Hoi An, a picturesque ancient trading port in communist Vietnam, or New York, the city that never sleeps? A strange dilemma when faced with the choice of where to settle down. And yet management consultant Neal Bermas gave up his six-figure income in Manhattan to settle in Vietnam in 2008, founding a non-profit enterprise, Streets International, to educate street children and help them find work in the hospitality sector.
“Of course Manhattan is home, and with that comes all the familiarity and comforts. But there’s no humdrum living in a developing country,” says Bermas. “The colours, the sights, the smells are not familiar, and there are so many iconic images enmeshed in every day life – like the conical-hat rice farmers in the paddy fields or the back alleys of yellow-painted walls. Some days it feels like I am walking through a Hollywood movie set: only it isn’t, it’s real. And I’m here as a part of all this.”
Bermas launched his business from scratch in 2009 with the help of his Michigan-born partner Sondra Stewart, who left behind a well-paid job in mergers and acquisitions to join him. His choice of Hoi An, a Unesco world heritage site, was not accidental. Having travelled in southeast Asia for 10 years working for large hotel brands and Vietcombank, he identified the town as a growing tourist destination. With its unusual blend of 19th- and 20th-century architecture of Chinese and Japanese influences, as well as pagodas and temples, Bermas fell for the city and its traditional way of life.
He had been moved by the Vietnamese people on his first business trip to the country, a decade earlier. “Street children approached me, begging for money for milk,” he says. “These kids were as young as eight, and although I didn’t realise it then, this was the seed that led to my starting the project.” Today, about 100 street children have completed his 18-month programme, gaining skills in computer literacy, English and hospitality, before going on to find jobs in nearby five-star hotels, including the Hyatt Regency and the InterContinental Hotel in Danang.
During lunch at the Streets Restaurant and Café, in a colonial-style building in the narrow streets of the old town centre, the kitchen is hissing with steam. Dishes of white rose dumplings, spring rolls and fried panko squid are being carried through to the dining area by young trainees in orange polo shirts. Tourists are edging past to get to the tables, and the service is busy. Bermas admits to getting by without much knowledge of Vietnamese, with a little help from his smartphone and a translation app. However, in this tourist town, much of the local business community speaks English, and he received a warm welcome from the start.
“We’d been advised to pick an auspicious day for the restaurant launch by the local fortune-teller,” says Bermas. “As is the custom, Buddhist monks came to bless the occasion with chants and incense. But when I came round the corner on my bicycle to open up, nothing could have prepared me for the wreaths of colourful scented flowers sent by all the local businesses to wish us luck. We could barely reach the door to the building.” Within 24 months, the restaurant and café were fully profitable, and surplus funds were ploughed back into the enterprise.
Bermas enjoys the contrast with his old life in New York. “There’s a certain basic simplicity to everything that brings life so close, whether it’s the farmer arriving in the morning with his produce, or the fisherwoman selling her just-caught river fish, or the washing lady hanging out the clothes to dry. I love that connectivity. In New York, life is more complex and convoluted; there’s a big disconnect.”
After initially living in hotels, the couple settled into a modern two-bedroom, two-storey Vietnamese house, five minutes’ walk from the restaurant. They rent because foreigners can’t buy property in Hoi An, and they get around on bicycles, cycling to the local beach on their days off. “It’s not a long ride but the back path we’ve discovered takes us through local villages of rice farmers and craftsmen,” says Bermas. “Along the way, we’ve been stopped to share a coffee, a beer and even to be guest at a wedding. The ride takes us up a river and through a small fishing village to the beach, where the local speciality is muc nuong [grilled squid] and Larue beer.”
The couple plan to stay in the country and, when they can raise a further $200,000, set up another Streets International among the ethnic minorities in Sa Pa, northwestern Vietnam. After four years in the country, most of their friends are now Vietnamese. “We’re a novelty to one another,” says Bermas. “We’re so eager to get to know people and share parts of our lives, foods and family stories – whereas back home we already know all of this. I believe there’s much more value and time and attention given to friendship here, and I like that. It often goes missing in our hectic sophisticated lives in the western world. In Vietnamese, the word for ‘brother’, ‘uncle’ and ‘close friend’ are all the same word; there’s no differentiation. That says a lot to me.”
● The cost of living: a Vietnamese baguette sandwich of sliced pork, pâté, herbs and chilli (báhn mì) costs only Vnd15,000 (72 US cents) and a glass of local beer (bia hoi) costs only Vnd3,000 (15c)
● Vietnamese restaurants are plentiful and the markets are stocked with fresh, locally sourced fruit, vegetables, meats and fish
● It takes 23 hours in the air to return to the US, and a 12-hour timezone difference to EST for phone calls
● The weather is dictated by two monsoon seasons and Hoi An fluctuates between rainy and very hot
● Foreigners are not permitted to buy property in Hoi An. However restricted categories of foreigners may buy apartments in developments for foreign residency in Ha Noi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City
What you can rent for …
Vnd10m ($480) per month: A two-storey, two-bedroom contemporary Vietnamese house, near the centre.
Vnd120m ($5,740): A modern riverside two-level villa with pool and maid service a short bike-ride from town