Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic – 12,000 km as the crow flies from their own country

  • When to say Suong and when to say Vietnamese

When we look at a forest from afar, we see only a continuous swath of green. When we get closer to the forest, we see its natural variety; we do not see only a tree, but also its inhabitants, its leaves, we smell its aroma, and so on. Similar procedures take place in our minds when we are evaluating a group. When we look at the group from afar, we see just the whole. The properties which prevail hit us right between the eyes in the form of those with which we definitely identify with, or those which we definitely reject. But in the same way as we do not get the most of out the forest when we see it from afar, we are not experiencing the true atmosphere of the group if we do not encounter each of its members and the relationships between them. When someone says ‘Vietnamese’ let’s imagine a group of people which have several shared properties as a group, common historical experiences, and a feeling of mutual belonging; a group which differs from us in some ways and is similar to us in others. When we say ‘Suong,’ we are speaking of a person who may or may not differ in some way from these group characteristics, and who may actively change the character of the group. In certain situations, Suong is proud of her group, while in others she would like to change something about it, and in still other situations, she no longer even feels Vietnamese.

  • What is...?

Vietnamese Socialist Republic - Cộng Hòa Xã Hội Chủ Nghĩa Vię̣t Nam: The modern Vietnamese Socialist Republic (or in short Vietnam), whose history goes back to about 3,000 BC, lies on the east coast of Indochina. The mountainous character of the landscape of North Vietnam is broken up by the extensive Red River Delta (Song Hong). We could set off by the long zone of Central Vietnam by the new Ho Chi Minh route along the border with Laos, and we would pass by the Truong Son mountain range, which stretches along the entire centre of Vietnam all the way to the extensive upland areas of Tay Nguyen in the south. Further south, the uplands slowly descend and the coastal lowlands spread out and merge with the Mekong Delta (Song Cuu Long, i.e. the Nine-Dragon River). The capital of Vietnam is North Hanoi, and the largest and most populous city is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. As much as 70% of the Vietnamese people support themselves through agriculture. Vietnam lies in two climatic zones, tropical and subtropical, and for this reason its climate in the north and south is very different over the course of the year. With its 82.5 million inhabitants, Vietnam is the 13th most highly populated country in the world. After 1986, land reform gave greater independence to the peasants and the possibility of applying common law. There was gradual liberalisation of commerce and an expansion of the imports and exports market. Vietnam is one of the global exporters of rice, which is grown on around 80% of its cultivated land. After a long period of wars which lasted right up to the 1980s, Vietnam is these days fully integrated into the regional, local and global economy.

Viet (or Kinh) – Vię̣t (Kinh): Of the 82.5 million inhabitants of the VSR, ethnic Viets account for some 86% of the population. The rest of the population are members of some sixty other nationalities, of which the most numerous are the nationalities Tay, Thai, Khmer, Muong, Chinese, Nung, Hmong and Dao. Ninety-nine percent of Vietnamese coming to the Czech Republic are ethnic Viets.

Xu: Vietnamese people living in the CR have noticed that when Czechs speak of them, they often use the genitive case, i.e. “Vietnamců”. And so they have adopted this expression as they heard it – “sů”. Vietnamese do not decline words, and so it is perfectly possible to form the nominative out of the genitive plural. The basis of the Vietnamese vocabulary comprises monosyllabic words, which is why a monosyllabic word will arise from three syllables. Vietnamese uses a Latinate script, but with other diacritics. Certain consonants and vowels are pronounced differently, and so this word is in fact written as “Xù”. Moreover, every word in Vietnamese must be pronounced with the correct intonation, otherwise it could mean something completely different. This is why a grave accent is written above the “u”, so as to indicate a falling tone (something similar to Czech at the end of a declarative statement).

A walk as a communal activity – đi chơi: How misleading could a literal and incorrect translation be? When we learn Vietnamese, to begin with we often translate the word đi chơi as “go for a walk”. However, when we experience its significance in practice, we notice that it means a lot more. It means to go and converse with someone, visit someone, not on account of a duty, but simply to have a good time with other people.

Folk faith and “triple faith” – tam giáo: Vietnam is an example of the fact that to be a believer does not always necessitate being a member of a church. The Vietnamese psyche has accepted various values and experiences for the entirety of its existence, which it has transformed into the character of a traditional folk faith. Part of this faith comprises values and experiences of the distant past in the same way as the present. This includes an intensive relationship to natural phenomena, to national heroes, to their ancestors and the deceased, and to universal events and forces. Part of their modern outlook on the world has embraced the three important religions of the Far East: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (hence “triple faith”). Around 99% of modern Vietnamese people have an altar at home decorated with fruit, romantic pictures of landscapes, modern romantic kitsch photographs, joss stocks, photographs of their ancestors, statues of gods and the founders of the faith, and other materials which embody the faith.

Tę́t: The most important holidays in the year, celebrated according to the lunar calendar (i.e. the calendar mainly derived from the orbit of the moon). According to the solar calendar (i.e. mainly derived from the sun’s movement in the sky), these holidays fall sometime in January and February (in 2006, Tet was celebrated on 1.1. according to the lunar calendar and on 28.1. according to the solar). These are holidays of the native village, the family, deliverance from old sins and debts, welcoming the new agricultural year, new successes, a time for accounts, and wishes for health and happiness. The celebrations include mutual visits, communal games, large banquets and traditional food, cultural performances and wonderful fireworks.

