When going to Poland, would you expect to see, of all things, an abundance of Vietnamese restaurants? Empires always seem to have certain unexpected side effects that, at first glance, are always surprising. For example, their effects on national cuisine, just look in your local Albert Heijn for a pre-made Nasi Goreng. But perhaps even more interesting than this is the two-way relationship formed through such situations. In this case, I’d like to take you through the story of the relationship of Vietnam and Poland and, more specifically, Vietnamese people in Poland.
Sebastian Sirotin, Publication Director, The Netherlands
Following the end of WWII, the Soviet Union began consolidating its position globally through the establishment of satellite states, following the tenets of Stalinism in building Soviet security as dictated by Moscow. In Poland, this process had been completed by 1952 with the official establishment of the People’s Republic of Poland, or Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (PRL), led by Bolesław Bierut and the United Worker’s Party, or Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR).
With the resolution of the First Indochina War in 1954, Vietnam was split into the Viet Minh controlled north, which renamed itself as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and South Vietnam, officially the Republic of Vietnam, under Ngo Dinh Diem. Ultimately, rising tensions and the failure of Dinh Diem to deliver on promises of land reform and escalating political violence contributed to the outbreak of the Second Indochina War, or simply the Vietnam War, in 1960. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was officially created in 1976. But finding itself increasingly isolated, due to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and in domestic difficulty, Vietnam soon aligned itself with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.
These major events in both countries’ histories also mark important phases in their transnational relations. Close Vietnamese relations first began through educational exchanges from the 1950s to the 1960s. However, at the time, such opportunities were highly restricted to children of the Communist Party of Vietnam and, even in their time in Poland, they were only allowed to interact with local people in a very limited way, with little time allowed for meeting with their Polish classmates, and had no possibility for remaining in Poland (Szymanska-Matusiewicz 2016, 282).
It was only in the late 60’s-70’s when the Vietnam War escalated, and the US began supporting South Vietnam, that solidarity and a greater relationship with Vietnam began to grow in Poland. Across the communist world, not to mention the rest of the world, public dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War grew. In Poland, the PZPR naturally supported North Vietnam as fellow communists, but ordinary people also demonstrated their solidarity with the plight of Vietnam, though it was ultimately not very cohesive across the Eastern Bloc. Interestingly, the PZPR took on a nationalist view of Vietnam, drawing parallels between Vietnam and Poland in comparisons of Vietnam under French rule, by comparing the partitions of Poland and Vietnam, and finding similarities in the struggle of Vietnamese guerillas and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (Mark et al. 2015, 49-51). During this period educational exchanges between Vietnam and Poland also increased and were based on merit, though similar restrictions as the previous decades were still kept, such as self policing and limiting time in which Vietnamese students could mingle. However, from the end of the Vietnam War until the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 these restrictions were eased somewhat and there were greater numbers of Vietnamese people from bordering socialist states migrating to Poland (Szymanska-Matusiewicz 2016, 283)
With the creation of the Republic of Poland and the institution of the Doi Moi reforms in Vietnam, travel restrictions between the two countries eased substantially and Vietnamese immigration increased, particularly in the late 2000s. However, rather than mainly education related reasons, migration was now based on economic factors, such as employment (Szymanska-Matusiewicz 2016, 285-6). Today, the children of these immigrants go to Polish schools and, to some extent, there has been some integration (Szymanska-Matusiewicz 2016, 290-91).
However, none of this is to say that the lives of Vietnamese immigrants were easy or free of racism. In an interview with the Gazeta Wyborcza, one girl described being called racist names while in pre-school (it was only when she saw her difference as a point of pride that this stopped), and it is questionable whether such issues have been resolved. While, on a lighter note, another man who first came to Poland in the 1970s described, in an interview with książki.wp, his first impression of Poland was that it was “it was dark and cold”. Some things never change — except in the summer.
As of 2017, Vietnamese make up the largest minority in Poland, after Ukrainians, Germans, and Belarussians, with 11718 people holding permanent residency permits. Nonetheless, the number of Vietnamese people in Poland is likely higher as this figure does not include people of Vietnamese heritage, people applying for or holding Polish citizenship, or Vietnamese people on work permits (Statistics Poland 2018, 445). Although obviously not the only avenue towards employment by any means, the most clear and visible impact of these migrations have been the rapid increase in Vietnamese restaurants and the availability of Vietnamese fast food in and around Warsaw.
The impact of Vietnamese people on Poland has even entered the media discourse through the Netflix Polish language TV show 1983, an alternative history where relations between a modern yet still socialist Poland and communist Vietnam are seen to have strengthened leading to an entire Vietnamese community in “Mały Sajgon” (Little Saigon). Interestingly, Polish-Vietnamese (or Vietnamese-Polish depending on how they articulate their identity) characters are portrayed somewhat ambiguously in the series with characters working with the anti-communist resistance, while other characters, as part of an organized crime group, simultaneously help and undermine the story’s heroes. Perhaps such portrayals are a sign of greater acceptance Vietnamese people in Poland, as even the wide variety of Polish characters are shown in an ambiguous light. However, through 1983, the popular narrative of similar Polish-Vietnamese struggles still seem to be pointed present through the cooperation of both Polish and Vietnamese people in fighting their oppressors, in this case, the communist government.
Sometimes the contingency of history is surprising, especially considering that Poland and Vietnam initially had little in common. Only when forced together through circumstance and empire, did both countries interact and, as Poland did during the Vietnam War, begin claiming numerous similarities. Vietnam even reciprocated with the poem Em ơi, Ba Lan by To Huu in 1961 praising Poland and the Poles. Though education exchanges have declined, they served as the starting point of this relationship and now immigration is driven more by economic factors. However, the legacies of these migrations as a result of the Soviet socialist state system continue to be felt today.