The Vietnamese Dong Xuan Center in Berlin-Lichtenberg

Stefanie Bürkle and Janin Walter

When Nguyen Van Hien had the idea of establishing a wholesale market on an industrial wasteland in the former East Berlin, modelled on the wholesale market of the same name in Hanoi, he could not have imagined the development that the Dong Xuan Center would trigger and the attraction it would develop for Vietnamese from all over Europe in the following years. Nguyen Van Hien was one of 70,000 Vietnamese contract workers recruited by the GDR from 1980 to 1984 and from 1987 to 1989 under what were called solidarity agreements. The contract workers were supposed to work in the East German industry for a maximum of three years and then return to Vietnam (see Schaland 2015: 9).

The fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification resulted in the closure of factories in East Germany. Many former contract workers were now unemployed and on their own. Of necessity, they became self-employed in the trade or catering sector, which at the time was the only way to obtain a right of residence. As a result, economic networks developed from the new eastern German states to Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where trading centres, known as Asian Markets, were established in larger cities. In this way, many Vietnamese not only secured their place in a new German economic order but also shaped and changed entire districts of Berlin through their activities (see Bürkle 2009a: 2)

Nguyen Van Hien was also put out of work as a result of reunification: he lost his job as a group leader at the Postdamer Baukombinat Ost and started his own business as a trader. He sold clothes that he bought from a wholesale market in Poland, where he often met Vietnamese colleagues from Berlin (see Strauß 2019: 9). There was no wholesale market for Vietnamese traders in Berlin. So he finally bought the former publicly owned industrial site on Herzbergstraße in Berlin-Lichtenberg and founded the Dong Xuan Center GmbH in 2005.

Construction of the first halls, each with 6,500 square metres, commenced in 2005. Meanwhile, six halls have been constructed which are occupied by 2,000 traders from Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Poland and China. In eight restaurants, Vietnamese cook for visitors and traders. In 2016 the former laboratory building of the publicly owned enterprise VEB Elektrokohle Lichtenberg was converted into a guesthouse with 85 beds and is now operated by the H24 hotel chain. Further construction projects have been in the planning stage since 2019, as the commissioned architectural firm plus 4930 told us in an interview. As part of our project, we conducted 30 interviews with 20 visitors and customers, 9 sales assistants and shop owners, the hotel manager of Hotel H24 and a Vietnamese tour guide on site.

In recent years, the private property has often hit the headlines as a success story of Little Hanoi, but also in relation to people trafficking gangs, illegal immigration and, not least, in 2019 and 2016 with two burnt-down warehouses.

Migrating Spaces and Placemaking – Development and change of the Dong Xuan Center

Since 2001, Stefanie Bürkle has been exploring urban spatial phenomena of Vietnamese migration in Germany in various art and research projects. It all began with the postcard series Loi Chao tu Friedrichshain, which artistically documented the transformation of Berlin’s Friedrichshain district through the sudden emergence of Vietnamese shops and snack bars.

The art and research project Loi Chao tu Hanoi – Greetings from Hanoi (2005–2007) explored the ideas and the life plans of North and South Vietnamese in Berlin and broadened the view of East and West German society through artistic means by adding a perspective from two peripheries: from the marginal social perspective of Vietnamese migrants in Germany and from their point of view of East and West Germany. As a walk-in video installation on four projection screens, these portraits were intertwined and juxtaposed with images from Germany and Vietnam. The Dong Xuan Center and another Asian market in Berlin-Marzahn had already been the focus of the Loi Chao tu Hanoi project, which revealed the unknown cosmos of the complex situation of a lived experience of cultural transfer in the middle of our society and thus opened up the possibility of a positive redefinition of the term migration.

The exhibition Placemaking – Migration and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (2009) showed the significance of the fall of the Wall from a migrant (Vietnamese, Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish) point of view. The Dong Xuan Center was heavily frequented by all migrant groups, regardless of their differentiations and distinctions.

