Tea Talk Café: A Social Enterprise in Hanoi, Vietnam

by Dr Ng Guat Tin



Tea Talk Café, is a social enterprise, initiated by Michael Ong, an alumni of the National University of Singapore and Washington University in St Louis, USA. He worked for a number of years as a social worker in Singapore before migrating to Hanoi to volunteer as a social work lecturer in the University of Labour and Social Affairs in 2001. When studying for his Master of Social work in America, he worked on an assignment for a social entrepreneur course and was challenged by it to develop a cozy café in Hanoi[1], where café staff and customers can express their soul, over cups of coffee.

Social enterprises that aim to provide employment for more vulnerable groups usually target older persons, people with disabilities, youth, women or the poor. Tea Talk Café is a social enterprise with a difference. It creates employment opportunities for young social workers in Hanoi, where availability of social work jobs is limited, despite the immense social needs. The vision of the Café management is that the customers and staff who pass through the doors of the Café can be transformed by their experiences and in turn, make an impact on their families, communities, future generations, and that some would use their encounters with Tea Talk to influence other cities and villages in Vietnam, and to neighbouring and faraway countries.

Read on for an interview with Michael Ong, conducted by Dr Ng Guat Tin, on 17 November 2014, at Tea Talk Café, Hanoi[2], Vietnam. The Café opened in 2012 and is managed by two Vietnamese, with Michael providing consultancy to them. As the Café focused on the food business it set up CoRE (Centre for Counseling, Research and Empowering Community) as a NGO to provide social services targeting young people, especially those with mental health, pre-marital, marital and family issues. Most of the CoRE Community activities are sponsored by and conducted at the Café[3], which becomes a hub for building up a community.

Guat Tin: Social enterprises engage in different types of businesses, why did you choose to start up a café?

Michael: For personal and professional reasons. Vietnamese love to drink coffee and it is sustainable. Having worked in Vietnam for a few years, I find that personal issues come up when sitting down and drinking coffee. However the idea of a café providing social services instead of traditional counseling services is new in Vietnam and uncomfortable for most people. But a café setting is non-threatening. Social work in Vietnam is about 30 years[4] behind in terms of professional development. Students graduating in social work face difficulties in getting employment. Social services jobs available in the government are mostly taken up already. Without work experiences they find it difficult to get employed. Those from the rural areas are not strong in the use of English language and are disadvantaged in getting jobs at NGOs. International NGOs tend to employ those who are good in English rather than those who are social work trained.

Tea Talk Café offers a platform for social work graduates to practice English and gain work experience. They can then move on to find other social work jobs. Tea Talk provides a stepping stone for them in getting employment. It is a social enterprise for helping social work graduates to gain job experience. Without jobs they then become needy and vulnerable.

For international NGOs that are more willing to recruit social workers I would recommend my former students and those who have been involved in Tea Talk Café/CoRE Community.

Guat Tin: I read somewhere that there are probably 2,000 cafés in Hanoi, because Vietnam has a strong coffee drinking culture and that it is not easy to attract customers. What niche area does Tea Talk cover?

Michael: We offer a place where people can come and feel that there is a community here. People come here to find someone to talk to: customers to customers and staff to customers. When you go to Starbucks you don’t expect to find people there to talk to you. Five years ago, the cafés in Hanoi are mostly dirty and not smoke-free. By now the standards have improved and it has become a challenge to compete with them. Still, Tea Talk has a niche area; it is a friendly place and homely. First-year university students coming from the villages are easily overwhelmed in a city like Hanoi. They can find friends here. Some use this place to talk about their challenges and we help them through a transitional period. For example, T who is a “regular” at Tea Talk Café and a first-year student was initially stressed, but is now adjusted. She brings her university friends here. Even after graduation they feel that they are coming to a “home.” They come back to volunteer their services.

We offer good coffee and good cakes. The quality of food should be acceptable, if not excellent. We are not a charity, expecting customers to give out of a sense of charity.

