GTG: How a 21-Year-Old Opened a Hostel In Hanoi

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Rezma Rahman was moving up in the network television world in London before she decided to put everything on hold to open a business. In Vietnam. With absolutely no experience. Now she’s running one of Hanoi’s most well-loved and successful hostels, See You at Lily’s, all before the age of 22. The young entrepreneur has a lot of good stuff to say about the challenges of running your own business, what makes a good home away from home, and following your dreams.

GGG: Welcome to Go! Girl Guides! First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how and why you started traveling? And how in the world did you decide you wanted to start a hostel?

I am 21 years old, from East London, and I guess I have always traveled? I traveled with my parents in the summers growing up, so it just became part of our lifestyle. When I was old enough, I decided to travel alone. Staying in so many hostels over the years I wanted a place to share with other travelers!

I had so many jobs back in London. I worked in TV, I worked in bars, I worked in cafés and restaurants. I adored my jobs in TV. I worked as a casting assistant, third assistant director, and a floor runner before going and opening See You at Lilly’s. I felt like it was the right time to open a new business. I’m so young and if things go wrong I can always try again and start over! I loved working on productions, but I’m taking a break to fulfill other dreams I have. I don’t want to dream all my life, I want to turn everything I want to do into plans and just get on with it. It’s been a huge transition, especially because they are two very different industries, travel and TV.

It was really intense [getting ready to go]. I was working seven days a week to put the money together and it taught me a lot. I had to learn to have enough energy to work all the time and to constantly be on a high (without drugs!) Honestly, good food got me through. I’m still very interested in production work and it’s something I might even go back into later on.

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21 year old Rezma

GGG: What was it about Vietnam and Hanoi specifically that called to you and made you want to set up shop there?

Hanoi just feels like the perfect place to be right now; for me, anyway! I like the vibes in Hanoi, I love how chaotic and colorful it is. I love coffee, and there are a zillion coffee shops here; they are all amazing. I can afford to have a comfortable lifestyle. Also, it’s a perfect time to start a business in tourism here with the 15 day free visa. More travelers are coming to Vietnam right now. I met Lily [of hostel name fame]two years ago – she owns a successful travel agency – and she then introduced me to Stu, who worked in finance. I met up with him in London, then a year later, we opened the hostel!

GGG: So you’ve been running the hostel for five months now. What have been the biggest challenges so far?

Oh gosh. I had this romantic idea in my head that I would be running this beautiful, artsy hostel, learn a new language, be independent – all these thoughts. It’s really, really hard running a hostel!  We are everybody’s counselors, walking Lonely Planet guide, doctors – honestly, you name it, we’ve been there. It’s a 24-hour job, seven days a week, so it’s hard to have a life outside of work. It’s been a strain on my personal life, and that is the biggest challenge for me. Even though I love it to bits and I love helping fellow travelers, sometimes I just want to stay in bed all day and watch junk or go on a date. But it’s hard to maintain things like that because you’re married to the job.

GGG: See You at Lily’s is one of the most popular Hanoi hostels at the moment and gaining popularity. What do you think makes it stand out from all the other lodging in the area?

We’re an “arts hostel,” so we have artists, musicians, and filmmakers staying with us and collaborating with us. That’s unique. We also have tours. We build our own tours from scratch for a more authentic experience, exclusive ones. We have our own homestay in Sapa where we work with a beautiful family. I think it’s also because both Stu, the other manager, and I are backpackers. We have traveled quite a fair bit, we think we know what travelers want, and we make sure they feel super comfortable. I started traveling at a young age and I always wanted a place that felt like home, so we try and make their stay as homelike as possible! I think that’s it really, plus we’re all so involved. It’s a tiny hostel so we really get to know all our guests.

GGG: You seem to be getting a little media attention right now. Why, do you think? Why is it that your story is getting people’s attention?

I think because we give others inspiration to go off and do similar things. Like, I’m just a normal girl with a working class background from East London and I’ve opened a hostel at 21. Others can do it too. I think people resonate with that thought.

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The colorful common area at See You At Lily’s.

GGG: Any other business or travel-related plans for the future? What should we look for from you in the future?

I still have so much of the world to see! I want to go to South America next, and I would like to open a few more hostels – and a café, too! There’s so much I want to do, I don’t have a set plan yet. I want to make documentaries based around women in Southeast Asia. I want to talk about different issues women are facing here. It’s something I will definitely do in the near future.

GGG: Any advice for women wondering if they should take a travel or business-related risk?

Just go off and see the world, live a passionate life. We’re all going to have to look back one day and think about what we have done.

If it doesn’t work out, then try again. It’s so important that we put ourselves first. Honestly nothing should stop us – as cheesy as it sounds!

You can see out what people are saying about See You at Lily’s here, and check up on Rezma and the gang on Facebook  and Instagram.

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About Author

Karli is a thrill-seeking, outdoor-loving slow-traveler from Olympia, Washington. She attended the Evergreen State College where she studied the history of Latin America and responsible tourism. She now wanders the planet aimlessly in pursuit of new cats to befriend and the world's best happy hour. You can see what she's up to at littlelosttraveler.wordpress.com.

6 Comments

  1. Angela Seager on

    Revised comment

    Go girl guides
    A fabulous article in GoGirlGuides!

    I was most excited to read this post as my 23 year old son has travelled quite extensively and has informed me that by the age of 25 he wants to open a coffee shop (and it doesn’t matter where in the world..)
    However, as I read between the lines, it appears that the 21 year old, who had met the owner (Lily) of a successful travel agency introduced her to a guy named Stu who worked in finance and my understanding is that they (Stu & Rez) both opened the hostel, as in, a partnership…. Am I wrong…?
    If so, apologies, if not, I think the title is a little misleading…
    Maybe it should read ….’How a 21 year old, in partnership, opened a hostel in Hanoi…’
    Your comments are most welcomed…

    • Hi Angela!

      Rezma did indeed have some help opening her hostel: foreigners are not allowed to own business without a local partner in Vietnam. So forging a strong partnership is just another part of all the red tape that must be cut through in order to be a young business owner abroad! Thanks for the question.

  2. I’m thinking of a hostel business in dalat. Must I find a local partner or there’s other ways to do it? Do you have any idea how the process is like?

  3. Hi Lilin,
    I don’t think there is another way unless you have the vietnamese citizenship. My parents are from Vietnam, but since they only hold Canadian passport, they couldn’t buy a house for my family living in Vietnam.

    Does anyone knows a website where we can find people who share the same business idea to go in partnership? That would be totally awsome. I too think of a hostel or guesthouse…

    Thanks in advance

    • Lilin i planning to open uo a hostel as wel ldo your want to partner with me ? You can hook me up for more designs and ideas

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