Coffee Break | Reaching Out Tea House, Hội An, Vietnam

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SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC Lured in by the smell of coffee wafting through the air and my weakness for Chinese decoration, I stepped through the door to smiles and, rather oddly, silence. At first I couldn’t really understand what was happening; a Korean couple reading and Western family of 5 sat eating biscuits and sipping coffee without saying a word. I noticed beautiful ceramics and coffee boxes for purchases, and started to speak before rapidly being instructed to shhh (with a smile)… Oh, what’s happening here? This café – Reaching Out – is run by ladies with hearing impairments, and there is no talking permitted. As someone who believes the world is too noisy, this was a Godsend! I cannot help but think we need a similar type of place in London…

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You place your order by completing a form which, fortunately, comes in English. Quite out of character, I hadn’t researched Vietnam very well; most of my experiences were unplanned and, perhaps, that is what made them even more emotional. The power of a smile, of looking into another human being’s eyes with intend and trying to understand who they are without exchanging words is deeply meaningful, and I was caught off guard. It’s interesting what you pick up along the way, right? Reading the literature at the café, I came upon the term “differently abled people” – isn’t that much better, and far more accurate, than ‘disabled’.

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I chose a coffee-tasting set which came complete with condensed milk and a variety of homemade biscuits. I don’t usually sweeter my coffee but this is traditionally how things are done here, and I like to experience new things. I was particularly impressed by the presentation – perfectly polished glassware, glistening gold decoration, Chinese characters galore and a business model that at once accommodates tourists supports local people and remains true to Vietnam. Highly-impressive.

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I spent over an hour here, taking photographs, sipping coffee and just closing my eyes and enjoying the gentle murmur of life outside and that sweet, smell of really good coffee. Located within the UNESCO heritage town and started by a Vietnamese couple, the Reaching Out company provides employment for those living with disabilities, offering them a chance to enhance their skills to provide an income to live independently. The company receives no outside funding and is completely reliant on people like us. Great coffee, calm surroundings and an even better cause. If you’re visiting Hoi An, I highly recommend a visit.

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P.S. I am desperately trying to book another trip to Vietnam. Alas, it will have to wait until 2017.

Reaching Out
131 Trần Phú,
Sơn Phong,
tp. Hội An,
Quảng Nam,
Vietnam

Coffee Break | Reaching Out Tea House, Hội An, Vietnam

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SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC Lured in by the smell of coffee wafting through the air and my weakness for Chinese decoration, I stepped through the door to smiles and, rather oddly, silence. At first I couldn’t really understand what was happening; a Korean couple reading and Western family of 5 sat eating biscuits and sipping coffee without saying a word. I noticed beautiful ceramics and coffee boxes for purchases, and started to speak before rapidly being instructed to shhh (with a smile)… Oh, what’s happening here? This café – Reaching Out – is run by ladies with hearing impairments, and there is no talking permitted. As someone who believes the world is too noisy, this was a Godsend! I cannot help but think we need a similar type of place in London…

SONY DSC

You place your order by completing a form which, fortunately, comes in English. Quite out of character, I hadn’t researched Vietnam very well; most of my experiences were unplanned and, perhaps, that is what made them even more emotional. The power of a smile, of looking into another human being’s eyes with intend and trying to understand who they are without exchanging words is deeply meaningful, and I was caught off guard. It’s interesting what you pick up along the way, right? Reading the literature at the café, I came upon the term “differently abled people” – isn’t that much better, and far more accurate, than ‘disabled’.

SONY DSC

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I chose a coffee-tasting set which came complete with condensed milk and a variety of homemade biscuits. I don’t usually sweeter my coffee but this is traditionally how things are done here, and I like to experience new things. I was particularly impressed by the presentation – perfectly polished glassware, glistening gold decoration, Chinese characters galore and a business model that at once accommodates tourists supports local people and remains true to Vietnam. Highly-impressive.

SONY DSC

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I spent over an hour here, taking photographs, sipping coffee and just closing my eyes and enjoying the gentle murmur of life outside and that sweet, smell of really good coffee. Located within the UNESCO heritage town and started by a Vietnamese couple, the Reaching Out company provides employment for those living with disabilities, offering them a chance to enhance their skills to provide an income to live independently. The company receives no outside funding and is completely reliant on people like us. Great coffee, calm surroundings and an even better cause. If you’re visiting Hoi An, I highly recommend a visit.

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P.S. I am desperately trying to book another trip to Vietnam. Alas, it will have to wait until 2017.

Reaching Out
131 Trần Phú,
Sơn Phong,
tp. Hội An,
Quảng Nam,
Vietnam

Explore | Killing Fields, Cambodia

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“When one with honeyed words but evil mind

Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”

― Euripides, Orestes

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I awoke bright and early and tried to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. I couldn’t eat my breakfast, and so after a little tea and some juice, I set off on for my morning tours. Each nation has its own dark moments – my country has many and, as I type, our inaction in aiding the plight of refugees from the Middle East is currently hanging over our collective heads like a dark cloud. Visiting Cambodia was never going to be about sunbathing and cocktails, too much has happened there for pure fun and frolics, and I knew visiting the S-21 prison and Killing Fields was going to be emotional, but nothing quite prepared me for my encounter with a survivor.

