Berlin is known as the world capital of techno music and club culture, as a destination for those with a passion for history and politics, and as a hub of alternative art and fashion. While Schönefeld Airport welcomes legions of so-called ‘Easyjet Ravers’ each weekend, and the likes of Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie are never lacking for visitors, one aspect of the city that is often overlooked is the food.
Often, eating out is relegated to the cluster of over-priced eateries that are found around the major sights. There is, however, a world of culinary excellence to be be found in Berlin and one of the great delights of dining in Berlin is the myriad of cheap eats on offer.
This is the city that invented the döner kebab – a product of decades of Turkish immigration – and the currywurst, an Anglo-German combination so beloved that it has its own museum. Ask a local where the best street food is, however, and you’ll likely be directed to the local Vietnamese joint.
The standard of Vietnamese establishments goes from neighbourhood pho and noodle shops to gourmet Asian restaurants, equal to any across Europe. And as with so much in Berlin, the story of the city’s Vietnamese community is steeped in Cold War history.
Some 1.1% of the population of Berlin are of Vietnamese extraction, the vast majority of whom live in the former East. In fact, one of the few ways in which you can tell which side of the wall you are on is to wander into a local shop and see if it is owned by Vietnamese Germans or Turkish Germans. While the biggest clusters lie in outlying areas unlikely to be on any tourist itinerary, the visibility and influence of the community on the life of Berlin far outstrips its numbers.
In almost every major U-Bahn (subway) station, there are flower stands staffed by Vietnamese locals. To truly see the power of the community, however, one must go a little off the beaten track and experience the Dong Xuan Center, named for the largest market in Hanoi. You can find it in an unassuming, unmistakably East German industrial estate amid plattenbauten prefabricated tower blocks, set back from the street in the eastern district of Lichtenberg.
Inside, merchants sell live fish, durian fruit and Asian groceries, and bustling restaurants dole out banh mi and pho. There are nail and hair salons, retailers that appear only to deal in budget electronics, plus more textile shops than could conceivably exist in one place whilst turning a profit.
While the Dong Xuan Center might make Vietnamese Berliners seem masters of everything-in-one-place consumer capitalism, the history of the community in East Berlin is intertwined with the rise and fall of communism in the city. The first wave of immigrants were the so-called vertragsarbeiter or contract workers, who were brought to East Germany as cheap labour under a system of co-operation with other socialist countries – such as Vietnam.
Their jobs were in solid, state-run industries – particularly in textile factories – but often Vietnamese immigrants found themselves treated as second class citizens rather than the comrades that they officially were. They were routinely paid wages that were a third of what a German would earn and were not eligible for promotion. Housing consisted of single-sex dormitories built into the factories in which they worked, and the women were forced into abortions, facing deportation if they fell pregnant. As an exhibition about the contributions of migrant workers in East Germany was titled: “The Economy of the DDR was not possible without them, but nobody was thankful to them”.
Vietnamese Germans did not, however, only settle in the East. There was a substantial population of refugees from the Vietnam War who settled in the West, where they were granted free German courses and access to education. There remain tensions to this day inside the Vietnamese community between those who came under the auspices of the Communist government and those who fled during the war. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, some two thirds of vertragsarbeiter living in East Germany were from Vietnam. As East Germany ceased to exist, so did their right to remain in the new, reunited country. Around 10% were able to claim permanent residency, as they had been in Germany for more than 8 years, but the vast majority fell into a legal grey area. The new German government negotiated a deal with Hanoi wherein Vietnamese workers were offered $2000 to return home. Many were unwilling and became illegal immigrants.
As the steady jobs that had been guaranteed by the East German state no longer existed, and their ability to work was curtailed by the new reunified government, Vietnamese people became marginalised, often working on the fringes of legality. A loophole in German employment law regarding self-employment meant that those with the start-up capital could open restaurants, flower stands and corner shops, while those without sold fruit and vegetables by the roadside or, indeed, smuggled cigarettes.
The huge upsurge in unemployment in the former East led in turn to a rise in xenophobia and violence against immigrants. In September 1991, the Saxon town Hoyerswerda saw pogroms in which street sellers were attacked by Neo-Nazis, while an apartment block in the northern city of Rostock that houses many Vietnamese and Roma was attacked by a racist mob. Many Vietnamese from other parts of East Germany fled to Berlin to find safety in numbers in the capital.
As the 1990s wore on, the situation began to improve. Vietnamese cultural organisations began to spring up to fight for immigrant rights, sparked by a crackdown on unofficial work that threatened to put many on the streets. After a landmark change in legislation in 1997 which allowed for time worked in the former East to be counted towards residency applications, thousands of Vietnamese were able to finally call Germany their permanent home without threat of deportation.
The upsurge in cultural activity and pride that has followed has been nothing short of astounding. Some 50% Vietnamese children reach pre-university school in East Berlin, far outstripping other immigrant groups and ethnic Germans. Vietnamese individuals are now prominent in German society, such as Olympic medallist Marcel Nguyen, TV presenter and actress Minh-Khai Phan-Thi and former Vice-Chancellor Philipp Rösler.
The Vietnamese food scene is representative of the fortunes of Vietnamese people in Berlin. While many who opened restaurants in the 1990s served generic Asian cuisine and regular German fare, as the community has grown in confidence, so has the cooking. Today, restaurants such as District Mot and Monsieur Vuong in Mitte, Miss Saigon in Kreuzberg and Misty in Prenzlauer Berg should be towards the top of any visitor wanting to enjoy the subtle herbs and spices of Vietnamese cuisine.
And for the truly adventurous, there is the humbly named Restaurant Viet Nam, a few hundred yards along from the Dong Xuan Center on the corner of Herzbergstraße and Siegfriedstraße. It doesn’t have a website, a Facebook page or even a single TripAdvisor review, but you can take your seat any day of the week and slurp down the best pho this side of Saigon for less than €7, bombarded by Vietnamese pop music and surrounded by locals. I’ll see you there.