You may have heard that Prague has a sizable Vietnamese community, and the plethora of Pho and Banh Mi places, and the convenience stores run by Vietnamese owners, only bear witness to the fact. Due to the shared Communist past and the educational exchanges arranged during these regimes, the influx of Vietnamese students to the Czech Republic has created a healthy community that serves as the basis for new Vietnamese immigration.
What you may not have heard (unless you watched the Prague episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show) is that Prague is home to Sapa market, a.k.a. “Little Hanoi”, a fairly large warehousing complex on the outskirts of Prague that houses one of the biggest Vietnamese markets outside of Vietnam. A bit of Vietnam in Prague. Is it a must-see? Probably not if you’re in Prague for three days. Not many people travel to our city to have a bowl of Pho or buy cheesy plush toys. But if you’re here for a week, why not? Is the place beautiful? Nope. Is it welcoming? Not if you want to take photos. But is it interesting? OMG yes! On a sunny day, and especially if that day is over the weekend, a visit to Sapa can really feel like a visit to another country, and the market becomes a vibrant place with a friendly atmosphere that stimulates all the senses, for good or bad.
Now, making sense of Sapa can be a bit of a challenge. The place is very busy with vans and cars unloading and loading goods, and shops with big signs luring you in. To an untrained eye or to a first-time visitor, Sapa can be quite confusing, and it is hard to pick the good places to eat or drink. That is why we have asked four people who have detailed knowledge and run tours of the Sapa market to share their secret tips for their must-eats in Prague’s Vietnamese market. This is who they are and what they wrote.
Marcela, the girl behind “Vuong Cooking Class” that runs - you guessed it - private Vietnamese cooking classes is one of the nicest girls we know. She’s also very enthusiastic and reliable: when we asked her for her Sapa tips, she responded immediately and we had her perfect tips the next day. Along with an invitation to meet for coffee or go through Sapa. How nice is that? Walking Sapa with Marcela will give you an insider look into the lives of the Vietnamese community in Prague, herself being a Vietnamese Czech with a perfect command of both Czech and Vietnamese. Her tours usually take place on Sundays and last for about three hours or more. She recommends that pairs take the tours because they can share the dishes. The tour finishes with a purchase of Vietnamese ingredients for later use at home.
I love me some bún cá (fish broth with bún noodles and fish patties), a fairly common street food in Vietnam. The centre of Prague has many Vietnamese restaurants but only a few serve bún cá: the translation says “fish soup with bún noodles”, and many Czechs don’t like fish. As part of my tours, all my guests - whether they like fish or don’t - get a taste of bún cá at Hai Phong. It never fails to satisfy, and most people are surprised that even a fish-based dish can be so well flavored and lack the fishy odor they avoid.
Bánh cuon at Phuong Phuong: Delicious bán cuon (steamed rice pancakes with minced meat and Jew’s ear that is soaked in fish sauce and served with cha, Vietnamese ham). In Vietnam, this is mostly a breakfast dish. I have yet to find good bánh cuon in the centre of Prague. I recommend that you visit Phuong Phuong over the week: the wait times for these “pancakes” may reach epic proportions over the weekends - they’re truly delicious.
I recommend that you order iced Vietnamese coffee from any of the men with carts on the street! Not many people know that Vietnam ranks second only to Brasil in the production of coffee. The beans grown in Vietnam are predominantly Robusta beans, and the coffee has cocoa or chocolate flavors. Vietnamese coffee is very strong and is usually served with condensed milk, because fresh milk and dairy products are hardly ever consumed in Vietnam. Coffee is served in a glass with condensed milk at the bottom. The coffee is filtered through a special dripper that is for sale in the Sapa market, too.
When this tattooed chef came back home after cooking abroad a few months ago and started blogging, her fun personality, friendly demeanor and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, along with her cooking skills, quickly earned her a crowd of loyal followers. She’s fearless in her travels and willingness to try anything, food-related or not, and she is known for her love of Asian food, as witnessed by her recent and well-documented travels of Vietnam and Thailand. She runs tours of Sapa in Czech and English, which she, in her own words, “enjoys even more”. Give her a shout if you want to join her for sure, but hold on to your hats. You’re in for a ride!
People often ask me where to go for good Vietnamese food in Prague. The answer is easy. The rule of thumb to getting an authentic food experience is to eat in restaurants that are full of Vietnamese guests devouring food. You will not find such restaurants in central Prague. Vietnamese will either cook at home or drive to Sapa to be closer to the source, to fresh herbs and authentic dishes. Here’s my Sapa tips:
The best PHO. I have tasted tons of Pho, both in Vietnam and in the Czech Republic. The best Pho in Sapa is served at Pho Tung by Sony, a young chef, and his three-member team. They strictly adhere to all the rules of preparation to the point that I was hard pressed to find better Pho in Hanoi proper. The broth is clear, the tender meat falls apart, and the soup is served with tons of fresh herbs. Truly the best Pho in Sapa.
Bún cha. Nearly everybody knows Hai Ha, the orange shop with a trash can near the toilets, which serves legendary bún chá. The consensus among the Czechs has been that their bún chá is the best. However, the Vietnamese have moved on a long time ago: the two sister owners have been somewhat lacking in their cleanliness lately. Instead, visit the popular Dung Lien restaurant, famous for its grilled duck, and order their bún cha, along with their bún ngan - the grilled duck. This place is a must-visit in Sapa.
