by Suchi Rudra
In the last 20 years, the Sapa region and town in northwest Vietnam has grown to become an attractive tourist destination due to its large and lively market. But in the southeast corner of Prague, the Czech Republic’s cobblestoned capital city, another market also by the name of Sapa is drawing much attention from locals and expats alike. The Prague-based Sapa market, known as Little Hanoi, now exists as a hub for the Vietnamese community in the area. But what’s a place like this doing in Prague, more than 5,000 miles away from the Vietnamese border? What’s the link between Vietnam and this Bohemian capital, known to many for its great beer and for being a former Soviet satellite state?
During the communist regime, Czechoslovakia (now separated into Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Vietnam had a series of bilateral agreements, and Vietnamese were encouraged to migrate to Prague to work and study, with the idea that they could return home with new skills, knowledge and training. By the end of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989, a large number of Vietnamese people had already arrived in Prague–and many decided to stay. Back in Vietnam, Prague was still considered a good place to relocate and start a business, especially then in the “new and free” Czech Republic. Migration continued to increase during the 1990s and 2000s, and today, there are over 70,000 Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic, making this community one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country.
The Vietnamese community created Sapa as a place to gather and trade. Sapa has grown into a sprawling marketplace where owners of small shops and markets from all around Prague go to buy in bulk. But with its own language school, beauty salons and Buddhist temple, Sapa also acts as a home away from home, a small taste of the homeland for the many Vietnamese immigrants who have decided to establish themselves in this European capital. And most importantly, Sapa also offers Vietnamese, as well as Czechs and expats, a hearty slice of Vietnam’s gastronomic delights, with its wide variety of lively cafes, Vietnamese coffee vendors wandering the narrow lanes, and the massive grocery shops boasting countless ingredients, live fish and fresh produce dedicated to Vietnamese cuisine. All of this is just a short bus ride away from Prague’s Old Town in the city center—and coming from the narrow, winding streets and gothic buildings of this City of Spires, entering Sapa is like being transported to another country.
Inside the premises of Sapa, you’ll find cozy little dining establishments, where you can feast on traditional Vietnamese dishes, including endless variations on pho, bun cha or banh mi. Vietnamese food is, as you may have guessed, radically different from Czech food, and sitting at a bistro in Sapa provides a unique opportunity to savor fresh ginger, cilantro, steamed tofu, sticky rice and chili paste—quite a (pleasant) shock to the palate after tucking into traditional Czech meals of goulash and dumplings or pork and potatoes. After lingering around for a while in between crammed tables of luncheoning Vietnamese families, you can step out for some fresh air and encounter eager vendors selling bubble tea, Vietnamese coffee (strong coffee with crushed ice and condensed milk) and che, a thick, a bean-based beverage.
Although Prague’s population is finally starting to see a bigger increase in ethnic diversity, and therefore more ethnic restaurants and grocery shops, finding Sapa is still a bit like striking gold. Sapa’s food stores are filled to the brim with Asian ingredients and produce, including galangal, Thai basil, lemongrass, bitter melon, curry pastes, 25 kilo bags of jasmine rice, and (as people claim) the freshest and most affordable seafood in Prague, since the Czech Republic is a landlocked country and deprived of truly fresh seafood.
Not so long ago, many shop owners used to live in the very same buildings you can find at Sapa. That’s not the case anymore, but the place continues to be much more than just a market to the Vietnamese community. It’s a meeting point and a familiar place; the place to go, for example, during celebrations such as Tet, the coming of the new year. Vietnamese-owned shops and fruit and vegetable markets can be found all over Prague, and these days, the city has also seen an impressive flurry of new Vietnamese restaurants (which have become very popular) that offer a tempting range of inexpensive and authentic Vietnamese dishes. However, many people continue to visit Sapa regularly as a way of getting that real “Asian market” feel that can’t be found elsewhere in this Bohemian capital.
Weekends are the time when the market is at its liveliest. You can see Czechs and Vietnamese eating side by side at the restaurants, people in traditional Vietnamese dress weaving through the alleyways on bicycles and scooters, delivery trucks unloading new shipments. But things can get a bit noisy, so if you prefer to walk around in a more peaceful environment, weekdays are best. Sapa can easily be reached by inexpensive public transportation. Take the metro from the center of Prague to Kacerov station (Line C) and then bus 113 to the market entrance.