Last updated on February 4, 2019
Drizzling rain pattered on my umbrella as I wove through throngs of tourists, their rainbow-hued ponchos forming sudden pops of contrast against the canary-colored walls. I dodged locals pedaling rickety bicycles on the rain-drenched streets, and darted into the calm oasis of a local teahouse-cum-social enterprise in Hoi An, Vietnam. The rain hadn’t let up for a week and the teahouse was my daily respite from the chaos—a respite from the tedium of days spent peering from windows at waterlogged rice paddies and dark, pregnant skies.
I had landed in southern Vietnam weeks earlier with a vague plan to meander north for three months. Now into my tenth year on the road, my travel style has changed significantly. I no longer make meticulous travel plans and so I entered Vietnam with two vague goals: see beautiful things and find beautiful stories capable of inspiring others to use travel as a force for good.
Hoi An Ancient Town was a natural stop in my quest for beauty—a more charming town may not exist anywhere in the world. I have a deep love for towns many consider inauthentic. I passed through Antigua, Guatemala in the second year of my round the world trip and stayed for weeks. I loved Luang Prabang, Laos enough that I returned with my niece so she could soak in the laid-back Laotian culture and beautiful French colonial architecture. And Hoi An’s narrow streets and 18th century wooden houses enchanted me. Each of these towns share status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and that is surely part of the charm—they are towns steeped in history and seemingly frozen in time.
Time moves forward, however, and touristy towns offer unique opportunities for responsible travelers that are impossible to find in more off-the-beaten-path locations. Tourism dollars facilitate innovations. Peeling back the layer of novelty from a travel experience uncovers fascinating ways for economic exchanges that support local economies and communities. And that’s my passion, finding ways to help travelers connect to causes and communities.
Before arriving in Hoi An, I puttered around the Mekong Delta for nearly a month. Few travelers venture into Vietnam’s Mekong for more than a day-trip, so I was a lone tourist biking through rice paddies and sipping coconuts bought from street-side vendors. In this situation, I knew my tourism dollars directly benefited the local economy because I placed each dong (Vietnam’s currency) into the hands of a local. Beyond this cash exchange for guesthouses and food, however, the lack of a tourism industry meant that I had no way to offer tourism dollars in support of local social issues lacking funding.
Supporting local businesses is enough in these situations, it’s a concrete and sustainable way to approach responsible tourism. But sustainable travel in more touristic places offers alternatives—fascinating alternatives, too! I loved my time in Hoi An not just because it’s a beautiful town, but also because locals are using tourism as a force for positive change in their community. Armed with information and curiosity, I delighted in discovering the many ways Hoi An’s doing sustainable, responsible tourism right.
Reaching Out: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities
Reaching Out was the first of several Hoi An social enterprises I visited during my time in Hoi An, and it’s the one I frequented the most. The organization runs two businesses, an arts and crafts boutique and a traditional Vietnamese teahouse—both businesses employ people with disabilities.
Although I am not one for buying many souvenirs, I found a beautifully crafted silver ring in the shop and bought it as a Christmas/birthday present to myself. Employees craft the gifts by hand in the workroom at the back of the shop, so you can watch artisans weave placemats and blacksmith jewelry.
The teahouse, however, stands apart and houses my best memories. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is most famous for gorgeous teak houses filled with carved pillars and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Just a block from the town’s iconic Japanese Bridge, the teahouse occupies a preserved building dating from the late 1800s. Hordes of passing foot traffic belies the serene interior. The teahouse staff are all deaf and hearing-impaired and the teahouse runs through written notes, small wooden blocks with messages for the servers, and when all else fails, the women are adept are sussing out any charades you throw their way.
Both businesses provide opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives. It’s not only a beautiful mission to support, but the entire experience is well crafted. Even though I had been in Vietnam for many weeks before arriving in Hoi An, I hadn’t yet sat down for a traditional Vietnamese tea service. The teahouse remedied that and provided me with a memorable experience.
In areas with a strong language barrier, participating in tourist experiences lifts the shade on the cultural window—it gives tourists a culturally appropriate way to interact and learn. Rather than seeming inauthentic, the teahouse experience gave me, a traveler, a clear understanding of how to access aspects of the culture that seemed distant or hard to penetrate. By finding these types of responsible tourism experiences, I can fumble my way through the etiquette, satiate my curiosity with questions, and ultimately support a worthy cause, too. For those, and for so many other reasons, Reaching Out added nuance and beauty to my weeks in Hoi An.
