The house with the pink fasade in the village of Tvrdošovice is inconspicuous at first sight. It differs only in the advertisement hung outside saying that discounted textiles and shoes are being sold here. There is a small discount store in the yard which should be closed by the summer.
Jaro opens the gate for us on Sunday after lunch. In fact, his name is Pham Dac Phong, but when he arrived in Slovakia, he was given a Slovak first name because he was born on the day of Jaroslav’s name day.
“Come in, I just have to leave for a while. I'm going to wish my neighbour happy birthday,” he says as we sit down at the table in the living room.
The living room of a Vietnamese family is a little different from those of Slovak apartments and houses. Beside a Vietnamese clock on the wall, the family altar dominates the space.
In reality, it is a chest of drawers on which a photograph of Jaro's grandmother is displayed. Fruits, sweets, or alcohol are some kind of sacrificial gifts with which the family pays tribute to its ancestors. Vietnamese greatly appreciate previous generations and maintain this tradition in Slovakia. It is on this very day that the Pham family remembers the anniversary of Jaro's grandfather’s death.
Hard and heavy language
Jaro (49) is cautious during our initial conversations. However, when we visit him at home, he starts to talk and we are served with chicken soup and Slovak brandy.
He speaks broken Slovak and sometimes we misunderstand him. “Slovak is a tough and very difficult language for Vietnamese,” he says. However, the opposite is true - some sounds in Vietnamese have up to six tones and it is a problem to repeat even a greeting.
Jaro has been living in Slovakia for 20 years. At the beginning he worked in Šurany for one German company involved in the production of car parts. “I was the only Vietnamese there at that time,” he says.
When the company went bankrupt, he left for Germany and visited his sister (he left his wife and two sons at Tvrdošovice), where he learned to cook in a Vietnamese restaurant. At present, he has been working at his uncle’s Asian bistro in nearby Nové Zámky for over a year now.
He bought a house in Tvrdošovice for 780,000 Slovak crowns (the official currency in the country at that time). The house was in bad shape but his uncle helped him with the reconstruction. However, Jaro has some big plans of his own. In the garden he shows us where he wants to build a new family home.
There are about five to six thousand members of the Vietnamese community living in Slovakia. Although the first Vietnamese came to the country in the socialist era, new immigrants are coming continuously. Last year, only Ukrainians, Serbs and Russians had more permanent and temporary residents in Slovakia for citizens originating from outside the EU.
We are trying to describe the story of the Vietnamese population in Slovakia through the examples of the Nguyen and Pham families. We met them in Tvrdošovice and Nové Zámky and we also visited their families in Vietnam.
We wanted to find out how they are living here, how they have integrated themselves, who they are going to vote for, which habits they have kept and which ones they have adopted.
Ultimately, we were interested in whether and why the inconspicuous arrival of these “invisible migrants” from a completely different culture has affected us similarly to those from Africa or the Middle East.
Hai Duong (reads Hai Zuong) is a big city like Bratislava, located in the north of Vietnam, about an hour and a half drive from Hanoi. In March, the temperature at night does not fall below 20 degrees, and although it is still 25 degrees during the day, it is overcast with occasional showers. In the summer, however, it is so hot that the temperatures exceed forty degrees.
About 20 minutes ride by car from this industrial centre, there is the village of Viet Hong. It is this agricultural village of 4000 people where rice, lychee or guava is grown that Jaro comes from. We come here to visit his parents and other relatives who still live here.
The first thing to catch our eye when we come to their house is the fence. The fences in the village are built of bricks and pieces of glass are cemented into the top to deter thieves.
We are welcomed by Jaro's parents and sister, who have organized a great feast for “Westerners” as they call everyone from Europe. Rice noodles, spring rolls, pork and beef, chicken pieces, fish soup are all laid out. As a toast, they offer a special strong wine made from a fruit that resembles apricot.
As is customary in Vietnam, lunch is served on the ground. On the floor in the living room, the hosts spread small rugs and lay dishes on it. Everyone takes what they want. The Vietnamese mostly do not have tables and prefer to eat on the ground.
Jaro's parents are retired. Most of the time his father speaks with his mother preparing refreshments or sitting nearby.
Pham Dac Sam (74) worked as a truck chauffeur during his life, distributing fertilizers and other commodities to the district. Thanks to this and also the service in the army he receives a pension corresponding to 3200 crowns. His wife, who cared for the field, received nothing.
“Jaro and the younger daughter living in Germany are helping us by sending money,” Dac Sam says, sitting in the living room together with us. It happens once a year as they celebrate the Vietnamese New Year at the turn of January and February, or when their children arrive in Vietnam.
