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Travel

Big Fun in Little Hanoi

August 24, 2010, 1:35pm

We’re tired of people telling us how important it is to travel. We’ve been abroad a few times and always ended up with our wallets empty and our cameras full of stupid pictures. The best thing about traveling is being able to silence all those crusty vagabonds who keep gabbing about the miracles of a tormenting fast in an Indian monastery, copulations in Thailand, or lately, about crawling through underground tunnels in Vietnam built by the VC (and enlarged for tourists). While we can't help you with the first two, instead of going all the way to Vietnam for some holes, why not just come to Prague? Here you can smell, taste, and buy a piece of Nam in a short time and for very little money.

“Wow, it looks like a Jackie Chan movie,” shouts our marveled friend as we plunge into the metal inside of the Vietnamese marketplace, SAPA. From the outside, he's right--we're surrounded by small restaurants offering exotic food and huge halls loaded to the rooftop with cheap clothes. However, if your idea of life in East Asia has been formed by B movies, you'll have to lower your expectations as you walk inside. There won't be any tough guys wearing dark sunglasses and juggling nun-chucks while green smoke spills from an ominous drain nearby. No flying monkey heads with flashing eyes either. Still, you catch a whiff of something similar to monkey feces every now and then. Like when you lean above a counter filled with the guts of smelly sea creatures, or when you peep into one of the many local casinos with their Mad Max tableaux's.

Our adventure begins when we get off of the public transport in Libuše, at the very end of Prague. The locals don't seem to care about the small foreign embassy in their neighborhood. Across the street from the bus stop is a side entrance to the market. There we find a young, smiling Vietnamese lady, who hides behind her stand. We find out her name is Ly. She is fluent in Czech because she attended a high school in a little town near Prague. This is her sixth year in the Czech Republic, but her parents came here 20 years ago. She was raised by her grandmother, which she says is quite common since many Vietnamese couples have been leaving their families since the 70s to find work in other communist countries.

Although the Vietnamese are one of the largest groups of immigrants in the Czech Republic, one hardly comes across a Czech-Vietnamese couple or a mixed group of friends. It’s tough to decide who’s the snobby one because both groups seem to be pretty uninterested in each other.

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Czechs believe that the Vietnamese's sole source of income is their stands, where they sell cheap clothes and shoes and high-quality vegetables (the latter has earned them great respect among the majority of Czech citizens). The immigrants, however, do not do much to challenge mainstream opinions. They’re almost invisible in politics, media, and the Czech nightlife.

Because tourists are allowed to ask questions, we keep asking Ly stupid ones. She says that the thing she likes most about Prague is the climate. She likes SAPA because it offers everything a member of the Vietnamese community needs. There's a doctor, a lawyer, a kindergarten, but most importantly, there are many hair salons, where locals come to get their creative haircuts for low prices. Their hairstyles are inspired by the popular trends in their homeland, thankfully, because if they followed the ruling Czech fashion all the ladies would have cheap highlights and the dudes would have trimmed scalps. Many of the young people obviously care about their physical appearance, so besides sweaty shop-keepers, you may very well come across individuals capable of inducing some serious erotic tickling.

Farther away from the entrance we see smoked ruins of what used to be a hall. It burnt down two years ago in a huge fire, which proved that synthetic clothes make a very good fuel. The smell covered the whole city and the stench marked the first time most people in Prague had ever heard of SAPA. It also provided the police with an excuse for an extensive inspection.

We stop by a shop selling furniture that stands right next to the ruins--somehow the flames left it completely intact. “We were lucky,” says a shop assistant when we ask about their methods of fire-avoiding. She offers us discounts on products which would look majestic even in the office of the bureaucratic hedonist Chan Feng.

Huge metal halls emerge from the horizon as we approach the center of the marketplace. Moving across tiny isles, one is surrounded by piles of clothes and other goods. SAPA is officially a wholesale market, so some products are only sold in large quantities, although after some haggling you might be able to buy a single item for incredibly cheap. We approach a guy at a drug store and ask him how he can afford to sell his junk for half the price you pay at a Czech hypermarket. “Convenient discount,” he keeps saying. Like the vast majority of elderly folks here, he’s not really fun to talk to. Obviously, Czech twists his tongue, or at least he’s trying to act like it does.

Besides lovers of cheap clothing, SAPA will please many a fan of exotic pop music. Three hot Vietnamese ladies make us buy a CD of My Tam. Ly confirms that the singer has a successful career in Vietnam. After the first listening, we’re certain that a strong female challenger for David Hasselhoff is growing up in Hanoi.

As the setting sun turns red, the whole place begins to remind us of a post-apocalyptic dream. At this time, our fellow tourists are all headed toward local restaurants. We’ve been recommended one of the tiny places that offers Pho. The soup is delicious, and it pleases our Czech buds 100 percent. On the other hand, we also try some pork Cha Lua which tests our tolerance for exotic food. Especially after our friend comments on the striking resemblance of the rice noodles to boiled sperm.

MICHAL DĚD AND YVETTE DE BABRAQUE