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I knew I was getting close to the Dong Xuan Asiatic Cultural and Trade Centre in Berlin when I passed a young Vietnamese woman on the street, wrapped tightly in a hooded jacket. I could barely see her eyes and none of her skin was exposed to the hot sun beating down, just like the women I’d seen outside the Dong Xuan market in Hanoi. Vietnamese women pride themselves on keeping their skin pale, no matter what country they are in.
The Berlin Dong Xuan market, dongxuan-berlin.de, was huge, housed in four warehouses in the Lichtenberg area of the city. Each warehouse was packed with vendors who sold both retail and wholesale. On the outside the warehouses didn’t look like much, but once inside I saw they were bursting with clothing, shoes, nail salon supplies, hardware, silk flowers, electronics, hair salons, Vietnamese grocery stores and restaurants. It was mind boggling, and great bargains could be had. My husband bought a SIM card package for half price. My Berlin-based friend Kerstin, who had never been to the market before, scooped up a number of items from a hardware vendor and declared, “I’m coming back with my mother. She will love this!”
Germany’s relationship with Vietnamese people is complex. More than 30,000 boat people came to West Germany in 1978 as refugees, while in East Germany trainee guest workers from Northern Vietnam came to gain job skills. By 1989 there were almost 60,000 Vietnamese in East Germany. After the country reunified in 1990, some of those workers went back to Vietnam, but many stayed and became independent vendors and shopkeepers. Currently, researchers estimate there are 160,000 Vietnamese in Germany.
After the market, there was much to see. Berlin is a city full of building cranes and many iconic sites have been rebuilt since World War Two. We stayed in the five-star Hotel Adlon Kempinski, originally built at the turn of the last century. This is where Greta Garbo whispered “I want to be alone,” in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel. Other famous guests include Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso and Albert Einstein. Unfortunately, the hotel was destroyed in a fire in the Second World War, but it was rebuilt in 1997 staying true to its historic, architectural roots. In particular, the plush lobby is lit from above by a gorgeous circle of stained glass. Each morning, gazing out our window, we were treated to a view of the stunning Brandenburg Gate. Below in Pariser Platz, we could also see tourists milling about, eager to take selfies with the iconic structure. Breakfast at the hotel was sumptuous. There were meats, cheeses, hot egg dishes, fresh fruit and breads, and even champagne to mix with our orange juice. Dinner in the Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer restaurant with a tasting menu fine tuned by two-star Michelin chef Hendrik Otto was superb. We started with goose liver and coconut milk, enhanced with smoked bell pepper, lemongrass, ginger, celery and chervil. Then we had Chef Otto’s take on bouillabaisse, a rich langoustine, lobster and squid soup. Eggplant/green gazpacho tickled our palates next, followed by braised shoulder of lamb accented with chickpeas, white beans, carrot, mace, chamomile and pomegranate. Cheese followed, then a dessert of green bell pepper-ice cream with Caribe chocolate. The flavours were delicate yet intense, and many plates were served with a dramatic flourish of steam, smoke or dried ice. Each course was expertly paired with German wine by head sommelier Shahab Jalali. My favorites were the crisp 2010 Riesling GG “Wehlemer Sonnenuhr,” and the 1991 Riesling Auslese “Trittenheimer Apotheke.”
“Flavors are the first part of the challenge of presenting a menu, but the evening must also be entertaining. Guests should enjoy themselves and want to come back,” Chef Otto confided to me after our meal. How does he come up with such unique flavor combinations? “I work on new dishes all the time. We go through 40-50 trials before we serve a dish to our guests.” It’s no wonder he’s claimed two Michelin stars.
Interesting food abounds in the city, even at street level. Currywurst is a Berlin favorite and kiosks on every corner serve the plump, grilled sausage, drenched in curry ketchup. Very filling. There were lots of Vietnamese restaurants as well.
We got our bearings by taking a double-decker sightseeing bus. It stopped at all the city’s famous locations – Checkpoint Charlie, Alexanderplatz with the TV Tower, and KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe – and we could hop on or hop off as we pleased. A boat cruise along the Spree River, which winds throughout the city, was a relaxing way to see the sights by water. Jean-Pierre Andreae, premiumguideberlin.com, took us on a tour and pointed out where Hitler’s bunker once was (now a car park), walked us through the haunting Holocaust Memorial, showed us Humboldt University and the site of the Nazi book burning, and guided us through the the Reichstag Building, home of Germany’s federal government. Although badly damaged in World War Two, the Reichstag has been rebuilt and features a glass dome with a height of 47 metres and a spectacular view of the city. Nearby at Museum Island, most of the buildings were being renovated, but we were able to get into the Neues Museum. After examining the bullet-pocked exterior, we browsed through antiquities and came upon the magnificent Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. Located in former East Germany, the museum was badly bombed during the Second World War and neglected until reconstruction in 1997. Reopened in 2009, the museum is fascinating because British architect David Chipperfield chose to preserve many of the damaged portions of the building.
Berlin is filled with attractions and depending on how long you are there, you’ll need to pick and choose. We invested in the Berlin Welcome Card, which for a single price offered public transport plus discounts at museums, galleries, restaurants and on a variety of tours.
Friendly, historic and fascinating, Berlin is a place that should be on everyone’s bucket list.