Ăn giỗ́: In the CR and Europe, the most important individual celebration is arguably of one’s birthday. One’s birthday is an expression of the hope of personal development and success, and happiness surrounding a new birth. In Vietnam, greater importance is attached to celebrations of the anniversary of the death of an ancestor. A banquet is prepared, the place of rest of the deceased is visited, and there are reminiscences and prayers. It is a holiday which is observed with gratitude and fidelity to the dead.

  • Topic

There exist references to the fact that the first traveller, half of Czech origin, visited the modern territory of Vietnam as far back as the 14th century. The first Vietnamese students began arriving in the CR in larger numbers in the forties and fifties of the last century. However, the largest wave of migrants was in the eighties. After 1989, some Vietnamese remained in the CR, but most are arriving for the first time. It is estimated that around 40,000 or more Vietnamese people live in the CR at present. Most are here on the basis of permanent residence, and 39% on the basis of long-term residence. There are several dozen citizens of the CR with Vietnamese nationality. The vast majority of Vietnamese come to the CR for better economic conditions and a higher standard of living. Certain members of a family arrive to follow previous arrivals, so that the family remains together. Vietnamese migrants include successful businesspeople, managers of international companies, as well as those who have large debts and do not have any permanent accommodation or employment. However, most of the Vietnamese in the CR are regular businesspeople trading in cheap goods as importers, brokers, salespeople, and so on.

Over time, the Vietnamese have settled all over the Czech Republic. The entry gates to the CR are Prague and Brno, as well as border crossings. As opposed to most of the older generations, who did not have much contact with persons outside the Vietnamese community, the younger generation of Vietnamese have mostly grown up in the CR from childhood, study at Czech schools, speak Czech very well, and have in some cases forgotten Vietnamese. While the incoming migrants overcame many barriers upon entering a completely new life environment to which they gradually had to accustom themselves, the longer-settled often remain in the CR against their original plans. At present, the Vietnamese community is becoming a self-sufficient group within the framework of Czech society, with its own non-profit organisations, business federations, schools, cultural and sports events, summer activities for children, etc. Vietnamese children attain outstanding results in Czech schools. A long time after 1989, Vietnamese organisations are only beginning in the last two years to focus on the social life of the community (and not just business). The Vietnamese press printed in the CR has news from around the world, from Vietnam and the CR, and various materials are beginning to be translated which help migrants during their first months in the CR.

At present, for instance, in Vietnam there is a publication about the CR for people interested in travelling here. Gradually, Czech textbooks – the first after 1989 – are being written for Vietnamese people, and a far larger variety of literature on Vietnam is becoming available in the CR. Various Czech and Vietnamese organisations are beginning to cooperate intensively, especially on the local level. In Prague, a centre for Vietnamese tuition has opened up for Vietnamese children who have forgotten the language of their parents. A Czech-Vietnamese open internet dictionary is slowly being compiled.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
“I followed my husband here. If I had to decide all over again whether or not to leave Vietnam, I would remain home and attempt to resolve the situation differently. I speak Czech well, I have a university education and I love Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese shopkeepers don’t accept me because I work in an office and don’t sell goods like they do. Czechs always view me as a foreigner. It’s not easy. I’m trying to teach the kids Vietnamese, but they don’t want to return to Vietnam for good, they want to stay in the CR.”

Story 2
“We meet once a week at the community centre. One of the regular activities is ‘pass the talisman’. The holder of the talisman always passes it to someone else and has to state why they are giving it to that particular person. One Vietnamese girl came up to the schoolmaster, passed him an apple (the talisman), and asked me to translate that she was passing the apple to him because he had a “bụng rất tốt” (... a very large belly), and couldn’t stop laughing about this. Everyone looked at her, not knowing what she was on about. But she meant it well. It was connected with the fact that in Vietnamese culture, the stomach, as a part of the human body, also refers to the innards, i.e. the transferred properties or soul of a person. When we say tốt bụng to someone, it means a kind and pleasant person, but if we change our voice slightly or change the word order to bụng tốt, the expression has a different meaning: a person with a large stomach. The girl wanted to say that the teacher was larger, which was why he is also a very good person. In Vietnam, people traditionally do not have a varied enough diet, and have to deal with harsh weather and heavy physical work, which is why only few Vietnamese are fat. And so when they see someone fat, they think that they must be well off, they can look after themselves and are proud of the fact. When I explained this to the rest of the community, everyone began to laugh. The teacher wasn’t annoyed, although to this day refers to himself as “Mr. Fat Belly”.

  • Sources


Dračí král: vietnamské pohádky (2001). Přel. P. Müllerová. Praha: Dauphin.

Kocourek, J. & Pechová, E. (ed.) (2006). S vietnamskými dětmi na českých školách. Praha: Nakladatelství H+H.

Vasiljev, I. (1999). Za dědictvím starých Vietů. Etnologický ústav AVČR. Praha.


See this page in Czech