Guat Tin: What are your initial challenges when you first opened the doors?

Michael: There were a lot of challenges, for example, we were told that we could not place chairs outside the café. We were asked to “pay money” if we wanted to do so.

Initially we recruited people without the requisite skills but we trained them. For example, our baker is the sister of a social work student whom I know. She was unemployed and did not know how to bake. My wife taught her the right way to do things, maintain a certain level of hygiene and standard in baking. I told her the table tops must be spotless and we do not offer cakes that are not acceptable to customers. Initially she thought that our training requirements were too strict. When the cakes she baked were unsuccessful she sought my wife’s help again in learning how to bake better. It was then that she understood why certain things had to be done certain way.

We also did not have a barista. I attended a 2-day workshop in Singapore to learn about coffee brewing. I came back here to teach my staff how to brew coffee. One of the challenges was that staff have poor knowledge of personal hygiene and I have to figure out how best to teach them. I did not point out their mistakes directly but instead showed a video on hygienic practices when making latte art. I don’t want to fire people just because they do not meet certain expectations. They asked me why there is a need to keep the café so clean. Of the 2,000 or so cafés here, I would say that probably only 100 are hygienic.

When I first moved to this locality, there were few cafés nearby. More had sprung up around here.  One small café offered meals for only 25,000 Vietnamese Dong (about SGD 1.50) and we lost some customers to it.  We used to have a regular group of office workers who came to our café for lunch but their office moved out.

In the first few months of operation, our revenue was only about USD1,000 a month. Then it grew to USD4,000 a month and in last two months we hit USD5,000 for the first time. However, our average operating costs per month is USD7,000.

Guat Tin: I remember having dinner at KOTO restaurant[5], when I visited Hanoi in 2006. Did you connect with it or learn from other social enterprises, whether in Vietnam or elsewhere?

Michael: I started networking with those that are not so strong. I did not link up with KOTO, which is doing very well. Blind Link, which I contacted, employed people to do massage. Five Colours also employed people with disabilities to work for them. Donkey Bakery, which was initiated by a Viet Kieu[6], employed people with disabilities to bake. I connected with JOMA, a café chain, which started in Laos and is doing quite well. It gives 2% of its revenue to charity; it is more of a business than a social enterprise.  I learnt from JOMA to be profit-oriented, sustainable and to be business-minded.

I feel caught sometimes as money-making cause me to feel that I am not doing social work; feel schizophrenic. JOMA’s model is different; some staff come from challenging background but it is clearly profit driven. People come to Tea Talk Café to find hope, which is kind of “abstract” but staff and customers sense the difference between Tea Talk café and other businesses.

I did not speak to many social entrepreneurs in Singapore. I wanted to visit “Food for Thought” but did not have the chance to do so. I met up with Benny Se Teo[7]whose trade is cooking. His staff also come from challenging background but he is able to manage them because he himself comes from a similar background.

Guat Tin: What are the some of the challenges in starting social enterprises[8] in Hanoi?

Michael: Society does not understand the concept of social enterprises. The public understanding of social enterprises is that of a charity and that products made are not of good quality; people buy out of sympathy. We must be driven by a good product. Currently there are no clear legislation or tax incentives to set up charities and social enterprises. Furthermore, all businesses face the problem of corruption.

We are not registered as a social enterprise, but as a business[9]. We also register CoRE Community as a Vietnamese NGO. We took one year to register (successful in October 2013), which I was told was “good.” We need to be in operation for at least two years before we can apply for grants since funders want to see track record of social service organizations.

Guat Tin: Do you think social workers or NGOs are geared up or inclined towards developing social enterprises in Vietnam?

Michael: Unfortunately not. Since I left the University of Labour and Social Affairs, a lot of faculty from various universities visited me and asked me to share about Tea Talk model. As it is not in the social work curriculum, I did a one-hour lecture for them.

I do offer Tea Talk Café as a field placement but we do not have “visible” clients. We provide placement experiences in project management rather than one-to-one services. Students also help out in organizing group activities.

