Sapa – a trip to Vietnam right in the heart of Europe

Fresh fruits and vegetables at the food hall

Stapled Hello Kitty sweaters rise next to hanging rainbow-colored ties. Colorful caps on the one side, wildly colored underwear on the other. Sitting on a shabby stool between rustling plastic wrapping some Vietnamese woman is getting a neck-massage from a friend. Elsewhere, a group of old-looking men is playing cards. The smell of fresh Pho soup is filling up the hallway.

One might consider this scenery is taking place somewhere in Asia. In fact, it is in Europe. About an hour drive from Czech’s pulsing city center Prague, one will find itself in Sapa. Sapa, also called Little Hanoi, marks the biggest Vietnamese community in Europe. What started as a small settlement of Vietnamese during the Communist period, Sapa became a busy market-place not only for the Vietnamese. Sapa measures more than 250 000 square meters. It is characterized but its broad streets blocked up by parking SUVs and rust buckets. Therefore, the Vietnamese town could be rather described as a massive car park.

The market hall – a brittle building made out of concrete and stole – builds the heart of Sapa. The various departments in the ducked hall are sorted by industry. Each seller seems to specialize in one good: There is the bag seller, the sweater seller, the one for the hats. Then there is one for electricity, one for watches and so it goes on.

“A lot of the Vietnamese people here come from Germany”

While walking through the packed market hall, I meet Vasil. He wears a checkered shirt and a pair of old black jeans. The rather slight man’s German shows a strong Czech accent. „A lot of the Vietnamese people here come from Germany. Erfurt or Leipzig for example“, he explains briefly. The Vietnamese shop owner which is trying to sell him a sweater adds that he was born in Thüringen. This explains, why there are so little people speaking English in Sapa. He kindly allows us to take a picture of his varied shop but he doesn’t want to get featured.

However, shooting photographs as a tourist just does not work. Sapa’s locals follow a strict policy to prevent people from taking pictures in their shops. „The people here are afraid that someone might copy their wares“, concludes Ana. She runs a family business together with her parents and her younger brother. During summer they sell fresh juices and bubble tea in front of their small shop. As one of the few, her English is perfect. She does business studies at Charles University. Before she came to the Czech Republic three years ago, she lived in Vietnam. „There is nothing wrong with taking pictures outside of the hall but be careful not to feature their goods.“ Research shows, that it happens quite often that there is a raid in Sapa as it is a well-known reloading point for weed and fake clothing. Still, so-called brands like Camp Davyn (as a cheap copy of Camp David) are traded in the market.

By joining a guided tour through Sapa, tourists can discover the daily life. Marcela Vuong, who calls herself a banana-child (a term used for Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic), loves to share her Vietnamese heritage. She states that it’s merely Czech that comes to Sapa to do some cheap shopping or to get ingredients for Vietnamese dishes. Also, most of the locals can’t speak English so they try to avoid communicating with foreigners. However, they simply prefer to stay among their peers. Moreover, Marcela is a passionate cook. That’s why she enjoys offering Vietnamese cooking classes besides the tours.

Sapa might vary from Vietnam when it comes to openness and curosity. But it surely is a great opportunity to see how Vietnamese life looks like without buying an expensive plane ticket to Vietnam. Especially when you’re craving some authentic Vietnamese food.


Leave a Reply