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Scene in Berlin

Elizabeth Grenier, BerlinMarch 27, 2014

Berlin has a huge Vietnamese population, shaped by city's own historical division. DW's Elizabeth Grenier immerses herself in the local sub-culture, on a hunt for the best Pho soup.

Dong Xuan Center in Berlin
Image: DW/E. Grenier

I have never been to Vietnam. I keep promising myself I'll go there one day and overdose on street food.

Until then, right here in Berlin, I get to say almost every day, let me just go to Vietnam - and I'll be back in a minute.

What we affectionately call "Vietnam" is right across the street. Our Spätkauf (the local Berlin word for convenience stores that are open late) is run by a friendly Vietnamese family. They know no one should ever run out of certain survival basics: chocolate, candy, chips, cigarettes, beer, and wine.

Bring on the coriander

And that's not the only way to go to Vietnam in Berlin. While I'm waiting for the day I'll get my teeth on a grilled ray fish on a beach in Long Hai, there are more Vietnamese restaurants here than I could possibly visit.

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Yet when I landed in Berlin over seven years ago, it was still quite unusual to find the Vietnamese classics in Asian restaurants. Even in places run by Vietnamese families, simple Pho soups were not included on the menu. Instead, you would get Thai-influenced variations of dishes swimming in red or green curry.

When the Berlin institution Monsieur Vuong came along with Vietnamese cuisine, all of sudden the meals thousands of German-Vietnamese families had quietly been eating at home became hip, and the subtle play on fresh herbs was made available to the public. Restaurants opened up everywhere.

My recommendation: You don't need to try them all. Pick one as your favorite, and become a regular.

Divided realities

According to the German Federal Foreign Office, about 125,000 people living in the country are either Vietnamese or have Vietnamese roots, and an estimated 20,000 of them live in Berlin. It's the largest East-Asian community in the country.

The ghost of the Berlin Wall infiltrates so many aspects of this city - in this case, too. Divided Germany created two distinct groups of Vietnamese migrants. There are those who left their country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, fleeing the repression of the communist regime. About 38,000 refugees known as "boat people" arrived in West Germany between 1975 and 1986.

Pho soup at the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin, Photo: E. Grenier
Find your favorite, and stick with itImage: DW/E. Grenier

The others were invited to come to what was then East Germany as temporary contract workers, through an agreement between the German Democratic Republic and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. About 60,000 people came to do the jobs the East Germans didn't care to do themselves.

When the Wall came down in 1989, the contract workers not only lost their jobs but also their legal residence status. Though they were offered money to return to Vietnam, many stayed. Other Vietnamese contract workers based in Eastern Europe came over to Germany as well.

The differences between the two groups still remain, shaped by the perspectives they were given on their arrival in Germany: The refugees knew they wanted to start a new life here. Several programs were set up to integrate them and they learned German. The contract workers in East Germany lived in isolated hostels where they were tightly controlled and their language skills were kept to a minimum.

Little Hanoi

Most of these "East Berlin Vietnamese" still live in the neighborhoods where their hostels were located, such as Marzahn and Lichtenberg. With their overwhelming tower blocks, these neighborhoods are certainly not in danger of gentrification at the moment.

Hair stylist and the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin, Photo: E. Grenier
At the Dong Xuan Center, visitors can find just about any service they might be looking forImage: DW/E. Grenier

With little chance of employment in the 1990s, many Vietnamese started small businesses. That's why you'll find all those great Asian specialty shops in Berlin. They're the best way to get your hands on all shapes of rice noodles, Indian spices, cheap tofu, and fresh Thai-basil to cook at home.

Even though I regularly fill up on these staples in Asian markets, I had never been to the heart of Berlin's Vietnamese economy: the Dong Xuan Center. Its structure is directly inspired by the largest covered market in Hanoi, which also has the same name.

The Berlin version of the Dong Xuan Market is a series of six hangars in Lichtenberg, where you can find everything a Vietnamese would need to soothe their homesickness - or start a business of their own. Everything, multiplied by a thousand.

Neon, nails and more

Each hall's structure is a repetition of the next one: a long corridor along which doors open up to cubicles where supplies are piled up. Hundreds of postings cover the billboards at the entrance, all of them in Vietnamese. So if you're looking for a job in Berlin and have a working knowledge of the language, this is the first place you should head to.

Job postings at the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin, Photo: E. Grenier
Looking for a job?Image: DW/E. Grenier

Each hall has a few supermarkets and restaurants. You'll also find lots of cheap clothes - and lots and lots of plastic. Plastic flowers, plastic hats, plastic toys, and plastic shoes. You're miles away from the organic German shops where everything is made of wool and wood.

If you're used to Middle Eastern bazaars where shop holders all try to grab your attention and lure you into their store, be prepared to feel very unnecessary here. These piles of stuff are mainly destined to wholesale, so shop owners seem unbothered by customers who want just one little waving cat.

Even though the stacks of supplies do not aim to cater to German tastes, I noticed, beyond the numerous Vietnamese, two main breeds of customers. There are those who are there out of curiosity, hipsters and other dreadlocked travelers who want to conquer every last hidden spot in Berlin. And then you'll find the locals, who also go there to get cheap haircuts and renew their wardrobe for the spring.

The final test: the food

Mixed with the smells of cigarette smoke and plastic, the vapors of Pho soups pervade the halls. I had to check out whether this is where I'd find my new favorite Vietnamese noodle soup. I just picked a restaurant with quite a few people in it. I must say, the soup was decent, but I won't be coming back every week to appease my craving.

Dong Xuan Center in Berlin, Photo: E. Grenier
The Dong Xuan Center in Berlin is a hub of Vietnamese cultureImage: DW/E. Grenier

Many dishes on the menu were much more expensive than the average six-euro ($8) classics. If you want to spend between 30 and 50 euros, you can also eat snails, eel, goat, and frogs' legs, accompanied by a little Buddha shrine surrounded by fruit, flowers, sparkling wine, and huge chocolate bars. You know, the survival basics.