There are about 140,000 Vietnamese in Germany. In Berlin, there's a large shopping center, Dong Xuan, and a Halong Hotel. In Munich, there's a hip restaurant, Jack Glockenbach, in a gay neighborhood. In Hanover, there's a temple with a pagoda and ornate gate. In Dresden, there's a Buddhist cemetery that refrains from displaying the swastika. In Leipzig, where I'm living, just about every East Asian restaurant is run by Vietnamese, although it may be named Peking Palast, Hong Kong, Shanghai or China White.
Vietnamese aren't just in cities. Last week, I took a train to Wurzen, population 16,327. Near Jacobsplatz, one of its two main squares, I counted four Vietnamese businesses: three discount clothing stores and a nail salon. Though the last wasn't open, I could tell it was Vietnamese-owned thanks to a little Buddha in its window. On Karl Marx Street, there's a huge restaurant, Goldene Krone. As I stood outside perusing the menu, a large group of middle-aged German ladies filed out, all smiling after their happy meals. "Knh cho!" one chirped. Once in Leipzig, a black bicyclist also greeted me in this formal manner.
Germany is already a very mixed society. In my graduate seminar class at the University of Leipzig, half of the students were born in Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Brazil or Qatar. One is Turkish and can speak and write the language. At a Wurzen flea market, most of the merchants were foreign. I saw Middle Easterners, Eastern Europeans, a turbaned Sikh and other South Asians. They were selling handbags, clothing, household goods and Christmas ornaments. A plastic Santa Claus bounced one basketball while twirling another.
Suddenly I spotted a familiar, German face. In Leipzig, I had bought sausages, liverwurst and minced rabbit from Jurgen, and there he was, in his truck. The first two times he talked to me, Jurgen even tried to speak Vietnamese, and he knew quite a few phrases too. None was intelligible, however. Selling quality stuff, Jurgen has a loyal clientele.
In West Germany, Turkish laborers were brought in. In the East, 60,000 Vietnamese were signed up on five-year contracts to work in factories. In Leipzig, I met such a Vietnamese. Now middle-aged, Quan owns a small restaurant and beer store.
Like many other Vietnamese, Quan turned to selling cigarettes. "We didn't even know it was illegal. You have to understand, everything was chaotic back then. Even the Germans didn't know what was going on. One day, you're living under Communism. The next day, it's Capitalism. There were Czechs selling cigarettes outside the train station, so we bought from them to resell. All of that gang stuff came later. Hearing about the easy money, many Vietnamese who had gone home then tried to return to Germany. It wasn't easy. They had to go to Russia first, then cross several borders. Sometimes, people had to walk backward in the snow to throw off the cops."
An enterprising peddler of black market cigarettes could make up to $300 a day. In mid-1994, 23-year-old Le Duy Bao showed up in Berlin, having arrived by way of Prague and Moscow. A career criminal, he made his living stealing motorbikes in his native Vinh, in central Vietnam. In Germany, Bao soon formed a gang called Ngoc Thien, Benevolent Pearl, and within a year they managed to control 70% of the cigarette black market in Berlin. Bao's crew raked in USD 500,000 a month. Convicted of ordering eight murders in 1996, Bao is now serving a life sentence in Tegel Prison. During the turf war among Vietnamese cigarette gangs in Berlin, more than 40 Vietnamese were murdered.
Though Vietnamese cigarette gangs in Germany no longer generate such frightful headlines, they're still active. All over Europe, you can buy Jin Ling, an industrial chemical and asbestos-laced cigarette that burns so ardently, even when not puffed, it has caused several house fires. A pack of 19 costs but 3 Euros, however, half of the legal stuff. Though with a Chinese name, it's actually made in Kaliningrad, that Russian city on the Baltic Sea. Multinational in scope, this lucrative trade involves criminal gangs from more than a dozen countries. In this racket, Vietnamese are but foot soldiers.
More positively, the Vietnamese community in Germany can boast of Philipp Rösler. A war orphan from Nha Trang, Rösler was adopted by a German family and became the country's Minister of Health in 2009, then Minister of Economics and Technology in 2011. Rösler's ascendance caused Vietnamese worldwide to reflect that had he stayed in Vietnam, Rösler's abilities would have been wasted. Not only that, he would have been arrested because of his politics. "Totalitarianism thwarts everything," a commentator bitterly pointed out.
There is also gymnast Marcel Nguyen. Born of a Vietnamese father and German mother, Nguyen won two silver medals for Germany at the London Olympics. When his dad was asked if Nguyen's "Vietnamese blood" contributed to his success, the old man answered rather amusingly that it made him smaller than your typical German.
In the end, it's not the extremes that define any community, but your average schmuck, and the Vietnamese in Germany have mostly settled in as law abiding shopkeepers and restaurant owners. Their kids have assimilated well and are outperforming even German classmates. On my way home from work, I'd sometimes stop by a very modest takeout run by Tron, a lady from Hai Hung, about an hour from Hanoi. In Germany for a decade, she speaks the language well enough to banter with her customers. Her food is very good and cheap, and I've seen every type buy from her: school kids, college students, skateboard punks, old pensioners"
Once a guy showed up with only 60 cents, but wanted a 1 Euro bag of shrimp chips. Tron sold it anyway. "Sometimes, they just stick their hand in and grab it," she laughed, "but it doesn't happen very often. At least they don't snatch things from your body like they do in Vietnam!" In spite of its wealthy image, Germany has plenty of poor citizens. Every now and then, I'd see an elderly person dig through a trash can for recyclable bottles.
An old woman ordered chicken lo mein, but couldn't come up with the cash, so she offered to leave two bottles of wine as collateral. Tron said not to worry, just pay her the next time. "She's a regular customer. She probably misplaced her purse."