Sapa, Prague’s “Little Vietnam"

At Sapa, you can pretend, if only for an afternoon, you have been transported to another country entirely

Inside the lot that constitutes Sapa, Prague’s “Little Vietnam,” it’s easy to pretend one has traveled to another country. The large complex of warehouses, restaurants, outdoor stalls, covered markets, small groceries, a Vietnamese school, and travel agencies is a world apart and contained for The Czech Republic’s third-largest population of immigrants. It takes a while to reach Sapa, about an hour or more using public transportation from the city center, but it’s well worth the trip. There are deals to be had on everything from sneakers to the seaweed needed for rolling sushi, and plenty to look at besides.

The best way to reach Sapa by public transit is via the Metro B line to Smichovske Nadrazi and then the 197 bus to Sidliste Pisnice. If you can, however, and certainly if you plan to shop, it’s a good idea to rent or borrow a car. Sapa is reportedly the central distribution center for Vietnamese items in Europe, and it is perhaps for this reason that nearly everything there is sold wholesale. You may be thrilled to find a pair of boxers costs only 20kc, but then, you must buy at least 24.

But then, as Dr. Seuss says (more or less), Oh, the things you can buy! Just as in the Kolbenova flea market, the variety and the volume of goods for sale is a little overwhelming. Everything from cleaning products to candy to school supplies and very, very odd home decorations in the vein of framed photographs of Hilary Duff are sold in bulk inside the Sapa warehouse spaces that have been converted into stores.

These warehouse stores appear rundown and dirty from the outside, but are kept scrupulously clean within. A strong smell of orange disinfectant pervades the series of shops that is located at the far right of the expansive lot and that is accessible via a wooden platform. As you make your way along this row you may have to dodge the men unloading from their trucks large shipments of toilet paper and shoes wrapped tightly in cellophane, or kids who wheel around their feet and yours on their low plastic bicycles, but it will afford you with a striking visual of that interplay between industry and domesticity that seems to distinguish the Sapa world.

Moving through the narrow outdoor markets on the other side of the lot is a bit easier, and there is more to look at. Clothes and hats that retail for an absurd 250kc in Old Town but are here priced at 50kc fill the standing racks and hang from the ceiling. It’s here one should buy souvenirs or cheap summer outfits.

Having loaded up on household essentials and curated your wardrobe for the imminent warm weather, you will most likely start to feel a little hungry. The Sapa complex also contains a small food market of individual stalls as well as several restaurants. The traditional hearty soup dish beef Pho Bo is a reliable choice. At one of the smaller restaurants the portion was large enough to share between two people, and was, just as its smell suggested, delicious.

If you’d like to recreate at home the authentic dishes you see on the menu, you can also shop at one of the small grocery stores that offer traditional Vietnamese and other Asian ingredients, including exotic-looking fish that is sold both frozen and alive.

2015 is apparently the year of Vietnamese culture in The Czech Republic. It marks 65 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There is, in other words, no better time than the present to visit Sapa. It may be unlike other ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Italy or Chinatown in that it is devoted solely to commerce and does not include any residential areas, but its removed location from the center of the city, as well as the variety of its shops and goods, help it stand apart for a more persuasive reason: At Sapa, you can pretend, if only for an afternoon, you have been transported to another country entirely.

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