The Dong Xuan Center in Berlin exemplifies the connection of the local with the non-local, and the inscription in and influence on the urban space. Furthermore, tourism is a driving force for spatial change. In the following, The Dong Xuan Center will be referred to as DXC.

A Centre of the Vietnamese community in Germany and throughout Europe

Spaces are mutually influenced by the interplay of subjective and objective elements, but they also shape the identity of the people who have appropriated a space (see Bürkle 2016a: 18). The DXC was conceived and marketed as a centre for the Vietnamese community, and it was mainly Vietnamese traders and service providers who rented its space. For 15 years now, these individuals have appropriated its premises. They run shops, where they offer Chinese and Vietnamese products, establish networks and use the space as they know it from Vietnam: they set up altars, have barbecues or celebrate parties in the car park or drink tea in the aisles of the sales halls, thus giving the place its special identity. Among Vietnamese visitors, the atmosphere awakens feelings of home, while for others it satisfies a longing for exoticism, foreignness and travelling:

“I have come here with my parents every weekend since I was a child […]. As long as I can remember, I’ve been here every weekend […]. When I miss Vietnam, I come here […]. In Vietnam there are a lot of big markets like this one. The visit alone takes away the longing.”

Duc Anh Ke, 16, visitor, student

“The Vietnamese community organises many events during the holidays. So people can meet to ease their homesickness.”

Dao Thi Men, 40, visitor, former guest worker in Poland

During their time as guest workers in the GDR, the migrants had already realised that cohesion and community were necessary to live a good life in a foreign country. This idea of community continues to this day, as a young shopkeeper explained to us:

“Firstly, we are here for the Vietnamese community, to attend to them. Many Vietnamese people cannot speak German very well. Most of them are anxious and therefore don’t like to go to the German shops.”

Lam Thai, 23, electronics retailer, at the DXC for six years.

The importance of the DXC for the Vietnamese community in Germany, but also in Europe, has increased tremendously in the last ten years. DXC’s presence in social media, but above all the Vietnamese festivals organised by DXC GmbH, such as the Moon Festival, the New Year’s Festival or community meetings, attract visitors and retailers from all over Europe. For example, Vietnamese tourists from Neustrelitz, a town located about two hours by car north of Berlin, are taken to the DXC by coach after religious ceremonies in Berlin, so that they can shop for Vietnamese products before returning to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – a kind of promotional trip to end the day.

“Due to the large Vietnamese community in Europe, the DXC developed into a trade and community centre […]. The DXC is the pride of the local Vietnamese community […]. It is one of the largest trading centres in Europe […].”

Tran Van Ven, 50, visitor, has been living in Berlin since 1990

In addition to sales, the services that are offered and the Vietnamese festivals that are organised, many private celebrations are held at the DXC: baby showers, youth initiation ceremonies, birthdays and weddings. Many Vietnamese arrive from all over Europe for these events. Most of them stay at the H24 hotel. The hotel’s front office manager told us about the excitement in the hotel when a bride is getting ready for the party, about the karaoke singing that goes on until late at night and the bulk purchases of retailers from other European countries.

“We have a lady from Finland who always travels here especially; her name is Katya. She buys an incredible amount, really, 3 or 4 boxes, and has them brought here by a Vietnamese employee with a hand truck […]. Someone from the post office or DHL then picks up the boxes. She has probably stayed with us four times already […]. We actually have 20 per cent Vietnamese here on a regular basis. Especially on the weekends or extended holidays, we have a lot of Vietnamese people from all over Germany who come and stay at our hotel. Most of them attend an event, a wedding, birthday parties. The other day there was another Hanoi Club Party, and then people party here quite merrily.”

Grit Colden, 40, front office manager at H24

The numerous wedding celebrations led to the development of a real Vietnamese wedding business at the DXC. Vietnamese traders and service providers opened shops for wedding dresses and shoes, beauty shops, nail studios and hair salons. The entire wedding community goes through a transformation at the DXC: they walk into the DXC as Europeans in everyday clothes and come out as a Vietnamese bride, bridesmaid or cousin of the bride, fully dressed, coiffed and made up. The restaurants kept getting bigger to accommodate the ever-growing party crowd. If there are not enough seats for the wedding guests, more tables are placed in the aisles of the halls.

