“Don’t you miss Hanoi, your hometown?” the Vietnamese shopkeeper asked.
“No auntie,” I replied. “Sapa is my Little Hanoi.”
Looking at me dearly, the grey-headed woman giggled. It wasn’t the first time she heard Vietnamese students studying abroad in the Czech Republic say that.
When Vietnamese get off the bus in front of Sapa in Prague 4, our home country is before our eyes. The cluttered stores, banks, tourist agencies, schools and newspapers with colorful Vietnamese banners and neon lights welcome us. The aroma of mouth-watering hot bowls of noodles saturate the atmosphere. The sound of our mother tongue melts our hearts. It turns out that home isn’t that far away.
Although Sapa could easily be mistaken for a busy commercial sector in Hanoi, it’s a slice of the capital city transported and dropped whole into Central Europe, with only bits of Czech language suggesting you’re not actually in Asia.
“We bought this 350,000-square-meter site in 1999 with the idea of establishing not only a commercial, but also a cultural exchange center, a reliable address for the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic,” Thắng Hoàng, president of the Vietnamese Association in the Czech Republic, told the Voice of Vietnam newspaper. “The name ʻSapaʼ [a mountainous town of ethnic minorities that has become a famous tourist attraction in Vietnam]was selected because it’s easily pronounced by Czech people while preserving our cultural identity.”
The self-governed town in Prague is a colorful cultural hub where Vietnamese gather to celebrate traditional holidays such as Lunar New Year (Tết Holiday) or the Moon Festival, but most of all, to enjoy their native cuisine, either by buying it in the shops or dining at one of the many restaurants.
“My family often goes to Sapa to meet up and hang out with other Vietnamese, but most of the time to attend weddings,” Hoà Nguyễn, a regular visitor to Sapa, said with a laugh. “We still decide the wedding day based on the lunar calendar. Major life events have to take place on auspicious days, so several weddings can happen in a row, and we have to attend all of them.”
While Sapa relieves the nostalgia for Vietnamese away from home, for curious visitors it offers a total immersion in another culture only a 30-minute bus ride from the center of Prague. Non-Asian tourists are welcome, though they will find that no one speaks English – only Vietnamese and Czech. They may also find the maze of tight streets confusing.
Standing before a variety of restaurants and looking at the names of dishes in Vietnamese and Czech, it’s clear the “Little Hanoi” nickname for Sapa is actually an understatement, given that the culinary experience includes cuisine from all over the country, not just Hanoi. Most people know about “Phở” (pronounced For) and “Bún” (pronounced Boon), the world-famous rice noodles. But Sapa opens up a whole new spectrum of exotic food with flamboyant names that sound like birds singing, such as “mỳ vằn thắn” (noodles with dumplings, liver, shrimp and pork), or “bánh cuốn Thanh Trì” (Vietnamese steamed rice rolls).
While a long, diverse menu attracts numerous customers, the best restaurants are usually the ones that specialize in only a few dishes, such as Dũng Liên, which focuses on bún (rice noodles) with either chả (grilled pork), or ngan (grilled duck); Huế Xưa, which offers the Central-style beef noodle; and Bún cá Hải Phòng, whose expertise is fish soup.
First-time visitors should be aware that these restaurants can get crowded, especially on weekends. And no credit cards are accepted, only cash. But whichever restaurant visitors choose, it offers them a world of sensory delights. A Vietnamese family’s conversation amid the clamor of frying pans, fires and knives draws visitors’ attention. The sight of gigantic, steaming soup pots and the smell of homey aromas entices them inside.
With a full stomach and a cup of Nâu Đá (Vietnamese coffee) in hand, visitors go shopping. A compound of warehouses is packed with made-in-China luxury brands like Chanel and Gucci. The grand Asian supermarket TAMDA overwhelms visitors with seemingly endless aisles filled with towering stacks of exotic foods – Korean Ramen, Japanese seaweed, Chinese chili sauce, Vietnamese fish sauce, Thai hotpot spice powder. Name it, and chances are the Vietnamese have it.
Many visitors also enjoy wandering through the little home-based shops that sell live sea creatures, juicy fruit, fresh herbs and newly harvested vegetables. Keen-eyed visitors will notice a humble Buddhist temple sitting quietly on a corner, encouraging visitors to slow down their steps, find peace and pray for health and good fortune.
“Why waste 20,000 crowns on a return flight ticket, when you can visit Vietnam right here in Prague, right?” the shopkeeper said to me.
“Indeed, auntie,” I replied with a blissful smile.
Address: Libušská 319/126, Prague 4
Hours: 8:00 – 18:00 daily (some shops stay open until 20:00)
Getting there: Bus 113 from Metro station Kačerov, or bus 197 from the Smíchovské Nádraží bus station. Get off at bus stop Sídliště Písnice.