A far cry from the towering spires that Prague is known for, Marissa Tejada ventured to Prague’s outskirts to find an authentic Vietnamese community known for tasty pho, colorful bubble tea and all the knick-knacks you (don’t) need.
Prague’s Little Hanoi, known as Sapa, doesn’t show up on those classic postcards adorned with gothic spires and majestic castles. There isn’t a skyline at all in Sapa. Behind a strip mall exterior is a market district built by the Czech Republic’s Vietnamese community over the past three decades. It’s a maze of stalls carved out of an old industrial factory site that breathes the essence of a busy, gritty Asian market. Its buildings are literally rusting around the edges void of any fancy touches.
Once a small bedroom community, Sapa has evolved into a trading center and market. Politics brought the Czech and Vietnamese communities together during their communist regimes where bilateral agreements encouraged Vietnamese to migrate to Prague to work. Today, the Vietnamese are the second largest ethnic minority in the Czech Republic, gaining official status in 2013.
Don’t expect to find any maps to help you discover Sapa. One local advised me best when he shook his hand out to say: “You just go and you find everything.” Lining Sapa’s connected parking lots are shops and business stalls surrounded by piles of wholesale knick-knacks – straight from Asia. Everything from plastic dolls, metal cans, stuffed animals, flower pots, garden statues, cheap clothing, cheap shoes, cheap gadgets, wigs and mops can be found stacked in colorful heaps.
While you can buy lots of things you may or may not need, it’s the dozens of tin-box-like restaurants that attract visitors. A whiff of fresh ginger, cilantro, steamed tofu, and chili paste waft out of them calling attention to Vietnamese pho or noodle soup, bun cha which is grilled pork and noodles or banh mi sandwiches. Each simple eatery more or less shares the same layout: fluorescent lighting, unmatched and well-worn plastic furniture, tables adorned with a cup of chopsticks and a bottle of chili sauce, a TV blaring in one corner and someone cooking behind a counter in another corner.
Ask around for Pho Quynh Anh restaurant which is famous for its pho bo or beef and rice noodle soup. Another option is Pho Tung restaurant which is known for its pho ga, a chicken and rice noodle soup. Pho dishes range around 100 Czech koruna or 3.50 euro in Sapa. Dish out some more change to sample nuoc mia which is sugar-cane juice with ice and limes. Top off your Vietnamese dining experience with sweet Asian bubble tea. Ask around for Bobo Bubble Tea where you can sample jasmine tea with lychee balls.
Besides eateries, tea shops and trading posts Sapa is dotted with barbershops, hair salons, tailors, travel agencies and an occasional bridal shop. A few large grocery stores are a haven of ingredients for the Asian foodie where buckets brim with Asian staples including Thai basil, coconuts, lemongrass and bitter melon.
Sapa has one Buddhist temple, a small simple building tucked in a corner of the district. Like most places in Sapa, there’s no exact address so you need to ask and follow the direction you’re being waved to. It’s a peaceful little temple adorned with two large plastic flower trees outside. Peek inside to find statues of Buddha, food offerings and burning incense.
Most of Sapa’s businesses close daily by 18:00, some by 20:00. The main restaurant at the Sapa entrance, called Dong Do, is the most upscale in town and stays open later. If you’re lucky you might catch a Vietnamese wedding taking place in its enormous banquet hall or a big family party heading into one of the venue’s immaculate mahogany private party rooms.
Otherwise Sapa shuts down by sunset unless the local business hotel called Hotel Lifestyle holds a karaoke night or attracts enough gamblers in its on-premises Casino.
Tran Thu Trang emigrated to Czech Republic 22 years ago at the age of eight. She studied economics in Prague and works for a law office in Sapa. What she loves about the district is the fact is like a little city within a big city. It’s a place where Vietnamese can come together as a community. “The community is growing, we’re now second generation and some kids only speak Czech. I speak both.” She admits Sapa has its growing pains including merchants who don’t understand Czech law. What makes it unique, she says, is the clash of cultures. “Culturally, Czechs and Vietnamese are so different when it comes to mentality and attitude.”
Sapa isn’t a place most Prague visitors stay. In fact, most Vietnamese have moved outside of the marketplace. There is one hotel, the aforementioned Hotel Lifestyle located right at the entrance which is popular with the business crowd and traders. From Prague’s more central districts, Sapa’s District 4 location is an easy 30-40 minute afternoon trip via metro and bus (take bus 113 from metro station Kacerov C line).
For a more conventional look at the Czech capital, be sure to pass by our Prague city break guide, or our In The Zone guide to the hip Holesovice district. Can’t get enough? Then take a look at the best brew pubs in town or a these stunning photos from the Christmas markets!