playground during their break, they were all taking refuge from the rain. As did we in the labyrinthine series of corridors lined by stalls selling handbags, sunglasses, and indeed umbrellas, en masse. We re-emerged when the weather improved.
What about this building over here which doesn’t look very Czech. Can you explain what is going on there?
“It’s a pagoda, it’s a temple, I think. It is for the Buddha. In Vietnamese culture, every place should allocate a small space to the Buddha, who offers spiritual support to Vietnamese people.”
And there is a fire outside, why would there be an oven or a fire outside?
“It is for burning fake money for dead people. There are considered to be two worlds, the world of the living and the underworld for the dead. And the people in the underworld have the same needs and things as living people. So the living burn money for them, but the money is only fake.”
At the end of a hard morning’s shopping – or at least a good look around, it was time for some lunch. Linh, his friend Thao and I sat down in a restaurant which was offering ‘pho’ – a Vietnamese speciality which consisted of meat and noodles in a sort of broth:
So listen, before anything else happens, can you explain what we have in front of us on the table, because there are all sorts of really pretty looking things?
“Here we have some lemons, and some chilli, and something a bit like Czech langos, it’s the same ingredients, but without the cheese and ketchup.”
And some more chilli sauce over here, so it looks like this might end up being quite spicy.
“Yes, but it’s really tasty, do you know how to use chopsticks?”
…Umm, I’m not so good when it comes to noodles. But I’ll try. So, here is the food, and what is in it, it looks really good?
“There are special rice noodles, and chicken meat and some vegetables.”
Okay, and what is the Vietnamese for ‘Bon Apetit’?
“Chuc ngon mieng!”
... The soup was delicious, as were the lashings of green tea which followed. SAPA is open for business every day, though really comes into its own on Saturday afternoons, when people from all over the country come to eat, drink and meet. It might not be one of Prague’s most obvious tourist attractions, but SAPA is definitely well worth a visit.