Jaro's father recalls that he fought with the Americans for fourteen years. During the war, which the United States viewed as an attempt to stop the spread of communism (for many Vietnamese it was a struggle for independence), an estimated three million civilians were killed.
It is a sensitive subject, but we decide to ask the next day after lunch whether he want to tell us more about it. He duly obliges.
When he was summoned to the army, he was nineteen. After training he finished working as a chauffeur, transporting ammunition and other material to various parts of northern Vietnam. In the war he fought from 1963 to 1977 and at that time his eldest son Jaro was born, growing up without his father in his early years.
Jaro's father has the worst war experience from 1969. “I was delivering ammunition in central Vietnam. I used the small side roads, but the Americans spotted me and started shooting at me. I hid in a hole in a tree. Only my butt was sticking out of the hole,” he laughs. Vietnamese often use metaphors in narration.
The Americans injured his shoulder and his buttocks. He ended up in a hospital where he was given a crushed penicillin solution that ran down his wound and fortunately stopped the infection.
“Injured, I had to go with other wounded soldiers, some of whom we were carrying, marching one hundred kilometres to a village with a train stop. For one month, we were marching through the jungle, in the 45-degree heat and without food. We lived only on what the villagers gave us,” he adds.
Jaro's father suddenly starts to weep. We don't know for a moment how to respond. While wiping his tears, his wife, sitting behind him on the bed, shrugs. Her smile suggests that she had heard this story countless times, apparently accompanied by the same emotions.
In the graveyard
As with all Vietnamese, the centre of the living room in Jaro's father's house is a family altar with a photograph of his mother. For the Vietnamese, family and ancestors are a very important part of their culture.
Each family has a family tree, starting often in the 19th century. They do not compile it from the registers like the Slovaks, but the names of the ancestors are remembered and passed from parents to children. “When one generation leaves, it is necessary that the relatives honour it,” says Nguyen Cong Thai, a local expert whose son also works in Nové Zámky.
There are cemeteries in the fields, about five minutes by scooter ride from Jaro's parents' house. They do not resemble those we know in Slovakia. They are masonry works with turrets and every family has something like its own, enclosed cemetery, where all the ancestors are buried.
Jaro's family takes us to his family’s ‘tomb.’ There are dozens of small graves in it, each with a vase of scented candles. “By igniting them, we associate ourselves with the souls of the dead,” Nguyen Cong Thai explains the whole ritual.
The graves are surprisingly small, but there is a reason. “In Vietnam, people are buried in four ways. Either the classical way, buried underground or they are cremated, which is becoming increasingly popular. In certain areas, the dead are put into the water,” Nguyen Cong Thai says.
The Pham family has been burying their dead underground for five years. They then exhume the bodies and put the bones in smaller graves. We see these five-year-old graves on the way to the graveyard; we see villagers in white clothes passing by. White is a mourning colour in Vietnam.
The Asian Bistro restaurant, a short walk from the Nové Zámky railway station, is quiet shortly after 9am. The main rush of people is expected for lunch. But in the kitchen it simmers (literally) already: Three cooks are preparing the meal for dinner, so every customer gets something to eat within three minutes. They fry chicken and stir-fried noodles with egg and they cook shrimp.
The restaurant owner is Jaro's uncle Nguyen Thanh Hoat, a sixty-year-old bespectacled man. He is the man who persuaded many people in the village of Viet Hong to make the eleven thousand kilometer journey to Slovakia.
At home, Nguyen Thanh Hoat worked in a completely different sector - he graduated in Mechanical Engineering and did construction work. In 1988, together with about 100 other employees from the company, he decided to go to Czechoslovakia to help industry there. He was a welder at the construction site. The first Vietnamese came to Slovakia just as part of a mutual cooperation between two socialist countries.
“Czechoslovakia wanted to help post-war Vietnam and promised to educate young people before returning them to their homeland. However, it was largely profitable, with Czechoslovakia gaining a workforce in this way,” says Miroslava Hlinčíková, an ethnologist from the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Than Hoat left for the new country alone, leaving his wife and a five-year-old daughter at home. He hadn't seen them for five years though they occasionally spoke on the phone. In 1993, he returned to his native village for a while, but this time he did not leave alone for Slovakia. In addition to his closest family, more relatives came with him, including Jaro.
“Uncle said that there were nice women in Slovakia. He was right,” Jaro laughs.
“Socialist” Vietnamese migrants should have returned home after some time. When the regime fell, most of them returned. Some of them, however, remained due to the fact that they started clothing and electronics businesses.
