The golf buggy whirs along as neon lights beckon from the opposite end of the darkened alleyway. It’s a strange vehicle for the setting—a narrow ribbon of pavement weaving between street food vendors and sedate residential dwellings—but that makes it a fitting carriage as we approach one of Saigon’s most famous—and bizarre—‘secret’ drinking dens. The dead-end street is so narrow that the city’s taxi drivers rarely enter; hence the complimentary shuttle.
This is Hoa Vien Bräuhaus, a Czech-style restaurant, beer hall, and microbrewery, and the official state home of the Czech Republic in Ho Chi Minh City. Void of the usual lineup of armed guards and passport verification checkpoints, this is not your typical foreign consulate.
In this cramped jigsaw puzzle of a city, wedged among the phở joints and coffee shops, Hoa Vien’s entrance sits like some kind of portal onto the cobbled streets of Prague. With 6,000 miles separating these two seemingly unconnected lands, it’s possibly the last thing you’d expect to find in Vietnam; Czech beers and hearty European fare on offer alongside diplomatic assistance.
The golf cart for those that are too lazy to walk the 300ft to the brewery. All photos by Vinh Dao.
In 1948, amid the political turbulence of post-war Europe, Czechoslovakia—wrapped inside the iron fist formed by Poland in the north, East Germany in the west, and the U.S.S.R. in the east—became a socialist republic after a brief, Soviet-backed coup.
As the Cold War continued to split the world in two, the Czech ruling party sought support from other socialist powers, and, in 1950, diplomatic relations were established with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a state itself engaged in a war with the French for control of the nation. By 1954, the French had moved out, America had moved in, and Vietnam was divided. North Vietnam’s infamous war with the U.S.-backed South had begun.
Czechoslovakia became a vital ally to North Vietnam, particularly as a supplier of modern machinery and weapons. Alongside bulldozers and assault rifles, Semtex, a Czechoslovakian invention, was one product regularly making the journey eastwards. This deadly plastic explosive famously went into mass production solely to supply Ho Chi Minh’s army.
Consul General of the Czech Republic by day, brewery owner by night
It’s a Friday night in December and I’m here to meet Ngo Hong Chuyen, Consul General of the Czech Republic by day, and Hoa Vien’s owner and founder by night. On paper, as a Vietnamese citizen, Chuyen’s title is an honorary one, granted to him 15 years ago when the Czech government moved the majority of its Vietnamese operations to the embassy in Hanoi. The old consulate was shut down and restaurateur and businessman Chuyen, with his fluency in both languages, became their man-on-the-ground in Vietnam’s southern hub.
Chuyen’s restaurant, as the only establishment of its kind in Saigon, had long been a focal point for the city’s Viet-Czech community. Hoa Vien was an obvious choice for the Czech diplomats looking for a base in the south. As the Czech Republic drinks more beer per capita per year than any other nation, to find its offices inside a microbrewery is rather apt.
Today the bond between these old allies remains firm, although in the era of globalization and peace it’s not quite as essential as it once was. Both governments continue to bolster diplomatic relations and promote international trade and support, and Chuyen is regularly called upon to host Czech dignitaries and business leaders as they visit what has become Vietnam’s most prosperous city.
Tonight, Hoa Vien is jumping. Large communal tables of office workers cry ‘một, hai, ba, dô!’ before emptying their glasses (one, two, three, in!, the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers’). In the quieter corners, friends chat and smoke and couples hold hands across the tables in the open-air courtyard.