The North-South Vietnamese divide in East-West Berlin, scars only beginning to heal

A German couple walked up to me and started to speak to me in German. I stared back, roughly making out their questions as a search for directions, “Ja, err straight und turn left…” (my horrible attempt at sounding German without knowing a word of it), my hands pointing in the direction they should go.

“Ja, danke schoene,” they replied seeming understanding my non-existent German and walked off.

It made sense that they assumed an Asian in this part of Berlin was a local, I was in the southwest of Berlin, in the heart of a industrial estate (Flixbuses has its depot here, that’s how isolated the place was) and was there to find a temple, a special Vietnamese temple. The temple was the icon of the area, the only thing that gave life to an otherwise drab district.

The temple soon appeared before me, here it was the Chua Linh Thuu temple. It was an elegant and beautiful temple a positive oasis of peace in the heart of an industrial estate.

The statues of Guan Yin, Maitreya and Siddhartha Gautama Buddha were located at different parts of the main gate, representing wisdom, benevolence and peace.

It is today one of the most important centres of Vietnamese congregation in Berlin.

And yet this relative peace is recent, because the are deep running divisions and mistrust between the Vietnamese people in Germany.

Almost every other street in Berlin seemed to have a Vietnamese restaurant, that’s how ubiquitous Vietnamese food is in Berlin and that’s because there are many Vietnamese in Berlin. Vietnamese actually form the largest East/Southeast Asian demographic in Berlin (not Chinese as you might have suspected on first blush), just as Thais are the largest similar demographic in Sweden.

Unlike Turkish immigration to Germany, which can be traced all the way to the 16th century, Vietnamese immigration is a vastly more recent occurrence. Most Vietnamese arrived in Germany at the height of the Cold War, more specifically during the proxy war between Soviet Union and the United States in Vietnam.

However the Vietnamese are not a monolith who arrived in Germany for the same reasons, there are really two groups of Vietnamese. On one hand there are the southern Vietnamese who arrived as boat people/refugees, fleeing the communist in the north and ended up in West Berlin. On the other hand are northern Vietnamese who arrived in East Berlin after the East German government signed deals with the North Vietnamese government to bring in guest workers to help the East German economy.

The Vietnamese boat people was a global refugee crisis that emerged at the end of the Vietnam War, when the Americans had lost to the North Vietnamese and the present day Vietnamese nation was formed. Right after the fall of South Vietnam, some 130,000 people working for the South Vietnamese government or closely linked to the United States were evacuated from Saigon. The new Vietnamese government however embarked on a series of plans for the nation, including the “voluntary” relocation of almost one million city dwellers to “New Economoic Zones” where they were to clear the land and till the land as farmers. Repression of anyone seen as antithetical to the new leadership was rife. Knowing that people wanted to leave and wanting to make money off these people, an exhobitiant 3000 USD price tag was put on exit visas for people leaving the country. Few people could afford it and so those who were desparate to leave had to risk their lifes to do so. Paying illegal smugglers to take them out of the country. People fled by sea to other southeast Asian nations, the first port of call.

They first arrived in Indonesia and Malaysia in September 1978 to the anger of these governments. Many of these nations were newly independent, developing and had no capability of taking in a whole population of people when they were trying to solve the problems in their own homes. Realising that the big boats were being barred from entering, enterprising Vietnamese then moved to small boats and sailed under cover of darkness. The small boats made the already difficult journey even more perilous and many died on the way trying to get to safer shores. By June 1979, some 350,000 were held in refugee camps across southeast Asia and Hong Kong, the promise from the Western powers slow in being fulfilled. Some of the toughesst policies came from the tiny island of Singapore whose then prime minister was quoted as saying, “You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death.”

It was then that these governments declared enough was enough, they could not cope with any more refugees and would not accept any more. Many of these governments accepted refugees on the promise of developed countries to guarantee of resettlement for these refugees. While the developed countries in the west dithered, the governments in Southeast Asia pushed boats out and ensured that these refugees stayed in international waters (while simultaneously delivering food to them), this precipitated a international crisis in which all sides were brought to the table, the southeast Asian countries agreed to continue taking in refugees on the condition that they would be settled in developed countries, the developed countries agreed to speed up resettlement plans and Vietnam agreed to promote orderly departures. The majority of Vietnamese were resettled in US, Australia, Canada and France. A sizable portion was also resettled in Berlin and West Germany.

At the same time, a different group of Vietnamese were also settling in Germany but for very different reasons. These were people who arrived as guest workers for the East German government. They came to work and contribute to the German development and were economic migrants, precursor expatriates.

Then the wall fell and both groups of Vietnamese now found themselves in the same country. At the birth of the new Germany, the government had to decide the fate of all immigrants, and it was decieded that the Vietnamese who had arrived to Germany as guest workers would be allowed to become Germans since they had jobs already, but the Vietnamese who arrived as boat people would be deported- deported to the same land that they fled from and the same government who had persecuted them.

The difference in history meant that there were essentially two groups of Vietnamese living side by side each other, one that was partial to the Communist government the other that was biased against the communist government. You can see the difference based on the flags they bear, if they bear a modern Vietnamese flag, the flag of the former north than their support if with the current government. If however, they fly the south vietnamese yellow and red striped flag, then it is clear their allegiance is not with the present government. Until about 5 years ago, the South Vietnamese flag still flew over the temple.

South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese also do not have the same accents or even food Dong Xuan centre in northeast Berlin is called Klein Hanoi or little Hanoi (Hanoi was the capital of the North Vietnamese regime) while this temple was the centre of south Vietnamese culture (in the US, the history of immigration from boat people means that the little Vietnam you will see are called Little Saigons instead (the capital of the South Vietnamese government).

Germany has been the recent for the scars that have only recently begun to heal. Both Vietnamese groups are considered successes in integration and as successive generations (second and even third-generation Vietnamese-Germans) grow up in Germany they become more German and are the people to mend the divisions of the past.

The south Vietnamese flag on the temple has since been removed taken off, and the would of 30 years slowly beginning to seal. Tepid steps have been taken, to broach each side again, a story that parallels perhaps the West-East German story.

ON THE MAP (Chua Linh Thuu)

ON THE MAP (Dong Xuan Centre)

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