Text and photo by Hieu Tran
In a bustling new urban area of Hanoi, there is a community that has been growing stronger throughout the past three years, under the roof of an extraordinary cafe called Tea Talk. The customers that come here often have a personal problem, and need a cozy place to share it with someone who would listen, understand and keep it a secret. The staff that work here have come from other provinces of Vietnam with a desire to find employment in a friendly working environment that is built on trust, respect, and amity. And the founder of the place is a Singaporean man named Michael, who came to Hanoi 14 years ago as a volunteer consultant for the University of Labour & Social Affairs. Michael developed a new curriculum in social work and particularly counselling, which was later utilised in “Let’s Talk”, a para-counsellor training course that has been running at Tea Talk Cafe since 2013. The community at Tea Talk has an officially registered name as a non-profit organisation: CoRE Community (Center for Counseling, Research and Empowering Community).
Michael Ong was born in 1970 as the seventh child in a poor family. He graduated from the NUS in 1995, majoring in social work and psychology. That same year he came to visit Hanoi for the first time, feeling sympathy for the poor people here as Vietnam just started reforming. In 2001, he joined Resource Exchange International as a volunteer, and came back to Hanoi. After seven years being a university lecturer and doing social work in Vietnam, he received a full scholarship to pursue a Masters of Social Work degree at Washington University. Tea Talk was conceived at the social entrepreneurship class that Michael attended there.
However, instead of a social enterprise, in 2012 he set up a business, Tea Talk Cafe & Bakery, and a year later CoRE Community was born as an NGO under Tea Talk. The reason is that back then there was no law concerning social enterprises in place for him to register one, and he wanted to do everything according to the local laws. So legally, Tea Talk and CoRE are separate entities, but spiritually they are one. Without CoRE, Tea Talk is just a normal cafe like any other. Without Tea Talk, CoRE has no physical structure to operate in. The same space is used for the purpose of the cafe as well as for the training and counselling activities of CoRE. The setting of a cozy cafe helps clients feel more relaxed and encourages them open up easily. It’s almost like they’re hanging out with friends for coffee or tea rather than going for counselling.
IMPROVING MENTAL WELL-BEING
The mission of CoRE is to improve community mental well-being. The NGO does not aim to treat people with serious mental illnesses that require professional psychiatrists. Instead, the target clients are young people aged 18 to 30 years who are going through life changes or facing challenges which make them feel depressed and hopeless. Michael considers this to be the most vulnerable age group. He said, everyone may be depressed from time to time, but most are not aware of how much mental well-being affects their overall happiness. Hence, he seeks to provide free counselling for individuals that have come in to Tea Talk, to make them feel better and find their own way out.
However, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding the word “mental” in Vietnam. Most of the time people associate it with going crazy, and they get scared. Thus, it is hard for the depressed to share their problems with others, and they might also be afraid to go to a counselling centre or a psychologist. So it is crucial to raise awareness about the need and availability of an alternative and friendly environment to build trust in. Many clients are just regular customers of Tea Talk at first, then they started opening up about their problems to the cafe staff or Michael himself, who is always willing to treat them to a cup of coffee.
Besides counselling, CoRE also organises “Let’s Talk” and “ShineWomen”, these being public programmes that seek to train young people in skills that not only help them manage their life, but also connect better with others and eventually help build up a stronger community from stronger individuals.
“Let’s Talk” is CoRE’s flagship project, in which they provide counselling training and services to youths and their families. The programme comprises 20 hours of training sessions on different topics of counselling, and between 20 and 60 hours of supervised counselling for individuals in need. The skills taught in this programme benefit social work and psychology students who need more practical experience outside the university, as well as students and working adults from other disciplines to apply in every day life problems.
Stories from participants illustrate the positive changes this programme has brought about. One came back to tell Michael that when she applied the skill of active listening when talking to her best friend, her friend said “I feel like you finally understand me.” Another got a compliment from his mother, “You have matured.”
One participant in the first “Let’s Talk” became an interpreter, an assistant trainer, and eventually a trainer in the subsequent rounds. The volunteer trainers in the first rounds were mostly from among Michael’s international network; however, there are now many Vietnamese trainers who have experience in counselling in Vietnam. Michael sees this movement as a positive way of empowering the community here.
Tea Talk Cafe and CoRE Community have now become a meeting place for those who want help and those who want to help, for expats and locals, for cafe staff and customers to befriend one another, broaden their network, and above all, bring peace and positivity into their life.
Some call this place “a home away from home”.
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