Anyone living in Prague today knows that this city is practically littered with Potravinys, Vecerkas and a variety of Vietnamese owned stores and restaurants. The Vietnamese began building a community here during the communist regime in former Czechoslovakia: they worked in machine-building and light industries while students studied in technical fields, Czech literature, some even puppetry. There were almost 30,000 Vietnamese workers and students living here by the eighties, many of which had left after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. But they began immigrating again to either work here or improve their life or to do business and increase opportunities: by 1994 their community was almost 10,000 strong.
Today there are over 60,000 Vietnamese people living in the Czech Republic making them the 3rd biggest minority. Most of them can be found in Prague, where they started a market complex called Sapa, named after a region in northern Vietnam. Along with selling clothes, Asian fruit, vegetables, spices and traditional Vietnamese cuisine, they also hold celebrations and share aspects of their culture to the Czechs and foreign visitors. To a Vietnamese person, Sapa is more than just a business, it is a place where they feel welcomed, accepted and at home.
According to an article in the Prague Post published on July 11th, 2012, the Vietnamese community had increased 292% in the past 10 years. In the last two years, this increase in population was mirrored by an increased in Vietnamese cuisine. There was a rise in Chinese bistros that were run by the Vietnamese who began to gradually include national Vietnamese cuisine to the otherwise Chinese menu. A lot of them also changed their names from Chinese to Vietnamese. A big part of the increase in the popularity of Vietnamese food in Prague was Viet Food Friends, a blog launched in November 2011 by Nguyen Mai Huong and Trinh Thuy Duong. At the time of their interview, their blog had almost 2,000 Facebook followers.
These two Charles University students said that their motivation was to allow the Czechs an opportunity to discover the Vietnamese cuisine and because it wasn’t easily accessible in the past. They believed that the language barrier between the Czechs and the Vietnamese was the main reason for the lack of Vietnamese cuisine in a country with such a great residing community. Both students came to Prague at a young age and were raised in a traditional Vietnamese way while attending Czech schools; although they speak Czech fluently they still feel very close to what they refer to as their “motherland”.
The most popular dishes found in the Czech Republic are pho and bun. Phở is a noodle soup, although the name phở refers to the rice noodles and not the actual soup, other ingredients include beef or chicken, bean sprouts, lime wedges, basil, mint, cilantro, onions and covered with chili or fish sauce. Bún chả is pretty much a cold version of phở and contains grilled pork sausage patties, a variety of herbs, bean sprouts, pickled veggies and nước chấm sauce which is a combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
Phở and bún are the most common in the Czech Republic, but there are many other foods that are less known here but are typical in Vietnam. There are a number of other popular dishes, but the ones to keep an eye for in Prague are bahn cam or golden-fried gooey balls speckled with sesame seeds and filled with mung paste which is a sweet bean paste. Then there is banh chung, a special meal eaten during an important Vietnamese celebration Tet, this banana leaf-wrapped parcel is filled with glutinous rice packed with fatty pork and mung bean. Tet is celebrated at the previously mentioned Sapa. Finally, there is cap he which is a Vietnamese coffee that is much more of a dessert than a drink. It consists of dark coffee that is sweetened by condensed milk and is mixed up with a raw egg.
Vietnamese food is influenced strongly by Chinese cuisine which makes sense because of the proximity between the countries, but also by the French. The French-inspired not only Vietnamese coffee but also their many baguette dishes that are filled with traditional Vietnamese ingredients such as vegetables, herbs, spices, fish, meat and of course nước chấm sauce.
The best places in Prague to experience some of these above-mentioned dishes are Pho on Slavikova 1 next to Jiriho s Podebrad park in Prague 3. Here you can sample pho, bun, fried spring-rolls and non-fried salad-rolls, but be aware that there is nowhere to sit, people come here to eat quickly and eat at standing tables or take to go. If you are looking for a more traditional restaurant with a much higher variety of meals is Red Hot Chilli at Krizikova 123/69 in Karlin. After I finished my meal, the waitress offered me the special Vietnamese coffee that was previously mentioned. Another nice restaurant can be found in Vinohrady on Slezka 57 called Ha Noi. They also have a nice variety of dishes and incredibly cheap prices.
“To be honest I do not feel Vietnamese at all,” says Trang Dao, a second generation Vietnamese who was born and raised in the Czech Republic. “My whole life, I grew up with the habit and the culture of this country,” she says when talking about going to a Czech school until the end of middle school. Her parents taught her Vietnamese culture at home but she still “feel(s) more Czech” she “could not imagine moving to Vietnam and live there”. For her, Vietnam is a “completely different world.”