Saturday, April 5, 2014

Vietnamese in Kharkov

One of my favorite things about Kharkov is how diverse the city is.
Handmade ad near the Geroev Truda metro
Countless universities (pharmaceutical, technical, law, aerospace, physics, medical, pedagogical, and more) brought 12,000 foreign students here in 2010. As of 2014, this number is supposedly up to over 20,000 students.

An overall population of approximately 1.5 million people means numerous job opportunities. Outsiders of all nationalities often end up working in Kharkov.

Others come because they've been forced to flee their home countries. There's a local organization that provides asylees and rufugees with assistance (including Ukrainian lessons).

One group that's found a home here are the Vietnamese. In fact, when I first looked up "Kharkov" on the internet, search results mentioned a large Buddhist temple that had recently been built here in (very) Eastern Europe. Since then the idea of Vietnam has repeatedly shown up again and again.

Shy Vietnamese teens in my English classes.

Learning the Russian word for flip-flops: вьетнамки (vietnam-ki).

Moving to the area we're in now, where many of our neighbors are Vietnamese. 

And, of course, there's Barabashova, where all tourists end up sooner or later. I would be remiss to not mention (the local stereotype of) Vietnamese immigrants and the Barabashova market.
This labyrinth-like and massive mega-market employs quite a few foreigners from Asia and Africa. Imagine: there are more than 5,000 parking spaces here and, according to their website, up to 200,000 visitors a day. It's a city of its own in many ways.
For action shots of what it's like within the murky depths of the market, check out Matt's post on The Wall of Bags.
Preparing to close for the day, the market is ready for cleaning crews to come through.
Vietnamese Food in Kharkov

Hidden somewhere deep inside the Barabashova market is a 2nd-story restaurant that serves Vietnamese food. You don't need directions to find this place- you need astronomical quantities of luck. (Did I mention there are over 18,000 retail spaces in the market?!) Here's a short post + pics from a woman who did manage to find the restaurant as well as a more detailed post here. And if you do stumble across this place, you get a bonus prize; there's a Vietnamese market just through the restaurant's back door.  

For the navigationally-challenged rest of us, there's always Фансипан (Fansipan), not far from the Beketova metro (ул. Маршала Бажанова 6).

Fansipan bills itself as "the only café in Kharkov with Vietnamese food", which is not entirely true... but considering how hard it is to find the mythical Barabashova café, it might as well be!

Lunch at Fansipan:
винэм (rolls) = 15 uah
фо сао (noodles w/ beef) = 30 uah
фобо (phở) = 20 uah for a small bowl
In addition to being easy to find, Fansipan is affordable. Lunch for 3 people? 180 uah for a meal that left us stuffed. These kinds of prices + a good atmosphere make this a popular spot. The room was constantly buzzing with conversations. We even heard English being used at another table (perhaps because the International House school is directly across the street).

There are around 20 items on the menu. Talking it over with my friends, we gave our lunch a 3/5 for quality and a 5/5 for quantity. The phở was bland and without bean sprouts. The signature dish- phan xi păng (fansipan)- was a boring combo of risotto, chicken, and peas. The fosao noodles in the previous picture were amazingly, amazingly delicious. The entire place is a cross between take out and a café. You stand at the cashier to order. Giant numbered pictures on the wall make it easy to find something that looks good. Afterwards, you clear your own table.

But by far, the best place in town for Vietnamese food is Mom's place, aka the apartment next to ours : ) The neighbors invited me over for dinner a while back:
Holy cow (or should I say pig ear?)! Mom prepared all this in under an hour.
"This is how we eat," explained Mom.

"Mom, wait a minute", I said in shock. "Don't you ever have one of those nights where you're just not into it, so you throw some frozen pelmeni in a pot on the stove and call it dinner?"

She laughed. "Oh no, I always cook for my family. There's constantly rice on the table and I change up the rest of the dishes. We're having beef now so maybe it'll be fish tomorrow."

This mom definitely wins Housewife of the Year award. Poor D- I've been known to feed him frozen pelmeni or takeout pizza up to 3 times in one week. Mom's family gets all the good stuff, plus she keeps her apartment spotless, no small feat surely with young children and a husband in residence. I suspect she even cleans the hallway we share!

