What was life like in the German Democratic Republic for the Vietnamese who lived there?
& Of Other Things talked to some of the people who experienced it firsthand
When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, 25 years ago, around 60,000 Vietnamese people were living in East Germany.
During the 41 years of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) existence – from 1949 until 1990 shortly after the fall of the wall – around 100,000 people from the North of Vietnam lived there; as students, apprentices and factory workers. Being part of the former socialist block Vietnam and East Germany shared close political ties and the East German ‘brotherland’ ran numerous initiatives to support Vietnam.
The first wave to go to Germany were the students. Young Vietnamese hoping for an education abroad had to both have stellar results at school and a suitable background – children of fallen soldiers and of party members as well as those having grown up in farming and working families got first pick. They were to be educated and return home to help Vietnam rebuild after the war with America was over. In the 80s another estimated 70,000 Vietnamese people went to work in the factories.
When the wall fell the 60,000 remaining workers faced an uncertain future. Their contracts, which had usually been signed for a period of five years, and their residence permits had been in a country which no longer existed. Many of the factories they had been working for closed.
Most of the workers, like the students and apprentices before them, returned to Vietnam. Not least, because they were given an incentive: a box measuring one cubic meter that could be filled with all the goods that would fit, 3000 German Mark (roughly 40.000.000 VND) in cash and a plane ticket home. For many that was the seed investment for their life back home.
Life in the GDR had been riddled with surveillance and strict boundaries. The Vietnamese were there only to fulfill whatever they had come there to do, not to socialise and settle. Workers especially were discouraged from engaging with the East German community. Failing to adhere to the rules could lead to disciplinary actions or termination of contracts. Pregnancies were especially problematic and a number of Vietnamese women workers were forced to have abortions.
Speaking to those who have returned though, it is clear that a majority managed to both make due and find ways to bend the rules somewhat. Many speak fondly of their German friends, call the GDR their second home and emphasise their appreciation for their time spent there. They make clear, that what they had to deal with in the GDR was little compared to the dire situation they had left behind in war-riddled Vietnam were they were short everything from food to electricity.
The Vietnamese of the GDR are a striking example of how perspective and what we are willing to put up with and see as a high standard of living depends on our time in history and the alternatives we know and have experienced.
This article is part of a mini series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and explore the lives of the 100.000 Vietnamese people who lived in the GDR during the 42 years of its existence.