Hoi An is an easy city to love, with its gentle yellow buildings beaming in the sun, its shaded courtyards, and silken lanterns hanging from trees. After you’re done with browsing the interminable clothes shops in the old town there’s a hidden spot just a stone’s-throw away by the name of U Café, where you’ll immediately feel as if you’ve fallen into a little oasis of tranquillity. The pretty structure facing the Hoai River presents a picturesque scene of small ponds and lily pads stretching out over the countryside. The gracious Japanese woman behind the concept of U Café, Ms Reiko Usuda, clearly puts a lot of heart into what she’s doing.
The Guide sat down with Reiko to talk about the café, how she had made Hoi An her second home, and how she lives without a philosophy but feels utterly happy.
Tell us about your journey from Japan to Vietnam …
I first came to Vietnam in 2003 and fell in love with the place. So when I retired as a dental technician I finally had the chance to move here. It was like my dream finally coming true. I first studied Vietnamese in Hanoi, though not very successfully. Then I moved to Danang and I found a home here in Hoi An. But I’ve still been unable to acquire a ‘Quang Nam’ accent as yet.
You seem to enjoy it here …
Oh yes, absolutely. In Japan it’s all about work, from morning till evening. I worked for 30 years and it became very boring. I prefer the Vietnamese lifestyle.
Here in Hoi An, people are very warm with each other. Maybe because of natural disasters, the yearly floods happen so often, people are closer and are willing to help out. They are very optimistic here.
Of course, there has been always the cultural link between Hoi An and Japan, but I think we can learn a lot from Vietnamese society: relationship with families, friendship, traditional things. Vietnam still has its own culture that we should be careful not to lose.
Ms Reiko Usuda and U Café staff are using a laptop donated by an NGO
What’s one traditional thing you really like?
Here we observe ‘vegetarian day’ for example, on the first and the fifteenth day of the month in the lunar calendar. My parents in Japan used to do the same but now we have lost this custom, which I think we should recognise and remember again.
What’s special about U Café?
It has a Japanese garden feel but is very local, and that’s how we like it - a fusion between Japanese and Vietnamese. There is no air conditioning and we don’t play any music, so you can fully enjoy the natural breeze and the tranquillity. The only noise you hear is from the geese next door.
Our ingredients are sourced mostly from local markets, from farmers at the organic vegetable village of Tra Que and a family of organic coffee farmers in Dak Lak.
So I guess it’s not like any other cafe in town? A sustainable approach, as it is says on the board?
Yes, it’s my small project to introduce Japanese technology to protect the environment. Some Japanese architects helped me design this green space and local builders brought it to life.
We have an eco-system to recycle water from the kitchen sink and bathrooms then put it in rooftop tanks and pump it into the lily ponds. It’s also a venue for organising talks on the environment for young people. We have welcomed different student groups to visit and discuss sustainability.
The second objective is to support our young Vietnamese female staff through employment and training.
I would like to train the girls working here in Japanese hospitality along with English and Japanese language skills. Later on it will be easier for them if they want to open a shop or a small café on their own. They will also have better job opportunities in hospitality services.
So you function like an NGO?
This is a social venture. We do not aim for big profit here, the profit is reinvested. Seven years ago I didn’t see many social ventures in Hoi An but now things are different.
I don’t want to open an NGO as it has to rely on donors. But with a social small business, I think people can make a positive change. Vietnamese people can help themselves with this model.
Where did your inspiration to help other people come from?
In Japan I used to work as the secretary for the Japan - Vietnamese Friendship Association in Kawasaki. We donated unused bicycles to disadvantaged students, some of whom have to walk as far as 10 kilometres to get to school. So far we have sent 10,000 bicycles to the Quang Nam - Danang region. But bike donations are not our sole purpose; we also want to get to know the students personally. I have been involved in charity activities since then.
I consider myself lucky, so I have to give back to society as a way to say thank you.
Is that your philosophy in life?
I don’t have any philosophy in life at all. I just always enjoy what I like.
But when I was small, I went to a school that had a motto ‘For others’, which taught us to live together and work for others. I think that motto was seeded within me and I would like to carry on with it.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
I am just a common person. I’m not an expat. I’m not different. (smiles)