GHOTCZ #8: SAPA

Vietnamese are probably the largest non-western immigrant group in the Czech Republic: in central Prague, they do an amazing job of running the late-night fruit and vegetable shops (and increasingly the nail salons, but I’d still say it’s about 50-50 whether a Caucasian is actually doing your nails, which is next to unheard-of in California…). Despite their long history in this country, Vietnamese don’t have much demonstrable presence or influence here, and largely keep a very low profile.

And, since they have yet to open any proper Vietnamese restaurants in central Prague, when I’m craving a big bowl of pho or bun, there’s really only one place to go get it, and that’s SAPA. I’d read a bit about SAPA when we first moved, but was a little retarded about how to actually get there, since it’s on the outskirts of Prague. Our friend Jason (who’s also from the Bay Area, and understood our cravings) graciously took us out there last summer, and I was immediately hooked. Here’s why it’s one of the GHOTCZs:

First things first. From the bus stop, it’s impossible to get a sense of what’s inside:

Once you pass through the gate beneath this sign, however, it feels as if you’ve just made something akin to the Tijuana border crossing (with no queues or cops, though). It’s as if the Czech Republic stops, and Vietnam begins.

SAPA’s primary function is as a huge wholesale market, supposedly the biggest in Europe. The bulk of what’s being sold seems to be clothing and accessories, but my personal fixation is with the phenomenal profundity of globalized tchotchkes available: plastic lychee trees. Wooden childrens’ puzzles–in Arabic. Virgen de Guadalupe disco clocks. Ninja throwing stars. Faux-jade Buddhas. The kind of wonderful schlock one is accustomed to coming across here and there, but not all in one location, especially when that location is the Little Hanoi of the Czech Republic.

My new personal favorite find: Hugo Chavez action figures. In two different fashionable ensembles.

The food is, of course, what the inital draw to SAPA really was: divine, classic little hole-in-the-wall style restaurants, serving up beautiful, simple dishes that haven’t been watered-down for Europeans.

The only catch is that the smaller places tend to specialize in only a few particular dishes (ie, there’s the pho place, or the bun place), and don’t tend to have menus. Jason took us to a place that specialized in bun cha, which was fine by me. I’ve tried other places since then, but I’m a big fan of the place above. In general, however, unless you speak Czech or Vietnamese in these littler places, it can be a bit of a mystery as to what you’re actually going to get… but it’s always an adventure, and always delicious.

The other things I tend to notice about SAPA are the diaspora markers: the remittance centers on one hand…

…and the South-east Asian “TP goes in the basket not the toilet” traditions on the other…

It’s not all Western Unions and public toilets, though. There’s also a huge, modern Buddhist temple, lots of shops offering services like plane tickets home or hairdressers/barbers,  and fantastic little food markets selling hard-t0-find Asian produce. And it’s really so nice just to see Vietnamese in their element, relaxed, horsing around, being more gregarious and social in all the ways that I never see them comfortable doing within Czech society.

Back in January, I brought a crew of friends out to SAPA, as well: it was a kind of alternate-universe Vietnam experience, with below-zero weather, freeeezing toes,  and snowdrifts that did not compute with the tropical cuisine and tarp-covered vendor stalls.

Having now enjoyed trekking out to SAPA for 4 seasons now (I’ve been here a year! whoa!), I do have to say that muggy summer days are still the best time to go.

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