Guat Tin: In the Facebook of Tea Talk you refer to Tea Talk Café and CoRE Community as providing a non-traditional model of social service. Tell us what is your perception of a traditional mode of service delivery and why is there a necessity to break out of it?

Michael: The traditional mode is still necessary but break out of it to create job opportunities. Existing jobs are filled by people with non-social work qualifications. As a society progresses, new needs arise and the social work mantra is “meeting needs”. Not so much to be innovative but to respond to needs out there. More awareness of autism but there are no services to meet these needs. What do we do? Wait for government or more money to be available? Perhaps Tea Talk can expand its employment to include people with autism.

The Vietnamese government has set a planning target of a workforce of 60,000 social workers by 2020 but where are the services to employ them? It is estimated that 30% of the population[10] would need social services. At one of the conferences held recently, in a workshop on providing social services, the sentiments expressed were that more services should be privately-run rather than government-run. I submitted a paper on our model and it was well received.

The government wants to change its care delivery model, from social protection centres to social work centres. Many social service directors came to visit Tea Talk Café to see if such a model can be used. I believe that the “DNA” of Tea Talk is not easy to replicate. Nonetheless I invite them to send their staff for six months’ attachment/exposure but none took up my offer.

Guat Tin: One of the aims of CoRE Community is to increase awareness of social and mental health issues in Vietnam, such as domestic violence, HIV/AIDs, marital issues, and parenting. Of these various issues, which do you think CoRE Community is best positioned to address?

Michael: “Let’s Talk” programme[11] was launched to tackle mental health issues. Mental health is a hidden area of need. People want to give to those with visible needs. For example, they can see that disabled people need a wheelchair or that poor people need help. But young people who need direction and are suicidal—it is not as clear. How to articulate their needs?

We train young people to be “para-medics” in the sense of attending to those who need mental health care. Let’s Talk para-counsellors post on their own Facebook: “If you want to talk I am willing to talk to you.” Strangers had responded and they came to Tea Talk Café to meet our para-counsellors. Those who came gave feedback that they experienced help. We also organized a lot of one-time workshops, for example career talks, which were targeted at young people, to equip them with life skills to help themselves.

In the Let’s Talk programme, the programme directors, including myself and a Singaporean friend with a Master’s degree in counseling, provide supervision to the trainees. We model for them what active listening is about and they experienced what it feels like to be listened to. They felt safe sharing issues that they did not intend to share. Being listened to help them to go out and listen to others. I believe that the best counselors are those who have been listened to. Empathy is so abstract and difficult to teach; but they can experience it.

The issues raised by young people are mostly related to trauma experience, parents not around, and feeling unloved. They seem happy and if you ask them, most of the time they will say that they are fine. But if you persist in asking and offer to talk to them individually and privately they will “put away” their masks. The Café is like a drop-in centre for young people. We invite them to come and in connecting with them we break down the norms of not sharing personal issues. We may be questioned whether a café setting is “professional.” We work in a public-private setting; the café area is public but individual rooms are available if privacy is required. We were taught as social workers to be observant. Similarly, baristas also know how to observe their customers and sense their needs.

The opportunities to talk are there and even though they may not respond immediately, they will come back to the Café, if they want to talk to someone. One of the social work practices we learnt in university is how to make formal referrals. But in Tea Talk Café, the customers become my friends and some become my “clients.” It may take time. For example, after knowing one customer over a year, he asked for counseling. We need to re-evaluate some of these social work practices. Instead of asking those in need to go and see a counselor or social worker, can social services be more accessible to the general public, more friendly and not to be too careful about boundaries?

Guat Tin: You have said before that a huge proportion of the customers of Tea Talk café are women. What issues are they most likely to present and how do you attend to them?

Michael: Most people (about 90%) attending our talks and activities are women. We intentionally chose five men among the applicants to be in the “Let’s Talk” programme. The issues presented are mostly marital. But we also have singles seeking help.

