Berlin’s kitschy and flavourful Little Vietnam
Fake flowers for sale in Berlin's Dong Xuan Center. (Matthew Anderson)
In a grey and drab corner of East Berlin, bordered by deserted factories and crumbling concrete tower blocks, there is a little piece of southeast Asia.
The Dong Xuan Center is an Asian market on an industrial scale, housed in a series of vast warehouses in the working class neighbourhood of Lichtenberg. The Brandenburg Gate is only 10km to the west, but visitors alighting from the M8 tram at Herzbergstr/Industriegebiet step out of the remnants of the Eastern Bloc, and into the Far East.
Inside the hangar-like halls, the air is thick with burning incense, the pungent odours of durian fruit and fresh herbs, and the rubbery, plastic smell of a thousand useless trinkets. There are Hawaiian leis in the colours of the German flag, life-size porcelain dogs and alarm clocks topped with pole-dancing dolls.
Packed tightly on the groaning shelves and stacked on the floor around them are electrified Madonnas with blinking lights, waving Chinese cats with motorised arms and novelty toilet seat covers that run the gamut from seahorses and starfish to topless biker babes.
The best word to describe the whole joyful, synthetic mess is one the English language borrows from German: kitsch.
There is more to the Dong Xuan Center though than cheap and gaudy finery -- it is the commercial heart of Berlin’s 20,000-strong Vietnamese community. In the 1970s, Vietnamese people came to both East and West Germany in large numbers. The West took in refugees from the country’s south who were fleeing the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and when the conflict ended, the East brought over thousands from the “socialist brotherland” of the reunified Vietnam to work at menial jobs in its state-run industries.
Just as West Germany imported thousands of Turkish, Greek and Italian migrants to power its economic miracle, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on the eastern side sought to bolster its workforce with unskilled Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers”, to help build socialism on German soil.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, thousands of Vietnamese guest workers lost their jobs during the sell-off of the GDR’s industrial base and returned to Vietnam, aided by a policy of the newly-reunified German government offering free airfares. But the vast majority chose to remain and many flocked from the former manufacturing centres of Leipzig, Rostock and Chemnitz to Berlin’s eastern neighbourhoods like Lichtenberg and Marzahn. People of Vietnamese background now comprise 10% of the inhabitants in the borough of Marzahn-Hellendorf.
And those who have stayed have taken to capitalism with gusto. In the Dong Xuan Center, wholesale outlets sell everything you need to kit out a Chinese restaurant, bubble tea stand or nail bar -- industries that Berlin’s Vietnamese dominate. Syrupy Asian pop music bleeds out from hairdressing and beauty salons dotted between the knick-knack merchants and textile sellers. There are head massages for 10 euros and hair gel for 1.
For those not seeking a manicure or hundreds of shrink-wrapped chopsticks, the food is the main attraction. Berlin has many excellent Vietnamese restaurants, from the trendy Monsieur Vuong in Mitte’s upmarket Alte Schönhauser Strasse, to the cheap and cheerful Hamy Cafe, just a few yards from the punks and tramps on the Hermannplatz. But the dishes in many have been toned down to suit German tastes and lack the real aroma of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
In the Dong Xuan Center, the lunchtime diners are primarily Vietnamese but the restaurants are also popular with students, hipsters and bargain-hunting wholesalers. The food is authentic north Vietnamese fare. There are classic dishes that can be found all over Berlin -- steaming bowls of Phô beef noodle soup and Bún Cha, sliced grilled pork in fish sauce, served with rice noodles and fresh herbs -- but the dishes here are saltier, spicier and more flavoursome. There are also rarer specialties like Bánh Rán, rice balls rolled in sesame seeds and filled with sweetened mung bean paste, and seafood options including squid, crab and grilled eel. Three courses can set you back as little as 12 euros.