Not all who wander are considered lost; and sometimes a journey into the unknown can take us to interesting finds that make for a memory worth writing home about. My recent visit to Vietnam with a friend proved to be all the endorsement to that fact I needed.
The ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam has a lot to offer to travellers. A UNESCO World Heritage city today, Hoi An was a major port in the past and like all historic cities it still holds its secrets close to its heart. When I chanced upon a certain café while wandering the city, I realised I had discovered a reason to linger.
I do not recollect whether “Tea House” was on our itinerary in the first place or not. We visited a couple of tourist sites accompanied by our guide and felt tired soon with the typical tourist tour and possibly “rehearsed” conversation with the local people.
We longed for coffee; and our guide offered to take us to a shop close-by. A short walk and we reached a quaint shop called the Tea House, The dim interiors, in contrast with the outdoors bright with sunlight, seemed to transport us into a different, serene world of wonders, as we stepped inside the building. The canopy covered with greenery that filtered the sunlight and made it softer; colour and texture of the moss on the ground of the courtyard we stepped into with the pleasant dampness with creepers all around, few green plants and soft moss on parts of the floor, were inviting. Everything seemed to have a soothing effect on me.
We spotted the other guests – some reading, some conversing in hushed tones; and one settling his bill with the lovely receptionist. The staff were softly moving around taking orders from the tables efficiently and I also spotted a staff member, a girl, in the next room, working on a hand loom.
We sat down; and as we reached out for the menu, I noticed a few small display wooden blocks on our table with something written on them. Our guide – Dang Nguyễn Phúc from Tonkin Travels – explained that the women who work in this café are all differently abled – and the display bars were for the guest to use to communicate with the girls who hear. A simple idea – the display bars with simple words in English which most tourists could understand and use – that allowed the café to run its business with people with disabilities.
Dang told us more about the non-profit that ran this establishment, over a cup of coffee. He told us about the handicrafts shop that non-profit runs in the city, again manned by young people. Here’s their website: https://reachingoutvietnam.com/
Youth employed by the non-profit in the café and handicrafts store were victims of “Agent Orange” – a chemical used by the American forces used during the Vietnam war to destroy forest cover for Vietnamese troops and crops grown to feed them; which had major illnesses among the people exposed to the chemical and deformities/ disabilities among their offsprings. Estimates by the Government of Vietnam show that 3 million people have suffered illnesses because of this chemical, apart from the tremendous environmental damage the country has been exposed to. Children are still born with deformities are born which is due to its persistent generational and environmental effect.
We remembered our visit to the War Remnants Museum (Vietnamese: Bảo tàng chứng tích chiến tranh) in Ho Chi Minh City, where we had seen pictures of deformed newborns due to the effect of Agent Orange; and did not find it hard to related to history being narrated to us now. Here are some relevant pictures we clicked at the Memorial in Ho Chi Minh City:
We parted with Dang after coffee and strolled around lazily looking for the workshop. We found it quite easily as by the river. It was a plain looking building with just a door, no windows with a rather modest signboard with the name of the place. We walked into the workshop and checked out the items in display on the ground floor and the first floor, but were sadly unable to click any pictures as we were asked not to. The shop sold various products made out of bamboo, cloth and wooden artifacts, apart from local coffee and tea. We bought two exotic varieties of tea, which turned out to be great gifts for our friends back home.
I kept thinking about the war and the destruction it has caused to the people we saw around us; and could not help but feel an anger towards people who support wars as a way to settle scores. Yet, what we have to remember is what matters is the present; and the thought about how we can contribute to this country’s attempt at rebuilding in our own small ways. Vietnam tourism is one of the highest revenue generating industries of the country; and initiatives like the café and handicrafts shop we visited makes the sector more inclusive. As travellers, we could look out for more such initiatives across the country and add it to our itinerary that will not only give us a good perspective of the struggles of the people here, but also route our expenditures to initiatives that are directly contributing towards an inclusive growth of the country.
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– Text by Abinash Lahkar