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.
Here’s a snapshot of the food I tried during my visit.
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.
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.
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.
Thereafter, we headed to our second destination, a rice noodle maker/shop.
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.
Some of the beautiful and quaint sceneries along our cycling path:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”.
For tea enthusiasts, Reaching Out also has a lovely teahouse that you could chill and unwind after a day of exploring and shopping.
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.