Our initial idea was to train para-counselors to talk to Tea Talk Café customers. I can relate easily with customers as I have more experiences but not the young people. After the first round of Let’s Talk training we found that they were uncomfortable talking to customers. So we instructed them, when they are in the university to wear a para-counseling “hat” and put their counseling skills into practice. One of them said that she talked to a childhood friend of hers and was told, “You have grown up.” Another informed us that her mother said, “You are now able to understand me.”

Students who had attended the Let’s Talk training said that they learnt more in the programme than in their undergraduate studies.

After three rounds of Let’s Talk training we have figured out how to do it better. We ask NGOs that do not have volunteers or interns whether Let’s Talk trainees can volunteer with them but they are supervised by CoRE Community programme directors. Instead of doing three rounds of Let’s Talk training (20 trainees each time) in a year we would be offering only two runs next year. The training period will stretch from four to six months, so as to provide a longer period of supervision. Six months of investing time in trainees is more valuable and has a greater impact instead of training more people, in a shorter period.

For each run of Let’s Talk training we received more than 100 applications. Through word-of-mouth publicity they spread feedback of how they had benefitted. In Let’s Talk training there are social work and team building components.


Guat Tin: Why team building?

Michael: Though Vietnamese society seems to be communal and yet it is highly individualistic. Because of their poverty experience, there is a need to be more successful than others. People tend to compete and do not cooperate. It is not in Vietnamese culture to share problems with others, not even with good friends, lest they are seen as weak. There is also an element of distrust because people find it hard to keep secrets. Almost everybody is like that. It is very difficult to teach the principle of confidentiality.

Those whom I got to know as friends have told me that they do not share their difficulties with others. To them, people who commit suicide are weak and when I shared about my thoughts about suicide they were shocked because they looked up to me as a strong person. But it changed their mind about suicidal people. By modeling healthy sharing their opinion of me actually became better because of the courage to share intimate information. They then saw that the results were the opposite of what they thought could happen. Some started to open up a little bit and found that others were also opening up as well. In sharing their struggles they became more supportive of one another.

Guat Tin: Do you think there is a need to try to attract more male customers[12], as your target group is young people, and not women only, and men typically have more difficulties seeking help, as compared to women?

Michael: We have a Men’s Club that meets Wednesday nights—foreigners and Vietnamese. It works like a support group that grew out of friendships. We talked about death, role of husbands, in-laws, marital conflicts, and so on. Two months ago we started businessmen lunch, on Fridays. There are also four to six of us.  We talked about stressors and challenges living overseas. It is a support group that includes some older men whom I look up to and we share each other’s burdens. With a youthful Vietnamese population[13], most people I know are younger than me. It is good to have older persons who can be a mentor to me.

Guat Tin: What resources are you lacking and which you require to grow the business?

Michael: At this stage, I am looking for a business person who is willing to come to Hanoi for at least a year and take over the business part. I can then be relieved of the business aspect of the operations. Though I have a marketing person she needs a coach. Where the business is concerned we need to raise investment and improve our system. But he or she must share the same vision: to be profit-driven and socially conscious.

A more practical need is to advertise Tea Talk Café[14] and attract more customers.

I would like to bring Vietnamese coffee beans to Singapore to sell. I have a coffee bean supplier, whom I have asked not to add artificial flavour to the beans. He said that the coffee is not strong enough as people have gotten used to strong flavour. Many people do not know that strong coffee has artificial flavour in it. If I can export coffee beans to Singapore there is a big market to target and it does not require a lot of manpower. I have an American friend who has a machine to roast coffee beans, which are as good as Starbucks. We can “brand” it under Tea Talk Café.

I would also like to sell cookies and pineapple tarts. But these are perishable.

I would like someone to come and help to raise our business to a higher level. I hope this person, instead of starting a new café in Hanoi, can build on what I have already established in Tea Talk Café.


Guat Tin: Are you looking for business or community partners? Specifically who in the community you would like to seek support and partnerships with?