When I arrived for dinner, Mom's husband offered up a shot of cognac, which reminded me of Vietnamese New Year several weeks ago. Mom had rung the doorbell that night with a plate of heavenly fried rolls she called naim.! Then we went next door, where candied ginger and coconut waited next to shotglasses of cognac. The family had 2 shrines set out on shelves. Fruit, shotglasses, candles, and Banh Tet (sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf. I think...) topped the shelves. We made small talk in Russian, doing pretty well for 2 Vietnamese speakers, 1 English speaker, and a single native Russian speaker while news showing scenes from Euromaidan played on the TV screen.

Anyways, back to the other week. That morning Mom had invited me to go on a shopping mission to Barabashova with her and her daughters. How could I possibly turn down a chance to shop? :p Off we went!
Barabashova exterior last fall
We spent several hours wandering through the maze of shops, stopping periodically as Mom would see people she knew. We hovered briefly at a food cart for some bitter tea and a delicious bun filled with noodles and meat. As Mom and the vendor caught up on old news, a Ukrainian man dropped by from the bag shop next door, calling out a cheery greeting in Vietnamese before switching to Russian.

Our mission that day was to find a jacket for the younger daughter. As we paused at an intersection where fur coats stretched up to the ceiling, Mom stepped away to inspect several possible jackets. A blonde vendor came up to us and engaged the older daughter in conversation, ending with praise for her fluency in so many languages: Ukrainian and English (school), Russian (friends and daily life), and Vietnamese (at home). The blonde woman informed the older sister, "You really should be a translator when you grow up" to which the pre-teen nodded casually, as in I know, I know

Anyway, after lots of walking to and fro underneath the market's plastic canopy, Mom directed us up a flight of stairs to Mythical Barabashova café.

"Are you hungry?", she asked. "We can eat here."

Considering that we were walking through a Vietnamese meat market at the moment, I was most definitely not hungry. Raw meat lay all around us, including a skinned pig head with little brown nubs (teeth?) and a creepy black eyeball. A nearby butcher cut up an unidentifiable meat-y thing on a tree stump.

Mom bought- I kid you not- a raw pig ear. It was pale, gigantic, and floppy. The butcher efficiently chopped off little bits of gristle (or an ear drum, who knows?) and handed Mom the ear, safely wrapped up in a plastic baggie. "Hooray!" the girls cried. "Salad!!"

Coming to Ukraine totally changed my perception of salads and now... wow... what isn't a salad? In America, salad means something leafy and green, perhaps with dressing or croutons on top. In Ukraine, salad means mayonnaise. Lots of mayonnaise. Maybe with potatoes, canned peas, fish, or beets. And now, a salad means pig ear? My mind is blown! :p What a world we live in!
Barabashova after hours last year; everything closes down around 3 PM.
I ate that pig ear. Mom fried it, sliced it up, and served it with cucumbers. It was pretty good. 'Pretty tasty' during the moments when my mind wasn't whispering "pig ear! pig ear!", and 'good' during the moments I crunched through some tasty ear cartilage. Her daughters went crazy for the salad, forks constantly darting out to grab another piece off the platter. I wish I could be more like them and judge things on taste rather than composition. Everything on the table- beef, tofu, egg soup- was fresh and delicious. "My wife cooks everyone well", said the husband. "Dad!!" the girls scolded, "it's everything, not everyone!" In his defense, those words are awfully similar in Russian: всё versus все, just two little dots and one vowel sound that make the difference between cannibalism and earnest praise.

Who would have guessed that living in eastern Ukraine would mean getting an introduction to Vietnamese food and culture? I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how truly international this city is. At this point it looks like we're on a culture-through-food tour (remember Beirut?) so I'm looking forward to the next new and tasty lesson!

More Vietnam / Kharkov connections
This massive ad was on display in Freedom Square recently. Mivina is very successful noodle company started in the 90s by Vietnamese students in Kharkov. "Despite fierce competition from Ukrainian and international corporations, Mivina brand noodles held 98 percent of the instant noodle market, over 95 percent of the instant potato market and over 50 percent of the spice market in Ukraine in 2009."
  • Murder in Barabashova (article in Russian)
  • A Vietnamese fashion model turned Euro 2012 volunteer
  • Another site with news from the Kharkov Vietnamese community

PS: A great resource for learning more about Vietnamese language and culture is It's helped me a lot in the quest to understand our neighbors better.

