There’s something special when you’re given the opportunity to give back while doing the things you love – for me, that’s traveling, eating and being inspired!

I’ll be honest, I used to (and still do) have a skeptical view of social enterprises. I would question if the marked up prices were justified and whether the proceeds really do benefit the underserved groups as claimed. However, with the internet, it is not difficult to research into particular social initiatives and read about the experiences of others who have tried them. Empowering oneself with knowledge is one way to help build your confidence as a consumer and reduce the risk of being scammed.

Before my trip to Hoi An, I read as many online articles, got in touch with my Vietnamese friends and even spoke to my ride-hailing driver about social enterprises in the area.

During the 3 days I spent in the city, 3 socially impactful initiatives caught my attention.

Eat with heart

The first place I visited was Streets Restaurant Cafe – a 2007 not-for-profit establishment that trains “vulnerable, orphaned and other disadvantaged young people” for careers in the culinary and hospitality industry. Trainees undergo an 18-months programme, which includes both classroom learning and hands-on practical experiences.

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Colonial facade of Streets. The restaurant is located strategically in the ancient town.
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Dining area and kitchen

Here’s a snapshot of the food I tried during my visit.

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Starters – toasted rice cake biscuits with a mildly spicy peanut sauce
pancake
Bánh xèo (110,000 VND) – crispy rice pancake with prawns, pork and fresh greens. The highlight of this dish was the delicious liver-based sauce (..and of course, the fun in assembling everything together!).
noodles
Cao lầu (85,000 VND) – local speciality noodles served with pork, crispy croutons, vegetables, herbs and lime. Stir them together, and you get a delicate but fresh tasting soya-pork bowl of springy noodles (very similar to udon texture)!
dessert
Kem Flan (85,000 VND) – imagine Crème Brûlée with Vietnamese coffee! Smooth, silky, sweet, and a good end to dinner.

While prices are not cheap (considering that they serve street food), the overall experience made it worth while. The food was fresh and authentic. Staff were really friendly and could easily clarify questions in English – what a stress reliever when you’re a traveller in a foreign city! The restaurant also had a relaxed setting and was clean.

Explore with purpose 

The next day, I was ready to explore Hoi An. There is a group of local students who had set up an organisation (Hoi An Free Tour) that operates free bike tours to the countryside of the city on Tuesdays and weekends. Participants can not only enjoy the beautiful and peaceful sceneries of Kim Bong Village on Cam Kim island, but also get a better insight into the local culture and traditions. There is no charge for the tour, only a small fee (80,000 VND) to cover the bicycle rent, ferry ride and donation to the local communities. In return, students or the tour guides, have the opportunity to improve their language and enrich their people skills.

Be sure to drop them an email a few days in advance to ensure a smooth reservation process and to avoid any “sold out” disappointment.

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The 8.00am gathering at their office

Once you arrive at the office in the morning, you will be sorted out into groups of 5. You will be introduced to your guide and have to pass him/her the money for the tour. There will also be a short wait for the bicycles to arrive. One convenient option is to hire your own bicycle from your hotel and bike to the tour office.

After some quick introductions and briefing with your team, it’s time to push off! We started by cycling through the streets and the market before stopping at the riverfront.

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All-a-board! Get yourself and your bike on the boat for a short 15 mins ride.

First stop, a local boatyard. As we arrive at the entrance, we were greeted by a family of friendly geese. We spent about 30 mins here and it was really interesting to learn about the boat building process in Hoi An.

shipyard
Boatyard

Thereafter, we headed to our second destination, a rice noodle maker/shop.

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Granny with stone grinder. Rice is first soaked overnight before being ground together with water into a paste. 
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Uncle cooking the rice paste at a traditional stove, which is fuelled by rice husk.
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Some slicing and it’s noodles!

Each one of us got to put our skills to the test and I have to say, I will never look at a bowl of noodles the same way again! So much time and effort goes into making something so simple, but essential in our daily lives.

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Rice cake snacks (with spicy garlic fish sauce) and jasmine tea were served as a mid-way pit stop. 

Some of the beautiful and quaint sceneries along our cycling path:

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Paddy fields
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Riverside

At our third stop, we visited an Assembly Hall of an affluent family in the area. It was educational to learn about the history of the place, and we even got the opportunity to put on traditional costumes and have pictures taken!

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Assembly hall

We then biked to our fourth destination to visit the weavers of sedge mats. The traditional technique used require the teamwork of 2 persons – one who slots in the sedge between the strings, and the other who compresses the sedges together. It is a very time-consuming job and the weavers typically make 3 placemats a day.

weaving
Weaving is fun, but can be backbreaking!

About 12pm, we arrived at our final stop, the the carpentry centre. There was nothing much to see here, except for woodcarvings and products that were on sale. Despite this, the Kim Bong Carpentry Village holds significant value as they have managed to preserve and ensure the continuance of traditional woodcarving, boatbuilding and house building in Hoi An.

carpentry
Carpentry centre – I bought some coconut chopsticks for 20,000 VND as a souvenir

The value and experience I got out of the tour was so much more than what I had initially expected. Not only do I now have a greater understanding of the Vietnamese tradition and culture, but I was inspired to see the dedication from the small group of students – they were committed in providing quality local experiences to travellers and in supporting their communities in a sustainable manner. The guide I got, Phuong, was professional, friendly and would go out of his way to help us.

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Phuong foraging for star fruits

Souvenirs of change

The third social enterprise I came across is the Reaching Out arts & craft shop. They sell beautifully crafted products made by persons with disabilities. All profits are reinvested back into the business to allow for more job training and employment. The company also claims to follow fair trade principles by “ensuring that their employees and suppliers are equitably compensated”.

workshop
Workshop

For tea enthusiasts, Reaching Out also has a lovely teahouse that you could chill and unwind after a day of exploring and shopping.

Conclusion

So the next time you’re in Hoi An, give one of these initiatives a visit. May it be a meal at Streets Restaurant Cafe, cycling 4 hours with the Free Hoi An Tour, or a teapot from Reaching Out, I left Hoi An feeling re-energised, inspired and meaningfully connected to the good work the locals do.

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