Michael: Singaporeans who want to start business in Vietnam; it is better to build on what I have done and learn from my experience. Some people want to do it the “Singapore way” but this is a developing country. Development work needs 10 to 20 years of effort.

More partnerships between Singapore social services and CoRE Community. Perhaps we can send three social workers, with two years of experience, to Singapore for three months of attachment. So far we had already sent three to Singapore and all of them are still in social work.

Guat Tin: Being a Singaporean working in Vietnam, what advice would you give to fellow Singaporeans seeking to engage in international social work?

Michael: To be effective, we have to be humble enough to learn from the host countries. Many foreigners come because they are better educated and are from more advanced countries, not that they are imposing but a sense that they know better and what to do. Fail to apply basic principle of starting where the client is. Start where the country is (in terms of social development). In 2001 when I first arrived at the university that I volunteered in to teach social work, the university sent English Language teachers to me to educate them to become social workers. Since then, three of them went on to get a Master’s degree in Social Work, one in the Philippines and the other in Canada. The guy who went to the Philippines have since gone to Korea and graduated with a PhD in social welfare. The one in Canada is doing her PhD thesis on social work field practice, which will make an important contribution to the profession here. Another lady just returned recently from Australia with a PhD in social work.

Good advice given by a Vietnamese as I felt then that I had given only 10% of what I could give. I wanted to pack up my bag and go home. He said, “The 10% you gave was received by my Vietnamese counterpart as 200%.” Are we willing to give a small amount? When we cannot help the way we want to help, our self-esteem is affected.

There is no way we can help if language is a barrier. Experts from overseas can give wonderful lectures, but those who have attended gain nothing because the translation is inadequate. It is not that the translators are bad but often times there are no similar expressions or concepts in Vietnamese.

One year of Vietnamese learning is enough for me. Maybe the Singapore brain is tuned to different tonal languages. I have learnt to pronounce their names and not ask them to make it easier for me by using English names. It’s a small thing but important to them.

Don’t expect immediate results. It takes about three times as much time to accomplish what you would do in Singapore. For example, for a lecture requiring one hour in English, it would take three hours to deliver the same contents. Hence, for a one-hour lecture, trim it down to 20 minutes. Apply this principle to other areas of life.

Guat Tin: What are some aspects of cultural competence that you think are critical for successful engagement or involvement?

Michael: I had four months of cross-cultural training in Singapore. I found it helpful to prime my brain to be culturally appropriate. The best way is to be observant and take every response as something I don’t understand. For example, being invited to a meal. Initially when my hosts offered me food, I would eat it all up. They would then order more food, thinking I was not yet full. It later dawned on me that hosts are embarrassed that they do not order enough food for their guests. Never finish up the food given to you. Not impolite to leave food on the plate. Observe what others do. Impolite to say “no.” For example, giving cigarettes to guests is a practice at weddings and you must take it. Don't reject the offer even if you do not smoke. In our Singapore culture, we learnt to be assertive and to be honest in what we want or do not want. In other cultures, not accepting something is seen as rude.

However culture is always evolving. The best tool is to be observant and ask yourself whether it is culturally appropriate here. For example, male students[15] will hold your hands when taking photographs with you. They are not being lecherous, though some may be so (laugh). Female students will also stand very close to you when taking photographs, so I stand very straight.

Guat Tin: Lastly, what is your most popular and must-try item(s)[16] at Tea Talk Café?

Michael: Carrot cake, which uses my wife’s recipe. A second choice would be Singapore chicken rice.

Guat Tin: Anything else you would like to add?

Michael: Whatever we do we must have a clear call and vision. When I was a social work student, we say that social work is a calling. If not for a call to love people, it is easy to run out of steam. A clear call does not mean you have a clear idea of what to do but a clarity to serve people, rather than to run programmes. People are not interested in my skills, my education or even my profession, but in me as a person. Who we are as a person is at the core of what we do as a professional. We can be a professional and not know who we are as a person.

For more information about Tea Talk Café and CoRE Community, check their Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/teatalkvietnam