Following her graduation from high school, Phạm Thanh Hà comes as an apprentice to the GDR. From 1974 to 1978 she trains as a precision optician at VEB Carl Zeiss Jena. She returns to Vietnam, where she studies physics at the National University of Hanoi. In 1989 she accepts an invitation from a West Berlin company to work there as a researcher. Her seven-year old son, however, cannot accompany her.
Phạm Thanh Hà’s mother is a physician. She tells Hà about the places the Vietnamese Ministry of Health offers for vocational training in the GDR. Since Ha wants to go abroad following her graduation, she applies and is eventually accepted. For eleven days, she and other young Vietnamese people travel by train across China and Russia to the GDR. Their first destination is Gotha, where they take six months of German lessons. Then it’s on to Jena, where Hà begins her training as a precision optician. Together with three other young women, she is accommodated in a one-room apartment in the residential home for Zeiss apprentices. They are informed that romantic relationships are forbidden.
VEB Carl Zeiss Jena is a company with a long-standing tradition. The work there is considered good and Hà likes it. The training she and her colleagues receive is part of the East German solidarity with Vietnam. Hà and the other young Vietnamese female VEB Carl Zeiss apprentices are featured in a newspaper article with a photo. One can see the young women checking glasses and prisms. Hà keeps the published picture to this day.
I liked the training.
Pham Thanh Ha, Berlin 2022
Back in Vietnam
In 1978 Phạm Thanh Hà successfully completes her training and returns to Vietnam. There she initially works as a technician in a physics institute, before she is delegated to study physics at the National University of Hanoi. After graduation, she works as a physicist in a research institute. In addition to her career, she has also given birth to a child. Her institute maintains contacts all over the world, and Hà takes part in international conferences.
Back in Germany
As a result of the cooperation between Dünnschicht-Technik Ltd. in West Berlin and the Institute of Physics in Hanoi, Phạm Thanh Hà receives a promising job offer in the late 1980s. But it comes at a high price: Hà has to leave her son behind in Vietnam. Nevertheless, she decides to accept the invitation. She arrives in Berlin in November 1989, shortly after the fall of the Wall.
Amidst a changing world
When Hà arrives in Berlin-Schönefeld, no one picks her up. Although she speaks German, she has no German money. Fortunately, she meets Vietnamese contract workers who lend her East German marks. With that, she can pay for her cab and go to West Berlin. She starts her job as a researcher at the West Berlin Dünnschicht-Technik Ltd. Often, Hà has to manage on her own and acquire knowledge about the company’s modern, complex machines by herself. For hours on end, she has to monitor the machines whilst standing. In her spare time, she reads the technical literature to familiarize herself. She misses her son and cries a lot.
In the beginning I was very homesick and sad.
Pham Thanh Ha, Berlin 2022
Working for Reistrommel e.V.
While looking for a new job, Phạm Thanh Hà comes across the Reistrommel association, which supports Vietnamese migrants in Berlin. Pham starts working there: She translates, counsels, gives language lessons, helps young people and organizes cultural programs.
Between 2002 and 2012, Pham works in various jobs in social services, for instance, as an external interpreter, or as a counselor for refugees applying for voluntary return at the IOM (International Organization for Migration).
Today Phạm Thanh Hà lives in Berlin and works as a coordinator for the Intercultural Hospice Service Dong Ban Ja — Humanistic Association Germany (HVD).
Nguyễn Phương Thanh conducted the interview in Berlin in 2022.
Text: Isabel Enzenbach
Research and research protocol photos: Nguyễn Phương Thanh