“There was a shortage of goods that they were able to get with the help of various networks,” Hlinčíková adds.
Nguyen's story is a good example. In 1993, the family started selling clothes and electronics in the local markets. They lived in Bratislava, but they also went to other cities. “They noticed that they were doing so well in Nové Zámky, so they decided to move there,” their second daughter says. Her name is Hoa, which means “flower”.
Sales of clothing and electronics gradually began to pay less and rent for the family has also risen in Nové Zámky. Today, Billa and Lidl stores have replaced the former marketplace.
In 2006, Nguyen decided to change his livelihood. He sold a field that he owned in Vietnam and bought a building on Štefánikova Street, where he decided to start an Asian bistro. At first, the progress was slow, but as in Bratislava, and also in Nové Zámky, the local people began to become more and more enthused by Asian cuisine. They go to Bratislava to buy groceries on Nobel Street, which is the Vietnamese center of the capital.
It's off on Sunday
One traditional stereotype says that the Vietnamese are very hard working people. This is probably true in the case of this family. The only day that they don't work is Sunday. The restaurant is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 8am. There are three cooks, but usually only two of them work. “But when the journalists were coming, all of us came,” Jaro laughs.
In February, the Vietnamese New Year was celebrated. For the Nguyen family it meant just that the bistro was shut down two hours sooner than usual and the biggest holiday was celebrated at home.
It's the same for vacation. “A week by the sea? Not really. When I was a small girl, we went to Italy twice and then we visited Jaro's family in Germany, my sister in England or relatives in Vietnam. For them, Sunday is a holiday. Last time we went on a day trip to Vienna,” the younger daughter Hoa explains.
Thi Hoa Nguyen is second generation Vietnamese, born in Slovakia. She is twenty-four, and as the customs officer told her at Hanoi Airport, she would have a child in primary school in Vietnam at that age.
Instead, she studies photography at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. She flies to Vietnam with us as an interpreter and during her stay there she participates in the RTVS station Večera s Havranom (Dinner with Havran) program about the Vietnamese community in Slovakia where she performs as one of the guests.
Unlike her parents, she can speak flawless Slovak. She also speaks Vietnamese, but she admits that she does not speak her parents' language perfectly, whether it be written or read.
This is due to the fact that a Slovak foster mother cared for her when she was a small girl. In Vietnam, it is common for small children to be raised by their grandparents because their parents work a lot and mothers have to get back to work shortly after birth. However, the Vietnamese in Slovakia left their grandparents at home, so Slovak nurses often take care of their children.
A Slovak girl Anka took care of Flower from when she was seven months old until she went to a Slovak nursery. In addition to teaching her to speak Slovak, she also showed her some Slovak customs. Since that time, the Nguyen family always prepares a Christmas tree. Similarly, Jaro celebrates Slovak Christmas with his Slovak children.
The importance of education
A lively, dark-haired, smiling girl is running around us during our visit to Jaro. Her name is Daisy and she'll be three years old soon.
Daisy is the niece of Thi Hoa, the daughter of her older sister, who lives in London, where she works in a nail studio. Nail studios are another frequent (and increasingly popular) place where immigrants from Vietnam work in Slovakia and elsewhere in the West.
When she was twelve years older, Thi Hoa’s sister moved to Britain to study and subsequently stayed there. Due to work, she is not able to take care of her younger daughter. Consequently, Daisy lives with her grandparents in Nové Zámky. She recently started to attend a Slovak kindergarten.
Another stereotypical notion of Vietnamese in Slovakia says that parents are very demanding when it comes to their children's education. Hoa says her parents wanted her to have good grades. According to her, the traditional success of the Vietnamese children in mathematics is a popular cliché, but she adds that she herself has been good in this subject. On the airplane to Hanoi she plays sudoku.
People in the village of Viet Hong often talk about the importance of education. Emil (15), the elder of Jaro's sons, who has visited Vietnam several times, says that compared to Slovakia, children learn a lot more there.
“They still have some tutoring, even during the summer. But their level of learning is a bit lower,” he says.
Relatives in Vietnam claim that, unlike local children, Emil and his brother Erik (12) are cleaner and are not afraid to speak their mind. For example, when someone smells, he catches his nose ostentatiously.
When ethnologist Miroslava Hlinčíková conducted research on the Vietnamese community in Slovakia, she called them invisible migrants. “The Slovaks generally accept them. Aesthetically, they are different. On the other hand we have created a positive stereotype about them, that they are hard-working and pay taxes. But it's not that they are our people. Despite how many years they live here, we don't consider them Slovaks,” she says.