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Our guide, a friendly, well-spoken gentleman was personally impacted the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. His father was an academic who disappeared without trace. He talked about the fate of such people, political prisoners and anybody the Khmer Rouge deemed a threat. Years later, he now works at S-21 and continues his search to discover what happened to his father. Imagine being a little child, the government is murdering its people and your father simply doesn’t come home one day. I sobbed but didn’t want our guide to see me. After an emotional pause, and with a smile, he told our group that his family felt extreme pride in his father’s action: he explained that although they believe that his father was captured, tortured and executed, they know that he never gave up his family, for they are still here, and that was the greatest act of courage. It was deeply moving.

The prison was particularly horrific: metal beds with hand and feet cuffs, torture rooms and areas where mass rapes, a common theme of the period (and sadly, still today) were carried out. Guards frequently inspected cells to ensure prisoners had no means to commit suicide. After once prisoner jumped to his death, electrified barbed wire fences were put up around the building, which was previously a secondary school.

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Following the tour of the S-21 prison, I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.5-3 million people, including up to 1 million at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. As you enter, you see a beautiful Buddhist Stupa. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was filled with 8000 skulls from the surrounding graves. If you remove your shoes, you are permitted to enter and can purchase flowers and incense for the lost ones. The skulls are arranged by gender and age, and evidence of crushed skulls and bullet holes are obvious.

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The Killing Tree was the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Babies and small children were held by their ankles and swung so their heads bashed fatally into the tree, often with their mothers watching. These women would then be sexually assaulted and murdered before their corpses added to one of the so-far discovered 20,000 mass graves. Children were murdered for fear that, should they grow up, they would seek revenge, though given the scale of deaths; it seems that the murderers enjoyed it. How can you hurt a child? It is beyond my comprehension.

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I bought a coconut, sat on a step and embraced the eerie silence, imagining the screams and terror of those who lived this. This was 8 months ago and I still cannot understand how people behaved with such evil but, even more confusing (and inspiring), is how Cambodian people seem so kind and open, after such recent atrocities. There are moments in our lives when we are consumed with sadness; I do not remember a time in my life when I felt so empty. I left feeling broken. We haven’t learnt anything; the loss of life and abuse of human rights across the world continues. I wrote about my feelings on Phnom Penh here and my lack of desire to return remains. However, I hope my future will include engaging with more Cambodians and learning more from their gentleness and ability to look forward to more positive experiences.

Explore | Halong Bay, Vietnam

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SONY DSCHalong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.

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Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning.  I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.

SONY DSCI made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.

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SONY DSC SONY DSCThe adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set.  I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.

SONY DSC SONY DSCI awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.

SONY DSC SONY DSCIt turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country.  However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness.  I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!

Explore | Imperial City, Huế, Vietnam

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The Imperial Palace complex, a designated UNESCO site since 1993, designed with the principles of Chinese geomancy (yes, finally my Asian Art background makes sense!) was home to the Nguyễn family, is surrounded by mountains, lush greenery and locals selling delicious rambutan.  Surrounded by a moat, the main buildings are set within 2.5km-long walls, which make for difficult navigation but, trust me, it is worth it.

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Rooms filled with original blue & white porcelain, mother-of-pearl adorned tables and artefacts the royal family themselves used. Weaving between buildings, I came across countless gardeners happily tending the sumptuous flora as I sought refuge from the humidity in ornately decorated rooms. They’re all wearing 3-4 layers and are working away: I had 1 layer on and almost melted.  To enter some rooms, you must cover your shoulders, remove your shoes and refrain from photography as a sign of respect to the ancestors

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The complex was devastated during the French and American bombing of Vietnam, with only 20 buildings surviving. However, in 2012, the government approved a US$61 million restoration proposal. By the time I visited, the majority of the complex had been restored to its intended glory. Hue, which until the mid-20th century served as the capital of Vietnam, was my favourite city in the country, and I would happily return.

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Coffee Break | Càfê RuNam, Hanoi, Vietnam

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Located between a Buddhist Temple and the enormous St Joseph’s Cathedral, RuNam, afforded me my first experience of Vietnamese coffee. Have read about the role of the humble coffee bean in transforming the Vietnamese economy, I was eager to try some for myself.

With an extensive menu including matcha lattes, iced coffee and a variety of loose tea, I opted for the traditional Vietnamese style coffee. Served with condensed milk on the side, the coffee had a very unique taste and smell – almost smoked, if you like.  I do not care for sweetened hot drinks but with the intensity of the coffee, the addition of condensed milk was delicious (and necessary).  The staff members were very friendly, happy to speak to me in English about the cafe and just really welcoming. Given my jet-lagged, I’ve-only-been-here-for-14-hours look, I really appreciated when the one of the employees came over to me with the newspaper written in English without being asked. These little moments of kindness and inclusive weave through my Vietnamese adventure. Although I only happened upon the café because I had been at the temple, it seemed clear to me that RuNam is firmly on coffee lovers radar.

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The cafe was filled with a cultural mix of tourists and locals and, just to put it in context, the cost of my coffee and biscuits was the same price as I paid the previous night for dinner of a bowl of chicken pho and a beer. By the time but convert to pounds it’s very inexpensive but pretty prices by local standards.

The company have another branch in Ho Chi Minh City, roast their own beans and they have a lovely selection of “high-end glassware coffee and tea available for purchase. I thought that this kind of café – offerings and décor – wouldn’t have been out of place in London. If you’re in Hanoi, stop by!

Càfê RuNam
13 Nhà Thờ, Hà Nội
+84 (4) 39 286697