What is actually doing …? (Part 9): viethaus: a strange story

The Viethaus did not make a name for itself with culture, but rather with events of the New Right, with mousse games and diplomatic tricks of those responsible.

Sad end: the Viethaus on Spittelmarkt, opened in 2008 and closed in 2018 Photo: Andre Wunstorf

At the end of 2018, the Viethaus am Spittelmarkt in Berlin closed. The building, which had eked out a bleak existence in recent years, making headlines mainly as a venue for far-right events, had been ceremoniously opened in 2008 as Vietnam’s largest business and cultural center outside its national borders by then Senator for Economic Affairs Harald Wolf (Left Party).

The operator Sasco, a subsidiary of the Vietnamese airline Vietnam Airlines, has left the house, which was operated for eleven years, in such a state that the housing association Mitte has filed a criminal complaint for damage to property, according to its spokesman Christoph Lang. Residents report that the toilet and sink tiles have been ripped out of the wall and sold to Vietnamese restaurants, and that there is a huge pile of rubble in front of the building.

The Vietnamese National Ensemble was flown in especially for the opening in 2008. At the time, deputy director Thomas Gratsch raved to the taz about screenings of Vietnamese films with German and English subtitles, art exhibitions and a spa area with Far Eastern massage and relaxation techniques and the finest Vietnamese handicrafts, which was to be different from cheap mass kitsch made in Asia. The Viethaus was to become a kind of Vietnamese Goethe Institute. But the financing was unclear from the beginning.

The project was initiated by the first director of the Viethaus, Xuan Hung, an artist who had come to the GDR as a contract worker but was overwhelmed with a project of this size. His vision was to get the Viethaus up and running with an injection of cash from Vietnam. Two restaurants, hotel and conference rooms were supposed to bring in the money that culture costs.

The spa area never opened

What Xuan Hung had not considered was that the restaurants had to compete with the restaurants in the neighborhood in Mitte, which did not need to subsidize culture. Moreover, one of the restaurants did not even have heating, so it was always closed in the winter months. The grandly announced spa area never opened because the money for its construction stopped flowing.

Most stories don’t end just because we wrote an article about them for taz berlin. That’s why we ask the protagonists one more time: In our series "What is actually …?" around the turn of the year 2018/19, we tell some stories further. Today, part ten. All previous series texts can be read online at https://ecomin.ru/berlin. (taz)

But Hung had the best contacts: His brother was head of the state-owned airline Vietnam Airlines. So it was certainly no coincidence that Sasco, a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines, became the main investor in Viethaus AG and the brother of the airline boss thus got his playground in Berlin. This was also the case for a few alleged Vietnamese top chefs, who were now allowed to travel to Berlin with a visa. However, they did not cook top-class food at all.

After Vietnam Airlines parted ways with its boss, Hung also lost his attractive job in Berlin in 2010. The new Viethaus director and his entourage came directly from Vietnam and no longer had any interest in bringing Vietnamese culture to Berlin. Henceforth, the Viethaus was to give mainly relatives of high officials in Vietnam the chance to spend a few nice years in Berlin, as supposedly top chefs or office staff without foreign language skills or knowledge of the German capital.

At that time, the Viethaus was already in court in Berlin. It was not paying salaries or social security contributions to several employees and also owed money to clients. But not everyone, like the dismissed cultural manager Hung Manh Le, could sue for outstanding salaries in the labor court. Those who did not have a written employment contract or who had flown in from Vietnam specifically to work did not dare to do so. The newly arrived cooks and waiters, who had paid a lot of money for the opportunity to work here, had to earn something on the side elsewhere. As a result, the kitchen often stayed cold. Even guests who had ordered a buffet for parties were left at a closed door.

Events organized by the right-wing Compact magazine

Qualified employees with German language skills and access to the Berlin cultural scene left the house. When there was a fire in the Viethaus in 2014, visitors to the nearby playground had to call the fire department because no one on the staff was able to do so. The new staff was indifferent to the host community. But what to do with beautifully furnished conference halls where films were originally to be shown, culture presented, and contracts signed? When they weren’t being rented out for Vietnamese wedding ceremonies or Vietnam’s politicians were meeting with compatriots here on the sidelines of state visits, they stood empty.

The Viethaus didn’t look too closely at who it rented the rooms to from time to time: from 2011 to 2016, it was the venue for regular events by the far-right Compact magazine, which couldn’t easily find space elsewhere. Invited speakers included Karl-Heinz Hoffmann of the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, Pegida man Lutz Bachmann, then AfD right-winger Andre Poggenburg and Martin Sellner of the Identitarian Movement from Austria. Organizer Jurgen Elsasser, a neo-Right journalist, thanked "socialist Vietnam and the government of socialist Vietnam" at his standing desk between columns with Asian dragons for offering him and his followers "a refuge here for freedom of expression and for viewpoints" that "are persecuted elsewhere in this republic," despite protests by civil society outside the building against the event.

The Vietnamese embassy in Germany left all of the taz’s questions on the subject unanswered. According to research by the Mobile Counseling Service against Right-Wing Extremism Berlin, no more rentals to right-wing extremists took place as of 2017. Here, regular rallies of civil society and Antifa in front of the house had probably been decisive for a rethinking.

In 2011, the year in which the Compact events in the Viethaus began, the German government had to deal with the house on a grand stage. Angela Merkel sealed the so-called strategic partnership with Vietnam in Hanoi. In the protocol, Germany also pledged to "support the Viethaus project in Berlin" – a house that had long been in the process of turning from a cultural venue into an extreme right-wing hangout. According to the German Foreign Office, however, there was never any financial support.

New debts, new investigations

The spacious and quite tastefully designed restaurant with the very finest Vietnamese brand furniture was mostly empty. Unless Reich citizens held their meetings here: They, too, could not find rooms elsewhere in Berlin.

But Hung had the best contacts: His brother was head of Vietnam Airlines

Viethaus AG had more and more debts and was dissolved by an insolvency administrator in 2013. The lease now included Sasco, the subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines. It continued to operate the restaurant, hotel and conference rooms and offered space to representatives of the extreme right in Germany.

Soon there were new debts to suppliers and tradesmen, new investigations, for example, for non-payment of social security contributions. And a creditors’ association even turned to the Foreign Office in 2017, which confirmed to the taz. "It’s true that the Viethaus is a stock corporation under local law," a party to the creditors’ association tells the taz. "But it has always invoked a kind of extraterritorial status, as if it were a diplomatic representation. And it was represented by a Vietnamese lawyer who does not have a license in Germany," she continued.

A resident confirms "that diplomatic vehicles were often parked on the sidewalk or in the no-stopping zone, and the police were powerless.

No talk of mismanagement

In 2018, the government in Hanoi had dealt with the cattle house twice. In a public report from January, the house is described from a purely fiscal point of view. There is no more talk of culture. It says that in ten years the house would have made 7 million euros in revenue – not even half of the costs incurred for construction and rent. The report cites high rents in Berlin and unexpected repairs as the reason for the losses. There is no mention of mismanagement.

According to the report, the government in Hanoi did not learn of the operator’s insolvency through official channels, but only through rumors from third parties. A second report in June called on the state-owned company to negotiate with the federal government for favorable rents and long-term visas for employees or else abandon the loss-making enterprise. According to the State Department, however, there have been no talks or financial contributions.

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