Published July 26, 2016 in Episode 53
The bus snakes its way through urban landscapes and across the countryside. It’s hard to tell where Austria ends and Slovakia begins. The European “border free” Schengen area, where there are no passport checks between certain countries in the European Union, can be thanked for that. But as the bus comes into the city, the buildings begin to show their history. The angular designs, the grey colours. Remnants of a previous era, when Soviet architecture flourished.
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, and just a short one and a half hour bus ride from Vienna, Austria. It’s a small eastern European country with a population of five and a half million, where only one percent are foreign-born. The country itself is home to approximately 5,000 Vietnamese, with the majority residing in the country’s capital.
A short drive through Bratislava and one will arrive at a neighborhood that is home to many of the Vietnamese in the city. A restaurant here, called Hanoi Garden, is considered by many to be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Bratislava.
It is here we meet Nguyễn Kiên Trung. Trung came to Slovakia when he was 10. He and his mother are very involved in the Vietnamese community that hosts many events, and is quite active in keeping Vietnamese traditions alive.
“They do have activities, I think on quite on a regular basis. So whenever it is a big holiday, like Tet, or Christmas maybe,”, Trung explains. “A lot of people are invited. And it’s quite nice. I think that it’s good for the community. I know that the community also in Košice, in the east of the country, they do have events on regular basis as well”
Hanoi Garden is connected to a building that is significant to the Vietnamese community’s journey. Miroslava Hlinčíková is a social scientist and researcher at Slovak Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ethnology. In her research on the Vietnamese community, she found that the history of the building and neighborhood, which is known as “Dimitrovka” in Bratislava, goes far back.
“Dimitrovka is kind of [a] dormitory, where many Vietnamese families are living in rental housing. It’s a kind of district in Bratislava where the former chemical plant was during Communism, and many Vietnamese workers were coming there. But after the revolution, this chemical plant was shut down. But many Vietnamese stayed. And one of the Vietnamese entrepreneur bought these dormitory housing. He re-furnished it, he renovated it, and now many families are staying in this district. Tthere are storage rooms, there is a hairdresser, there is a travel agency. It’s kind of the centre of the Vietnamese,” Hlinčíková explains.
The country itself is relatively young. Slovakia used to be part of Czechoslovakia between 1948-1989. Communist Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet Bloc and it was during this time that exchange programs were established with communist Việt Nam, Hlinčíková says.
“Vietnamese were coming to Czechoslovakia approximately from 70s. There were kind of intergovernmental agreements and there were prepared some support for Vietnamese that were coming here. They were coming as students, mostly to the universities, but also to secondary education, and as workers to factories.”
The community that flourished is comprised mainly of migrant workers and students, those seeking opportunities not found in Việt Nam. Trung’s parents came to Slovakia when it was still part of Czechoslovakia, their journey not so different from others.
“Most of the people here are economic migrants, or ex students or ex workers on exchange. During the communist regime, there were, exchanges for workers from Vietnam to Czechoslovakia,” Trung explains. “And it’s family system. My family came here, and then they help other family members from Việt Nam to come here. It’s a better life here than in Việt Nam.”
The peaceful Velvet Revolution in 1989 saw the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as a communist state, forming modern-day Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Vietnamese migrants that came to eastern Europe during the exchange programs between two communist states had already settled and were now helping others to migrate. Hlinčíková calls this a kind of “network migration”.
“After the revolution, after the change of the political regime in 1989, has started spontaneous economic migration. It’s kind of network migration. Most of the people that were settled here, started their business after the revolution. Retail business in different fields. Most of the migrants from Việt Nam who were coming after the revolution were somehow connected by family. Most of the people who were coming were relatives or friends of the people who were already staying here.”
Familial bonds brought Vietnamese migrants to Slovakia, yet it is the close ties to their home country that unites the community. Trung says the community have mobilized on issues such as China’s claim over the Spratly and Paracels Islands and humanitarian crises.
“Two years ago when Chinese took the islands there was a protest here. That was probably the biggest political event in the whole history of Vietnamese community here. It was a big thing. It was initiated by Vietnamese embassies all around the world, for communities to go protest the Chinese Embassy. We still do have that bond with the home country. We do not talk much, we do not take it super seriously, but we do care about what happens there, but we are here. Every year we send money for victims of the flood. Every year we collect money. Everybody gives something.”
Despite the unity within the Vietnamese community, there are still challenges. Representation in Slovak society is limited, and acceptance by the native population is a big issue.
Lani Willmar is a Vietnamese-American from southern California currently teaching English in Slovakia. She says that Slovak society as a whole has a hard time embracing foreigners.
“When I was coming to Slovakia on the Fulbright, I expected to meet a lot of Slovak people, but the interesting thing is, Slovak people are still pretty reserved to foreigners. They’re not used to foreigners at all. I totally feel like I stick out. And I’m sure my school was expecting some blonde girl with blue eye to pop in from California but I think it’s all the better that I’m there in the village so that they get exposure that Americans are not just white people.”
And though many Vietnamese work in Slovak factories or run its businesses, they struggle to achieve recognition from the Slovak state–that is, legal and social recognition, as well as political representation. Hlinčíková says the Vietnamese identity is visible, yet invisible:
“I call Vietnamese in Slovakia kind of invisible, and in is in brackets because on one side, very visible because of their appearance. But on the other side, they are invisible because they are mostly not recognized by the country, by the citizens as minorities, as people who are already living here for so many years and are already citizens.”
As many European countries are straining to deal with the rising tide of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and north Africa, Slovakia is struggling with the needs of its small immigrant population.
Even in Bratislava where the majority of Vietnamese reside, many live under the radar.
“Even though in these neighborhoods, more Vietnamese are living, they are mostly not recognized by the municipality. They are not really asking them, what are your needs, and what could we do for you. Slovakia is not really multicultural in this sense. It is not really recognizing the needs of minorities, of migrants.”
Still, there is hope for the future. As the community becomes more organized, the push for more formal recognition also grows.
“There already formed three main official NGOs that are run by Vietnamese. There is the Slovak Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, there is the Vietnamese Community in Slovakia, and there is the Union of Vietnamese Women. They already applied for some grants. Last year the Union of Vietnamese Women went through the process of participatory budgeting in Bratislava and was successful and got the money for course of Vietnamese and Slovak language.”
Hlinčíková adds that the next generation of Vietnamese-Slovakians will hopefully play a role as well.
“It’s changing with the other generations. Because they are getting to different sectors, they are going to different universities, so maybe their narrative will slowly change but it will take some time.”
Nearly 50 years after the first arrival of Vietnamese migrants to eastern Europe, acceptance and recognition is still intangible. Yet for the thousands of Vietnamese that have settled in Slovakia, this is their home. In a land not used to outsiders, they have carved out a new existence united in a love of their homeland, slowly working to render their invisible community visible.