STREETS International: Training Disadvantaged Youth in the Hospitality Sector
My lunch at STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An was unequivocally my best meal in the city (and probably among my favorite dishes in Vietnam). Vietnam isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians and many local specialities are impossible to replicate without meat. Although I had read about cao lầu (a signature Hoi An dish served with pork), STREETS was on my radar wholly because of its social mission, not the food. So I was delighted to see vegetarian cao lầu on the menu during my first visit, and doubly delighted that it tasted as good as it looked!
STREETS International runs the cafe as a social enterprise supporting its hospitality and culinary training program for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia. Restaurant revenue sustains the training program while also providing practicum for the students—they run nearly every aspect of it, from cooking to serving.
STREETS became my regular haunt and I spent many afternoons people-watching from the wide, sunny windows and asking my servers candid questions about their long-term goals. They shared with me their hopes that this training would change the course of their life. By learning hard skills they could now contribute to their communities. Living in such a touristy town, hospitality training was their ticket to a better life and a future with real opportunities. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, hoping to change the course of your life deeply resonates with me. Supporting this cafe offered a glimpse behind Hoi An’s beautiful veneer—no town or community is exempted from its share of hardship, and the servers at STREETS offer an uplifting story of how the aggregate of tourist dollars from responsible travelers creates sustainable change for local communities.
The Wider Hoi An Region: Spreading Money into Local Communities
Hoi An suffers a fate facing many cities around the world: over tourism. The reasons I loved Ancient Town—the historic, well-preserved streets infused with centuries of history—were the same reasons I braved the rain and biked through the outskirts of Hoi An. Over tourism also affects my new home base in Barcelona—the city’s popularity has eclipsed sustainability. There is no single solution to over tourism and governments across the world are finding new ways to preserve historic cities. Tourists staying home is one easy solution. But then, that’s not ideal either! Mostly because they won’t stay home; tourists visit places regardless of their impact on sustainability. So one solution is to divert some of each traveler’s time into surrounding areas—to spread out the impact of those warm bodies treading through ancient wooden houses.
The perfect weather never materialized, so I donned a poncho and spent many days pedaling my rented bike on circuitous routes that delved deep into lesser touristed communities in the region. And it was lovely in every way. Misty rain coated the rice paddies. Heavy skies sat low on the horizon. School children vogued for my camera. Each day that I ventured out, I found delightful cafes and restaurants and fascinating slices of daily life in Vietnam.
Weeks of unabating rain eventually maxed out the capacity of the local reservoirs, which overflowed the river and flooded Hoi An’s Ancient Town.
The ancient houses contain pulley systems to raise historic furniture to the second floor and locals scurried to protect it all. And just as suddenly as the floodwaters appeared, the sun returned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated rivers of brackish water now flowing through the streets. These were among my last days in Hoi An, and the sunshine highlighted many of the serious sustainability challenges facing this pretty little city with history dating to the 15th century. Visiting social enterprises and spreading my money around the region doesn’t solve all of these deeper issues, but my time in Hoi An provided me with just enough insight to realize it was a credible start.
Hoi An charmed me. It charmed me with its beauty, but also with its innovations—the local community facing down challenging social issues and bringing forward solutions.
Both businesses profiled here are beautiful ways for responsible travelers in Hoi An to leave behind money in a meaningful way. Over the years, I have shifted much of my time away from direct volunteering. When I left on my travels a decade ago, volunteering made sense—I had volunteered extensively in the U.S. and continued that form of contribution on the road. But the international volunteering industry is fraught with issues. In time, I found alternative ways to channel my goals to give back and serve communities.
Throughout my three months in Vietnam, I found countless Vietnamese social enterprises with similar stories of hope, similar goals to create change within their community. By the time I arrived in Vietnam, I was already tired from years on the road. My best friend had deeply loved her time in Vietnam so it was one place I was committed to exploring before finally creating a home base. Three months and more than a thousand miles later, the people, landscapes, and stories of Vietnam left me enchanted.
Quick Travel Tips: Hoi An Social Enterprises
Reaching Out Teahouse: 131 Trần Phú Street. Mon – Fri from 8:30 to 21:00, and Sat – Sun from 10:00 to 20:30.
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Same hours as the teahouse.
STREETS Restaurant: 17 Le Loi Street. Everyday from noon to 10:00pm.
9Grains by STREETS: 441A Hai Ba Trung. Daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
Jack’s Cat Cafe: Cuddle rescued strays at 12 Le Hong Phong. 11am – 3pm, everyday except Mon & Thur.
View my Vietnam Travel Guide for advice on every place I stayed and ate, as well as an interactive map of all the social enterprises in Vietnam.