Simon Stanley explores Vietnam’s historic relationship with the Czech Republic. Photos by Vinh Dao.
“What’s that doing there?” many first-time visitors to Hoa Vien Brauhaus will ask. Hidden at the end of an otherwise sedate hem on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, this cavernous and immensely popular Czech beerhall and restaurant feels rather incongruous among the bun bo hue and ca phe sellers nearby. Despite being 9,250 kilometres apart, the 65-year-old relationship between the Czech Republic and Vietnam is both a surprising and fascinating one.
In the political turbulence of post-war Europe, Czechoslovakia became a socialist state in 1948 following a Soviet-backed coup. Seeking support from other socialist nations, it established diplomatic relations with The Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1950 and started a programme of economic and industrial cooperation in 1955.
Throughout the American War, as well as supplying North Vietnam with technologies and machinery (in exchange for raw materials like rubber, bamboo and zinc), Czechoslovakia – a world leader in the production of weapons – became the main source of armaments for the North Vietnamese Army. Semtex was a particularly common import. Developed by the Czech chemist Stanislav Brebera in the late 50s, the plastic explosive went into mass-production principally to supply President Ho Chi Minh’s forces.
According to Ondra Slowik, a linguist who works closely with the Vietnamese community in today’s Czech Republic, North Vietnam’s new ally also offered its expertise and know-how to help develop domestic industry and infrastructure. “Even today you can see the Vietnamese-Czechoslovak hospital in Hai Phong,” he says, “or the Vietnamese-Czechoslovak lock factory.”
“In 1956, 100 Vietnamese children arrived at an orphanage in Chrastava, Bohemia,” Slowik continues, “a region in the north of today’s Czech Republic. They were not orphans but carefully selected children of Vietnamese government officials or war heroes. They went to learn the Czech language in order to work as interpreters for the governments in the future.”
This was the start of a long line of such programmes. In 1967 the first group of 2,100 skilled Vietnamese workers arrived in Czechoslovakia to be trained in fields such as heavy industry, construction, food processing and, interestingly, filmmaking. In the late 70s, with Vietnam now facing a large war debt (and Czechoslovakia a shortage of labour), an agreement was signed under which 8,700 students and 32,000 workers from Vietnam would be shipped out to take advantage of university scholarships and vocational training.
Ngo Hong Chuyen was one of them. In 1983, aged 18, he left his family in Hanoi to study as an electrical technician in Prague. “I was quite lucky to be able to go (there),” he says. “It was much better to be able to study something and see the world.”
Chuyen and his comrades suddenly faced a new and unfamiliar culture and a very different climate, though few were overly concerned, as he explains: “At that time, Vietnam was in a critical condition. Life was hard. We were very lucky… not only because we could learn, but we had good food and good living conditions. The cold weather was nothing to us.”
By the mid 1980s, Czechoslovakia was home to approximately 28,000 Vietnamese citizens.
Chuyen finished his studies and remained in the country, working for a further three years (as per the agreement), in order to pay back his fees. As the Soviet Union collapsed, 1989’s Velvet Revolution brought about an end to communism in Czechoslovakia and, in 1993, the Czech Republic emerged. Chuyen had returned to Vietnam in 1990, though, as he explains, he was one of the few. “My family was here, but of course everyone had family. Many did not come back because they did not see a future here.”
The Velvet Revolution marked a turning point for the Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia. Previously forbidden from working outside of the state-run factories, or sleeping outside of state-run dormitories, they were now able to start their own businesses, make their own money and integrate more fully.
C is for Capitalism
As a newly formed state, ties to Vietnam loosened in the early 90s and the exclusive trade deals became redundant (although diplomatic relations continued uninterrupted). Chuyen was back in Vietnam and struggling to find work. “In 1993 I went to a restaurant on Dong Khoi that sold German draft beer,” he says, referring to Gartenstadt, Saigon’s oldest German restaurant. I said ‘why aren’t we drinking Czech beer?’ (so) I contacted the Pilsner brewery and we began importing Pilsner Urquell in 1995.”
Meanwhile, Chuyen had opened his own restaurant. The name? Hoa Vien. Over 20 years later and his empire now boasts five locations across Vietnam. While he still imports Pilsner Urquell by the barrel – making Vietnam one of only a handful of nations outside of the Czech Republic to offer the lager on tap – Hoa Vien also brews its own beers (with 100 percent Czech ingredients, of course).
As Vietnam continues to open its doors to international markets, the attachments to the Czech Republic have become more of nostalgia than economic necessity. “Vietnam is now a rapidly developing country,” says Slowik, “representing a lucrative market for many major world economies, so the strategic partnership with the Czech Republic is not so appealing. There is a sense of sentiment on the Vietnamese side but not enough to provoke any major diplomatic action.” Slowik also points out that the Vietnamese President visited Prague in 2015, so the situation is open to change.
For the Vietnamese who chose not to return, many have gone on to own successful import-export businesses, continuing the flow of goods and services between the two old friends. In Czech cities, the Vietnamese population is becoming increasingly integrated; Prague even has its own ‘Sapa Market’. In recent years, Vietnamese food has experienced a boom too, offering new and lucrative opportunities for the original ‘settlers’ and their children. Today, around 60,000 Vietnamese nationals are living in the Czech Republic, making ‘Nguyen’ is the ninth most common surname in the country.
As for Chuyen and his fellow former expatriates, the Czech Republic and the warmth of its people will never be forgotten. “For the people who have been there, they still love it,” he says. “They are always looking to go back to visit but it is very hard to get a visa.”
Today, Chuyen is the most famous non-Czech Czech man in Saigon. As well as being the head of the Hoa Vien empire, he’s the president of Club Praha (a Viet-Czech friendship group), an avid promoter of Czech culture and products, and has been the Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic in Ho Chi Minh City for the past 15 years. “There are not too many Czechs visiting Vietnam now,” he says, “but every month there is something to do: lost passports, health issues, accidents…whatever the embassy want, I do.”
It’s a Monday night at Hoa Vien and the place is buzzing. As we empty our one-litre steins of beer, Chuyen presents a bottle of Hammerhead Single Malt Whisky. “Czech whisky?” I ask. He nods. “It’s a very interesting story.”
Distilled just before the Velvet Revolution by a state-owned company, it was placed into oak barrels and – as the blurb goes – “the wall fell and the whisky was forgotten”. It lay undiscovered for 25 years. “They only bottle it when you order it,” he adds, pouring me a dram. Distilled in Czechoslovakia, bottled in the Czech Republic and served in Vietnam – it’s history in a glass. “Na zdraví!”
Ondra Slowik is a PhD student of phonetics at Charles University, Prague, and is currently translating Vu Trong Phung’s 1936 novel So Do (‘Dumb Luck’) from Vietnamese into Czech.
Published April 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine