Thanh Cuong Nguyen has always been a rebel. As a child in Vietnam, he went to the movies without telling his parents. He then married a Slovak woman without giving his parents a heads up and is now involved in another “rebellious” act.
The Association of Vietnamese Entrepreneurs in Slovakia, which the Vietnamese man, now in his early fifties, is a deputy chair of, is hoping to convince the Slovak government to grant the Vietnamese community the official status of an ethnic minority.
“It could immensely help us,” he said.
Thanh Cuong Nguyen, who is known as “Samo” to his Slovak friends, came to Slovakia in 1987 to study psychology. Many Vietnamese people had arrived in former Czechoslovakia before him, and their migration to today’s Slovakia has not stopped since the 1950s.
Over a bowl of soup at a popular Vietnamese restaurant, which is set in between various Asian warehouses and businesses in Bratislava’s Vajnory, the kind-hearted and easy-going Vietnamese man shares some of the memories tied to his life in Slovakia, including a film-like meeting with his future wife and how his parents could barely talk to their grandchildren because they spoke very little Vietnamese.
“They were holding each other’s hands, but they were struggling to have a conversation,” he said bitterly, reliving the scene. “It was very sad.”
Stories like this would probably end differently if there were a school with Vietnamese as a language of instruction in the country. However, the community first needs the status of an official minority.
Vietnamese people turned to the government’s Council for Human Rights, Minorities and Gender Equality with their request to be accepted as a minority in February 2022 – nearly a decade after the ambition was first reported on by the media.
Interpreter Viet Nguyen, the Vietnamese community’s spokesperson, admits it took a long time to figure out who to turn to. “We also did not know what criteria we should meet,” he added. There are currently no rules in this regard, it turns out.
A working version of a bill that should bring more clarity to the issue has been prepared following consultations with minorities and other parties, according to Plenipotentiary for Minorities Lászlo Bukovszky.
“The final verdict on recognition or non-recognition is to be decided by the government,” he said.
Today, 13 ethnic minorities live in Slovakia. The last community that was granted the official status of an ethnic minority was the Serbian one, in 2010. The government took into consideration a two-page opinion piece written by expert Marián Gajdoš from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, in which he summed up the history and the character of this group’s migration to and within Slovakia, as well as its demographic and economic background.
We came to Slovakia to make our, and our children’s, dreams of a better life come true.„
In the neighbouring Czech Republic, the situation of Vietnamese people has improved.
The national government recognised them as another official ethnic minority in summer 2013, granting them access to state funds and support for their culture and language. The Vietnamese community at first had to meet two conditions: the historical presence of a community in the country and a sufficient number of members.
Yet, no limits are specified in Czech legislation. In December 2021, almost 65,000 people from Vietnam resided in the country temporarily or permanently.
Dreams of a better life
The success of the Vietnamese minority in the Czech Republic has inspired Vietnamese people in Slovakia.
In a letter signed by six Vietnamese organisations sent to the Council, the community writes that Vietnamese children are “multicultural people” who are fluent in Slovak and absorb Slovak culture. “Our effort is also to maintain their Vietnamese identity and language,” the community said.
The 2021 census shows that 2,793 people identified themselves as Vietnamese and 489 people marked Vietnamese as their “other” nationality. The 2021 data published by the Foreigners’ Police reveals that 7,235 people from Vietnam have permanent or temporary residence in the country.
Vietnamese people add they have established charities and businesses, such as Vietnamese bistros and clothing and grocery stores, and help different communities across the country and beyond, most recently refugees affected by the war in Ukraine.
“We came to Slovakia to make our and our children’s dreams of a better life come true,” the community claimed in the letter, “We believe we belong with the country, and we contribute to making it better.”
Many arrived in Slovakia during communism when then Czechoslovakia was supposed to help post-war Vietnam educate its next generation of experts. Those that came either studied in schools and universities or worked at state-owned industrial plants such as the Juraj Dimitrov Plant in Bratislava, Komárno Shipyards, and East Slovakian Ironworks in Košice.
After 1989, economic migration became spontaneous. Some left for Vietnam or other countries, others stayed. The families and acquaintances of those who decided to stay started to arrive in Slovakia, too.
One of the ways to stay legally in post-communist Czechoslovakia was to start a business.
Trang Tran runs two Viet Bistros in Košice and one Viet Bistro in Trebišov together with her husband Tung, who came to Slovakia in 2001. She was born in Košice in 1988. The bistro owner belongs to the second generation.
“I follow in my parents’ footsteps,” she said.
Her father went into business in 1992. Prior to that, he used to work in the industry. Trang’s mother and he were sent to Slovakia in the eighties. They were not even 18. Her father studied at a vocational school and worked at the Košice ironworks. Her mother worked at the clothing plant Tatrasvit in Svit.
Trang Tran believes that the official status of an ethnic minority would help the Vietnamese community, especially politically and economically. “Many “new” Vietnamese coming to Slovakia think we are a small community that does not have our say, unlike the community in the Czech Republic,” she said.
When it comes to culture and heritage, Trang Tran claims most Vietnamese families already maintain their traditions and the Vietnamese language. Despite this, she has observed a change in the third generation of Vietnamese people growing up in Slovakia.
“They speak Vietnamese with their parents, but Vietnamese children speak Slovak to one another.”
This article is part of the Our Minorities project, carried out with the financial support of the Fund for the Support of the Culture of National Minorities.