According to her, everyone she included in her research had some negative experience. “Someone immediately started to be on first-name terms with them or labelled them with a shameful name,” she adds.
We also ask the Phams and Nguyens whether they have experienced racist attacks in Slovakia. Jaro is laughing. When he was working in Šurany, one Slovak had a problem with him. “When I'm angry, I'm a bad guy,” he says.
Flower went to a Slovak elementary school and grammar school in Nové Zámky. She recalls her classmates' racist remarks.
“I went to school where there was a lot bullying during the big break and they always pointed at me. When we talked, sometimes phrases like ‘in Slovakia only Slovak language pays' were heard. Still, nothing worse occurred. But I feel better in Bratislava, where people are getting used to it there,” says Flower.
The biggest problem is Slovak language
Like many second generation Vietnamese people, they are fully integrated into the society. And she asks herself if she is more Vietnamese or Slovak. On her Facebook page, she has posted Slovak journalist Martin M. Šimečka's quotation: “To be born as a stranger in his homeland is an existential paradox.”
According to Miroslava Hlinčíková, Vietnamese are very well integrated economically in Slovakia. “They are entrepreneurs, small and medium-size tradesmen, they create additional jobs for the local population,” she says.¨
As far as social integration is concerned, it is different. “The biggest problem is the Slovak language,” she adds.
Thi Hoa’s father admits he doesn't have many Slovak friends. On the other hand, Jaro claims that he often associates with Slovaks, even though he is with Vietnamese people for the whole day. “When I was in Šurany, I was the only Vietnamese there. I had Slovak friends and even now we sometimes call each other,” he says.
There is only one other Vietnamese family in Tvrdošovice (there are about five in Nové Zámky), Jaro's neighbours are Slovaks or Hungarians, because Tvrdošovice is a mostly Hungarian village.
It's not a problem, Jaro says. He is on good terms with his neighbours. His wife Lucia has been taught to make Slovak pagáče cakes and she taught them how to cook some Vietnamese food. “Last week my neighbours brought me plum brandy,” Jaro laughs.
Both family fathers already have Slovak citizenship. Thi Hoa’s father is voting in the election but Jaro says he won’t go because he doesn't understand local politics. In the evenings they watch Slovak TV, but they still read Vietnamese news portals on the Internet.
Vietnam is changing, migration remains
Vietnam has changed significantly over the last thirty years. A communist country, like China, it has allowed private enterprise and though once one of Asia's poorest states it has seen economic growth almost as large as its giant neighbour (five to ten percent a year).
The city of Hai Duong is connected with Hanoi by highways, similar in quality to those in Slovakia. There is a multi-lane road running parallel to it, which is cheaper for the drivers, which is why many trucks are driving on it. The Hai Duong streets are ridden by scooters, which are used by women with high heels or mothers who bring their children to school as passengers on the back.
The village of Viet Hong has also changed significantly. Thi Hoa’s grandmother, Nguyen Thi Khoan, is one of the oldest residents in the village. She welcomes us in a modest house that was once common here.
“There was a time when the village was starving,” says the woman who barely sees us. She recalls that sometimes education was not sufficient and her husband, a clerk, taught children in the evenings.
Viet Hong was once a purely agricultural village. People made their living by growing rice, in a subsistent lifestyle. When the crop was bad, they starved, or ate only corn and potatoes. In the worst cases, the state distributed flour.
As Jaro's father says, a few decades ago the roads in the village were dusty and cars couldn't even get to his house. Today, everything is concrete - even paths that lead into fields. They put water and electricity into the houses.
“Once upon a time we didn't even have bikes," she says, which is incredible in a village where people ride on them everywhere today or even have a scooter.
They don't works in the fields anymore
Foreign capital has come to Vietnam in the last decade meaning that many factories have been built. In Hai Duong clothes are sewn for the whole world and they make motorcycles there.
Currently, agriculture is no longer the main source of livelihood for the villagers. People work in factories in the city and only the elderly care for the gardens. Only sporadically, women or men in straw hats can be seen bending down in the paddy fields. It's no longer worth it. People earn more in industry. As Nguyen Cong Thai says, the average monthly wage in the country is currently the equivalent of 5900 to 6900 crowns.
Even Jaro's father's family owned rice fields. As in Slovakia, they once belonged to the state but after the liberalization of the economy they were reclaimed by the people.
A few years ago, the Pham family turned their 18 acres of rice fields into gardens. One of them is located around a five minute walk from the house. Lychee trees are growing in place of paddy fields.