The success of the Vietnamese tradespeople prompted traders from other cultures to also rent premises at the DXC to sell products from their respective home country. While Halls 1–4 are mainly occupied by Vietnamese traders and service providers, Hall 6 is now mainly home to Indian, Pakistani and Turkish shops. We learned from some shop owners that various cultural networks exist at the DXC, within which they help each other with the furnishing or conversion of the stores or spend free time together.

“I have many friends here, and we can drink beer or do things like that. […] or we sing karaoke in the restaurant in Hall 1. We are Vietnamese, we live [on a] different continent, we have to help each other so we can live together well. […] Hall 1, Hall 18, Hall 3 – [each] hall has a football team and all the halls play against each other.

Linh Xam, 24, tattooist, at the DXC for 1 year


Over the last five years, the DXC has also become attractive to tourists beyond Berlin and Brandenburg, where it has been known as a tourist destination for quite some time. On Sundays, not only Vietnamese but also many German families flock to the DXC to have a tattoo or microblading done, have the whole family’s hair cut, go shopping and enjoy the authentic Vietnamese food. Due to the high level of interest on the part of German and Eastern European private customers, many shops have transformed from wholesalers into service providers, restaurants, hairdressing and massage salons, nail and tattoo studios or training centres for cosmetics.

“There were only few people then, also few customers, few Vietnamese, the car park was not completely full like it is today, and there were almost no tourists, of course. I have noticed, though, that more and more tourists are turning up now: by coach, by tram or in groups of 20 to 30 people with a tourist guide.”

Bao Le Trung, 45, in Berlin for 20 years, runs an online newspaper and a software development company, at the DXC for 15 years

One example of this change is the Mina Le Beauty Academy, founded by Tan Linh. Tan has been living in Berlin-Steglitz for 15 years and drives an hour to the DXC every day. She had the dream of training Vietnamese nail experts following the example set by the nail studios run by Vietnamese in the Unites States. For the past ten years, she has been training Vietnamese around the world: in America, Australia and Vietnam. A year ago, she moved her academy to the DXC so that her students, recruited via Facebook from all over Europe, could be trained here, at the heart of the Vietnamese community.

However, the many private clients are not appreciated by everyone. The shopkeepers are particularly displeased by the fact that more and more tourists are visiting the shops to buy the products at wholesale prices, and that the wholesalers are staying away.

“Yes, we have become a tourist attraction. What can we do? I mean, because we do not have a choice now to prevail commercially with wholesaling, we have to accept the tourists.”

Simone Schröder, 45, employee of a textile trader, working at the DXC for 10 years

This change is not disadvantageous for all shop owners, many have adapted their product range to German private customers. In one wedding shop, for example, there is a Vietnamese-style dress printed with the colours of the German flag next to classic wedding dresses.

This change is particularly evident in the design and the products and services on offer in Hall 18, which was opened only in 2019. Here, in addition to classic textile stores, there are two restaurants, a bubble tea shop, a laundrette, a massage centre, the Mina Le Beauty Academy, a tailor’s shop, nail studios and hair salons. Hall 18 also differs from the other halls because of the tidy, almost empty aisle, the glass fronts facing the aisle and the high ceiling. It appears more spacious. The new hall had to comply with the regulations of the new fire protection ordinance, a jeans dealer told us. That is why no goods are allowed to be on display in the aisles. In addition, the shops are much more modern and luxurious compared to those in the old halls.

This development, in turn, influenced the appearance of new shops in the “old” halls. Shop owners who had a shop or office in these halls were inspired to renovate their premises. These recursive developments on the microlevel have also had an effect on the mesolevel of the neighbourhood, which can be described as a switch-over.

