Sapa: Little Hanoi in Prague

We’ve talked about it a few times before – Czech society is largely monocultural. In Prague, there are no ‘ghettos’ per se, no Chinatowns, no Italian markets. Ethnic minorities share the same living space as native Czechs. However, there is one place that effectively serves as a major cultural center for the Vietnamese population – it’s called Sapa, and although lots of people will just imagine a huge market (‘tržnice’), it’s actually much more than that.

SAPA, photo: archive of prague.tips

SAPA, photo: bkm / prague.tips

Sapa is located in Prague’s southern outskirts, in the Libuš district, near the bus stop ‘Sídliště Písnice’. To go there, you’d have to travel to the southern suburbs by metro first, and then spend a good few minutes on a bus. Sometimes nicknamed ‘Little Hanoi’, this place is the closest thing Czech Republic has to Hollywood-style Asian towns – only instead of opulent Oriental architecture, the buildings themselves blend with the Communist-era surroundings. Originally, what is now Sapa used to be a large meat-processing factory during the Communist reign, so random passers-by have little chance finding out.

To be fair, there are hints. The main entrance is a gate that is shaped in a distinct Asian style, and once you go inside, a whole new world unveils. On 35 hectares, approximately seven thousand people live, and they have everything they need there – there are shops, schools, restaurants, ambulances, even car services. To put it simply, the place is really huge (mostly it consists of large warehouses where Prague’s Asian businesses get their goods from).

Sapa gained notable recognition recently, when people realized Vietnamese cuisine exists; this is mainly due to some excellent food blogs out there, such as the one called ‘Viet Food Friends’. Now, Czechs are getting seriously hooked on Asian foods, and lots of people are trying to make them at home. And since the Vietnamese cuisine relies heavily on spices and ingredients you won’t find at your local Tesco, Sapa is the place to go to.

But to mark the place simply a market would surely be unfair. Yes, there are lots and lots and lots of shops selling food, coffee and tea, or cheap clothes and shoes, but that’s just scratching the surface. To truly experience Sapa, you have to go deeper.

Being a de facto capital of Czech Republic’s large Vietnamese community, Sapa has, for example, its own Buddhist temple.  Lots of Czechs are interested in Buddhism, which makes sense, given that traditional Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam don’t really attract people here. On the other hand, many children of Vietnamese descent can speak fluent Czech nowadays and often abandon their own culture’s traditional values.

The fascination is mutual. In 2009, Czech journalist Jan Cempírek published a book called ‘Bílej kůň, žlutej drak’ (‘White horse, yellow dragon’); it was a seemingly heartfelt novel about a young Vietnamese girl, Lan Pham Thi, trying to get by in today’s Czech society. The novel gained a ‘Czech Books’ Club Award’ (a very prestigious one), being seen as as a fascinating view inside a young Vietnamese person’s mind. The only problem was that Cempírek wrote the book all by himself, and Lan Pham Thi never existed. He even admitted that most of the story was just a compilation of cliches gathered about the life of the Vietnamese; yet, people responsible of awarding meaningful prizes bought it. Moral of the story: People are curious, and they do want to know what’s going on around them, to the point that rather than to fact-check, they’d prefer to simply believe anyone who seems to have anything to say.

SAPA, photo: archive of prague.tips

SAPA, photo: bkm / prague.tips

But back on track. If you come from a large country, seven thousand people might not seem that much, but bear in mind that in Czech Republic, that number is definitely enough to create an influential small town. And that is a definition that fits Sapa perfectly. On its official site, www.sapa-praha.cz, you can even find a list of available jobs; of course, the information is written in both Czech and Vietnamese. You can also get a cool new haircut done there. Or rent a car. Or hire a lawyer. Or buy authentic Vietnamese newspaper. Or Thai basil. Oh good Lord, don’t make me start about Thai basil – that’s the thing that makes lots of Asian foods taste like a gift from the Heavens themselves.

It just requires a little searching. Sapa is by design a little messy place, but hey – who’s ever heard about a cool Asian market (supplied with every last thing you could imagine) that has blocks of buildings structured in boring right angles? The place is vivid, is what we are trying to say. And then, there are the restaurants.

If you’re a meat-eater, and like fish, get prepared to almost literally explode: nowhere in Prague you’ll get better fish than in Sapa. If you’re a vegetarian – or a vegan, which in South-East Asian cuisine is practically the same, given that they don’t usually use milk or eggs – go search for cheap tofu, various herbs and spices, exotic fruits and vegetables, or even such items as a tempeh starter.

And finally, if you’re just a plain ol’ beer lover and happen to (somehow) end up in Písnice, there are places with beer on tap also. In a few years, a metro station should be built nearby, so it seems that Sapa is set for a long, long life.

Or at least everyone who’s been there hopes so.

Author: Dominik Zezula

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