They are not doing well, Jaro's father says. He can no longer take care of the garden, but admits that he planted eleven new banana trees the previous day.
When he comes into the garden, he takes a machete in his hand and cuts off one of the older plants, with ripe bananas growing at the end. They are smaller but sweeter.
Even in Africa
Despite the country's economic upturn, emigration from Vietnam did not stop. People are still leaving the village and going to Europe, but they are also moving to neighbouring countries - Japan, South Korea, Laos and one villager even lives in Africa.
“Despite the fact that Vietnam is improving in every aspect, it is still not able to compete with other countries. People are leaving to support their family,” Nguyen Cong Thai says.
Jaro's sister, who accompanies us during almost all of her entire stay, recently worked abroad too, specifically in Taiwan, even though she does not speak English. She worked there in production, despite earning the equivalent of 12 500 CZK, which is more than in Vietnam. However, she did not like it there and returned home. It is customary that at least one child remains at home in order to take care of the grandparents. In this case, it is Jaro's brother who works as a driver.
Another woman who cuts vegetables with the aroma of lemon grass by means of a machete in the field, says her son is in Thailand. “But he is not satisfied there, he does not get enough working hours. He wants to go back, but he has a signed contract and would be fined if he walks away,” the woman who sells her vegetables on the local market says.
Nguyen Cong Thai says ten percent of the population currently live abroad. Basically every family has someone living outside the country. Even those who have returned, for example from Britain or Russia, want to leave again after some time because the quality of life is better abroad.
Additionally, data from Slovakia confirms that migration from Vietnam continues in silence. Almost 600 Vietnamese received a long-term visa last year. Four thousand Vietnamese have a permanent or temporary residence in the Czech Republic, and almost two thousand of them have already gained citizenship.
“During the economic boom in 2007 and 2008 in Slovakia, factories like Samsung began recruiting local people as cheap labour in Vietnam. Hundreds came,” ethnologist Hlinčíková says. According to her, this trend stopped during the crisis, but now these figures are starting to grow again.
However, the number of issued citizenships for Vietnamese, who have been living for the required time in Slovakia, is falling. It is especially due to the toughening of the language tests. Jaro's wife, who was born in Vietnam, did not pass them but she knows Slovak well. “It was a very difficult technical text,” Hoa says.
They do not comment on the policy
Like China, Vietnam is an autocratic country. The Communist Party is the ruling force, the elections are only a formality, freedom of expression and other freedoms are very limited. According to the Vietnamese Political Prisoner Database nearly 300 activists are currently in prison.
However, this is not a topic of conversation in the village of Viet Hong. The locals do not want to talk about politics and the same is true for the Pham and Nguyen families in Nové Zámky and Tvrdošovice. They fear that their relatives at home may be troubled by the communist regime.
It may be because of a sincere belief in the local system too. Some people in Viet Hong have a photo of Ho Chi Minh on the wall.
“During my research I have not met criticism towards the regime. Vietnamese in Slovakia are rather restrained and they do not want to comment on politics,” Hlinčíková says. She recalls that during the communist period, mainly the children of communist party members went to Czechoslovakia.
Nguyen Cong Thai claims that Vietnamese (at least from this village, it may be different in towns) are currently not going abroad for political reasons.
“I don't know of any case that someone has left for political reasons. The main reason is that people make better money for themselves and their families,” he says.
It is evening, the day before our departure and in the Pham's house in Viet Hong trunks are slowly accumulating. Jaro's mother Nguyen Thi Dai, sits on the steps in front of the house and slowly stores food, wrapped in plastic bags, in a large trunk. Plastic bags with dried lychee, a two-kilo peanut pack and various Vietnamese fruits are included.
Every time someone goes to Slovakia, there is a big fight for every pound. Every relative wants to send something to his family in Europe. Two journalists and Flower provide the opportunity to send to Slovakia up to 90 kilograms of items.
“If we don't use the full capacity, it would be bad," Flower laughs.
Despite the distance of 11 000 kilometres, the family still holds together. Relatives are in frequent contact.
While they used to make phone calls from Slovakia to Vietnam twice a month in the past, they are now in contact due to social networks and cheap data transfer in Vietnam. Also during our visit, Skype or FaceTime were used frequently.
Few in the family in Vietnam claim to regret that his family lives in Slovakia. We have heard several times that they want to leave. Thi Hoa’s ninety-year-old grandmother said it best.
“We are delighted that they can get away from here. It means a better life awaits them.”
The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.