Interdependence relations – Switch-over

The establishment of the Vietnamese wholesale centre Dong Xuan Center had an impact on the immediate surrounding area. The tourist attractiveness of the DXC, the cheap rents and interesting architecture from different periods entailed further programmatic accumulations: in 2007, an American and a French investor founded Kunstfabrik HB55, a “centre for arts and crafts workshops” in the Magarinewerk Berolina, a margarine factory built in 1909 (see, last accessed 11.12.2020).

In 2012, former consultant and art collector Axel Haubrok and his wife Barbara acquired the Fahrbereitschaft, a garage site built in the 1950s for the car pool of the SED Central Committee in the GDR. The Haubrok Foundation is developing and operating the commercial site as a creative yard for exhibitions, artists, service providers and tradespeople. Architect Brandlhuber designed additional studio buildings on behalf of the Haubrok Foundation on the same grounds and, together with Georg Dietz, Nikolai von Rosen and Christopher Roth, acquired the two concrete towers of the former VEB Elektrokohle Lichtenberg, previously used as silo and circulation towers, in order to convert them into workshops under his direction in the joint project San Gimignano Lichtenberg. In 2014, the Karibuni company rented premises on Herzbergstraße to set up co-working spaces with connected workshops.

These cultural accumulations, the changing clientele of visitors and the growing attractiveness of the venue through its presence on social media and websites have in turn brought about several structural changes to the DXC. Since 2019, the architectural firm plus 4930 has been planning extensions on behalf of the Dong Xuan GmbH:

“We started working with the Dong Xuan Center at a time when the halls already existed, when there were already plans to extend the halls at the back […]. The halls were built practically without an architectural master plan or architectural ambitions, simply as functional buildings, which actually makes up the charm of this centre. At the point when it was a question of converting a listed building, it became more apparent that it was necessary to bring in an architectural office. This is when we got involved and took over the rough plans that already existed for this building.”

Florian Geddert, 42, proprietor of plus 4930

At the moment, a “modern centre for encounters” (Florian Geddert, Interview 2020) is being built on the foundations of the former culture house of VEB Elektrokohle Lichtenberg, while existing halls are being extended with golden front-end buildings to give them an appealing look; residential and commercial buildings are planned on the edge of the site. However, the owner and CEO of the DXC has even more plans; he wants to build a multi-storey car park behind the hotel and a noodle factory on the site, residential buildings along Landsberger Allee, a 20-storey high-rise opposite the DXC (see Strauß 2019: 9), and he wants to create an “Asia City” with residential and commercial buildings. Since 2013, Dong Xuan GmbH has also been operating a production site in Hoppegarten, a municipality just west of Berlin, where Asian food is produced and ducks are cooked and roasted for distribution throughout Europe (see, last accessed 11.12.2020).

Since 2019, another four market halls have been under construction on adjacent plots of land owned by a Pakistani investor, following a similar principle in terms of use and construction. However, catering is not permitted in the new halls, although the investor had planned otherwise. The Tandoor House right next to his office had achieved good turnover, but now had to close. Similar to the Dogil Maeul case, the dedication of the site led to conflicts between new and old investors. The entire area around Herzbergstraße is designated as an industrial area in the land-use plan, thus only allowing staff canteens. The site manager explained to us that an exception applies for the DXC:

“In the case of the DXC, an exception was made by the urban planning authority in the 2000s to support the development of the area. At the time, Lichtenberg had a rather bad image. The investment on Herzbergstraße offered the chance to improve the attractiveness of the location.”

Hans Reckler, 50, site manager at DBS Verwaltungs GmbH

Especially the exotic food of other cultures is attractive to tourists. Just as German food attracts thousands of Korean tourists to the German village of Dogil Maeul in South Korea, many German visitors come to the DXC for the Vietnamese food. Exotic cuisine and the authentic flair act as tourist magnets.

“When friends of mine have a birthday, I write them a little letter […] with a photo of us in the shopping mall. And I write on it: ‘We invite you to Hanoi without an eight-hour flight.’ [Then] we take them out for dinner there.”

Gabriele Klaus, 65, visitor from Köpenick
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