Banh Cuon. A very popular dish, especially in the Sapa market. Banh Cuon are thin pancakes made of rice flour that are steamed and served with minced pork and Jew’s ear. It is served with cha, Vietnamese pork meatloaf, nuoc cham sauce and fresh herbs. Sapa is full of venues that serve the dish. However, a young Vietnamese girl, seated next to the popular bún cha place Hai Ha, also makes her own dough from rice after soaking it for 20 hours. Her place is also the only restaurant in the country that serves Pho Cuon, basically the Pho wrapped in a rice roll.
Nau Da. Traditional Vietnamese coffee. You can buy it from the street vendors for CZK 30, iced in a plastic cup, or visit the 999 restaurant and have it the traditional way with condensed milk at the bottom of a whiskey glass for CZK 45.
For those who are afraid to buy vegetables, herbs and other ingredients, don’t understand their names and do not know what to buy and need a helping hand, I recommend visiting the shop owned by Tonda and his wife who are among the few who speak good Czech, and are great cooks on top of that. To find their shop, enter Sapa through the yellow gate and turn right. Look for “Tonda” at the door. They are both ready to help and are very honest about everything.
We must say we knew Jana as the best friend and the co-blogger of the only employee we’ve ever had, Karolina (a.k.a. “Employee of the Year Forever”). Today, at the helm of the Zasadne zdrave food blog that focuses on healthy eating and lifestyle, Jana is one of the most active personalities on the online food scene in the Czech Republic. And a great food photographer. And a very nice person at that. Her tours of Sapa are only conducted in Czech and they sell like hot cakes: Jana puts emphasis on ingredients of the Vietnamese cuisine and their nutritional value and possible use in both Vietnamese and Czech cooking. But not only that: Jana also talks about spirituality and culture of the Vietnamese community and visits the local Temple as part of the tour. Her tours are in Czech only, though. Here’s her tips:
Do you know why Prague’s “Little Hanoi” bears the name SAPA? Although it may look as an acronym, it actually refers to Sa Pa, a little town beneath the mountains of the Lào Cai province in the north of Vietnam, near the Chinese border. Also, the name is easy on the Czechs in terms of pronunciation and avoids embarrassment and awkwardness, as more difficult names might have been mispronounced. (And you don't want that.)
A visit to Sapa with me will allow you to discover Vietnam, and not only its small version in Prague. A look at the phytology, the herbs and the spices, their aroma, taste and use, the discovery of traditional and modern ingredients and their healthier substitutes, and a discussion of the history, religion and the culture of Vietnam, not only relating to food, will allow you to get an insight into the Vietnamese lifestyle, traditions and one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
Don’t buy canned coconut milk. Instead, look for the AROY-D brand in tetra-pack. It has the best proportion of components (60% coconut extract, 40% water), taste and texture. You can find it in the TAMDA FOODS supermarket, where it can be had in sizes ranging from 100 ml to one liter and for the best prices in Prague.
Want to taste the best traditional fish sauce Bún Cá from the Hải Phòng region? Head over to the Bún Cá Hải Phòng bistro! Who would have guessed? Freshen it up with lemon, add iceberg lettuce with Perilla (included in the order), add a few chilies (easy there, they’re HOT), pickled bamboo (served in mason jars and free to take on the tables) and eat with Bánh Quẩy, fried yeast-dough “bars” similar to the Hungarian Langos in taste and appearance, which are dipped into the soup. All this will set you back some CZK 100.
In the summer, try the mango smoothie (sinh tố xoài [siň to soai]) in the “Vietnamese pastry shop” Chè Sài Gòn (in roughly the middle of the line of shops along Sapa’s perimeter near the Southern Gate). It is a “secret special”, but with a but of luck, and a bit of crushed ice, it is fantastically refreshing. If they ran out of it, have cane sugar juice with a miniature (and incredibly fragrant and juicy) lime (nước mía [nəok mia]). Both drinks cost CZK 70.
And when the craving sets for something small, salty and exotic, enter the Korean shop across the street (Siêu thị Hàn Quốc, again near the Southern Gate) for the baked seaweed chips. I have a love affair with the olive oil version - a bit of Asian fusion, really. This little treat is consumed in Korea, China and Japan like potato chips in Europe, and it is incredibly delicious. Just don’t eat all of them: one package per day is the recommended dosage. They contain lots of iodine and other minerals, so don’t OD on them! A three-pack costs CZK 35. This is a must-try!
Viet Food Friends
There are two further sources of information about Sapa and Vietnamese food in Prague that can be found easily online. First, Thuy and Mai, the two founders of the Viet Food Friends blog, were truly the pioneers in mapping Vietnamese food in Prague and in the Sapa market, and as two Vietnamese Czechs, they were one of the first bloggers to bridge the divide between the two communities. They were also the first ones to run tours of the Sapa market, and were kind enough to contribute their tips for our Where do Prague foodies eat feature a while back. The tempo of their Sapa-related activities has slowed down with the birth of Thuy’s child, but who knows? If you want a tour with one of the pioneers, give them a call. Maybe they’ll find an hour or two to show you around. We would definitely go.
Now, if tours are not your thing and you like to fly solo, we’d still recommend that you check out Sapamapa, a map of the Sapa market spearheaded by Jakub, another contributor to our Where do Prague foodies eat piece, with the help of Mai and Thuy from Viet Food Friends. The map is easy to navigate and works in mobile browsers, too. The only problem? The site and the map are in Czech but we think Google Translate might help. In any case, this is an invaluable tool when you want to see what Sapa has to offer and want to explore it on your own.
Any way you visit Sapa, make sure you enjoy it!
How to get to the Sapa market from the centre? Easy. You need to take the subway (the Red C line) to the Kacerov stop, and take the 113 bus to the "Sidliste Pisnice" stop from there. The whole trip takes about 25 minutes from the Museum stop (the top of the Wenceslas Sq.). So no more excuses!