PPS: Finally found the cafe!


  1. How funny flip-flops are called Vietnamese. They are indeed staple footwear, but in Vietnamese they're called "dép lào", literally Laos sandals.

    When I first left Vietnam I thought I'd never get to practice my Vietnamese anymore but it seems there are substantial pockets in (mostly Eastern) Europe where not only do Vietnamese people live, but Vietnamese culture is thriving. I really enjoyed this glimpse into the Vietnamese community in Kharkov.

    Thanks for the shout-out! :)

    1. Oooh, dép lào, I'll (attempt to) impress the neighbors with that : ) Funny how both Russian and Vietnamese identify these shoes with a particular other country!

      Loving your site, as always. Keep up the good work!!!

  2. Awesome post! I loved going to the Vietnamese place in "Barb" when I lived in Kharkov! Usually I was with friends who knew how to get there, but when I was on my own I found that the other sellers were able to direct me there.

    1. Haha, the "Barb"... spoken like a true native, Chelsea!

  3. Many years ago (way before Barabashova market) when first Vietnamese places opened in Kharkov, I tried pig's ear salad and still remember how delicious it was. Too bad I cannot find it in the US.

    1. Wow, I can't imagine Kharkov without this place. Do you know what year it opened? Were people excited about it?

      Sounds like maybe it's time to plan a trip back, Sergey... you can take a culinary tour of the city :p and I'll be happy to join you!

    2. This place started in 1995 and people hated it. At that time the neighborhood was very unpleasant and difficult to get to. It took some serious effort to suppress two rival and way more convenient places (one was Благбаз, another - "Under the bridge"). It was not this big until mid-2000.

    3. Thanks for the extra info! I never realized it was so recent and hotly-contested.

  4. Love this post! I want to meet this family

    1. Thanks! They are super-sweet people, we really lucked out.

  5. Housewife of the Year, indeed! It was especially interesting to get this peek into the lives of your neighbors. I would have been a bit hesitant about the pig's ear, too--and the meat market!

  6. Hi
    I was looking to PM you but I did not find a way to do so.
    First up, excellent blog! I'm following it all the time! (I'm crazy about Ukraine, too :) )
    I just wanted to ask one thing. What is life in Kharkov like these days?
    I mean, all the riots and stuff. Is that something hyped up by the mass media? Or can you indeed feel it in the air?
    Just a side note - I gave up on reading English, American or Polish (I'm Polish myself :) ) media and switched to Ukrainian outlets, to get a fuller picture. Apparently, the panic is all over there as well....

    1. Hi TS! Thanks very much : ) It's always nice to meet someone else who is crazy about Ukraine.

      I just finished a new post which (at the very end) talks about what life has been life the past few days, you might like to take a peek at that.

      There is starting to be something in the air. People who never seemed fazed at things before now start talking about their worries, which puts the rest of us on alert. But work is still work, the metro is still open. It's hard to know which is more real: the crazy stuff or the regular stuff. Before it was a lot of hype. Now, hard to say... the next few days should tell...

      Yes, I've been trying out Ukrainian outlets too. That's pretty cool that you have so many linguistic options to choose from :P Which Ukrainian outlets do you prefer? I usually go for for, sometimes, not sure if the last is actually Ukrainian but they're always fast in getting the newest updates.

      You're welcome to drop me a line anytime via katherine at english-ghoti dot com. I'm sometimes a little slow in replying but I will definitely get back to you. : )

  7. Hmm... I am wondering if you have located the Buddhist Temple @ Kharkiv. Should you have not, like to share with you the location -
    Chua Truc Lam, or Bamboo Forest Temple, is its name. I have searched its location before my visit, only know the exact address after I left Kharkiv. Therefore I never visited it :(

    1. Hi Eric! Thanks for your comment! I had heard of the temple but never got the chance to track it down. Hope you'll get to see it on your next visit to Kharkiv : )