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Vietnamese demonstrators in BerlinImage: AP

Berlin's Vietnamese Wall

Sebastian Schubert (sac)
November 27, 2004

The German capital is home to thousands of Vietnamese. But the communities in the East and those in the West remain divided, even 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.


The Berlin Wall still exists. Of course, it has physically all but disappeared from the cityscape. But it still determines the consciousness of a group of people: the Vietnamese in Berlin.

Over 10,000 Vietnamese live in the German capital. Many South Vietnamese came to Germany as boat people, fleeing from the Communist North. The fate of the boat people moved the entire world back in 1975. Thousands of them drowned at that time in the South China Sea during their escape. West Germany granted over 30,000 survivors asylum.

Vietnamesische Gastarbeiter in der DDR
Vietnamese guestworkers in East GermanyImage: dpa

East Germany also took in Vietnamese nationals. They were not boat people, but rather, North Vietnamese true to their regime. It was considered development aid for the socialist brother state and, at the same time, cheap labor for the ailing economy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

But when the Wall fell in 1989, Berlin's Vietnamese population also experienced an unexpected reunification -- and it was in part more difficult than the German one.

Fear and discrimination

After the fall of the Wall, some 2,500 Vietnamese in West Berlin encountered 5,000 in the East. For most of them, it was an ambivalent experience. North and South Vietnamese were and are still today strangers to each other.

Fear and discrimination determine the daily life between the erstwhile war opponents, despite the fact that they initially helped one another.

Thuy Nonnenmann
Thuy NonnenmannImage: dpa

Thúy Nonnenmann (photo), head of the Berlin Vietnam House and herself South Vietnamese can remember the arrival of the first North Vietnamese in West Berlin in 1989.

"For those of us in the West, we thought, they're fleeing from Communism and we have to help them," she said. "That was way at the beginning."

Later, things changed, she said.

"They addressed us as comrades and they called themselves Cong, that means Communist. And I always said to them, no you're Vietnamese. Why can't you delete that from your vocabulary?"

According to Nonnenmann, this behavior is simply a result of habit.

"That's why I think that it's something that will always remain," she said.

"They are different from us."

Thi Tran gets anxiety attacks when North Vietnamese call her a "comrade." She is South Vietnamese and survived her escape from the Communists in a tiny boat. The fall of the Wall and the contact to North Vietnamese evokes old fears in her.

When the Wall fell, she said she met a couple of North Vietnamese. But she tries to avoid it.

"We know thorough our experiences: They are different from us," she said.

"They look like us, we speak the same language, but we differ in our thoughts," Tran said. "We are not one, we are different."

A divided people

Le Duc Duong is North Vietnamese. He belonged to the first generation of Vietnamese in the GDR. Duong organizes events for his fellow countrymen, deep in the eastern part of the city. He seldom ventures to West Berlin.

"The first time I had a conversation with a South Vietnamese, I didn't like it that they always wanted to talk about politics," Duong said. "We want to talk about our daily lives and about normal things, but they always went on about politics and both governments."

According to Duong, this is not their mission.

"I am not in favor of this anti-Communism that these people practice," he said. "I come from a country where we say: our nation has become one and we have to join forces to build up our country together."

Vietnamesen in Deutschland
Former German President Roman Herzog touches a person, dressed as dragon, during the "party of culture" in 1996. The dragon costume was the contribution of Vietnamese people living in Berlin.Image: AP

The Vietnamese in Berlin remain a divided people. But there is one thing which both sides have in common: Berlin has become their new home, for both North and South Vietnamese.

Many Vietnamese are also united in their expectations for the future. Duong hopes that later generations will one day be able to tear down the Vietnamese Wall in Berlin.

"What was then should become the past and we want to start everything new," he said.

He is still waiting for the end of the Cold War in Berlin.

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