The resiliency of Vietnam is remarkable. Despite being ravaged by wars with France, the United States and China, the country’s economy is surging. English schools are popping up everywhere as people strive to learn the language of commerce and tourists arrive by the planeload to see UNESCO world heritage sites such as dream-like Halong Bay, the ancient capital of Hué or the newly named Trang An area on the southern shore of the Red River Delta.
On the surface, Vietnam seems poised to jump from developing to developed nation. However, dig down a little and you’ll come across poverty and lack of education. This is especially so in rural areas inhabited by ethnic minorities where children often drop out of school in order to help parents with household chores or farming. These children can face other problems, as well. Some are orphans, some move to the city looking for work and become addicted to drugs, some end up homeless.
But all is not lost for these marginalized young people. There’s a movement afoot to help them with food. Not handouts, but a hand up, through culinary and hospitality training. Three non-government organizations supported by donors in Australia, Canada and the United States have started training centers and restaurants where students can hone their skills and tourists can taste the fruits of the labors while supporting a worthy cause.
At KOTO Restaurant, tucked behind Hanoi’s ancient Temple of Literature, tour groups flock to enjoy a menu of Asian-meets-Euro dishes including nem (spring rolls), beef baked in bamboo, delicious salads, sandwiches and baked goods. Started by Jimmy Pham more than 15 years ago, KOTO stands for “Know One, Teach One.” Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian began with a small sandwich shop in Hanoi that provided disadvantaged youth with jobs. In 1999, he opened a training center that offered training for careers in the hospitality business. Since then Pham, who was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011, has opened another training center and restaurant in Saigon. The business has also expanded to include catering and cooking classes.
Real life experience in the training restaurants is key to students being able to succeed. “It is a source of immense pride when all of them have good jobs and sustainable lives after graduating,” Pham says. To date, KOTO has launched more than 500 graduates, some whom now work at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi, the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon and the Movenpick Hotel Hanoi.
In the Truc Bach neighborhood of Hanoi, a stately house has been transformed into elegant restaurant called Song Thu. Run by Hoa Sua vocational training school, at-risk kids–homeless or physically disabled–get professional training in European and Asian cooking, catering and hotel services, sewing, embroidery, baking and languages. When it started in 1994, the school was graduating around 20 students a year. Today around 700 students graduate yearly and to date more than 6,000 graduates have found work in the tourism and hospitality sector.
The brainchild of Mrs. Pham Thi Vy, Hoa Sua has received support over the years from many local and international partners including World University Services of Canada (WUSC), Samaritan’s Purse, Kraft, Gapyear, Oxfam Quebec and UNICEF.
The school provides students with on-the-job training and practical experience at Song Thu, as well as at a bakery café located at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, a mini hotel/restaurant called Baguettes and Chocolate in the tourist destination town of Sapa, and a small baked goods outlet at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi. These enterprises help fund the school’s operations.
“Most of the students are in their 20s and are from ethic minority groups who live in the mountainous regions of Vietnam. They have limited education and language skills. Most speak just a little Vietnamese and no English, but they have a passion for the work,” explains John Matthewman, a Canadian volunteer with the WUSC/Center for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI) Uniterra program (one of Canada’s top international development volunteer programs) who is working with Hoa Sua to develop a soft skills curriculum to be delivered to students by Hoa Sua teaching staff. Soft skills are those little touches that are so important in the hospitality industry—smiling, communicating with customers, listening to their requests and complaints, and solving their problems.
“The passionate Hoa Sua students are very employable with the training they receive,” says Matthewman, adding, “Soft skills give them an edge for better jobs.”
In the historic city of Hoi An, in central Vietnam, in a restored colonial house, Streets Restaurant fuses traditional Vietnamese food and contemporary international dishes. The restaurant’s most popular dinner choice is the Hoi An tasting menu featuring iconic regional specialties such as white rose dumplings, papaya salad with dried beef and Cau Lau noodles with spicy, braised pork.
Steam rises, pots clatter and energetic voices shout out orders as trainees whip up platters of delicious delicacies for hungry patrons.
The brainchild of New Yorker Neal Bermas, Streets International was launched in 2007 and in 2014 it became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. Bermas, who was a high-powered hospitality management consultant, recalls being inspired to make a difference after his first business trip to the country in the ‘90s. “Street children approached me, begging for money for milk. These kids were as young as eight,” he says.
With expertise as a hotel and restaurant consultant, restaurant owner and college lecturer, Bermas was able to put together a self-sustaining program that has placed more than 100 graduates in good jobs including with five-star hotels such as the Hyatt Regency and the InterContinental Hotel in Danang.
Internationally credentialed by the award winning Institute of Culinary Education in New York, the 18-month curriculum starts with orientation to hospitality and a basic skills overview, then gets into the nitty-gritty of professional cooking and restaurant service and operations. The program includes extensive culinary and hospitality classroom instruction, a teaching kitchen, a state-of-the-art computer language laboratory, hands-on experience in Streets Restaurant, life skills curriculum and extensive hospitality English classes. Plus, trainees receive housing, food, basic financial support and medical care.
Why did Bermas pick Hoi An, a city smack dab in the middle of the country, over the better-known hubs of Hanoi and Saigon? Having traveled in southeast Asia for 10 years working for large hotel brands and Vietcombank, he identified the town as a growing tourist destination. Visually unique in Vietnam, Hoi An has an unusual blend of 19th- and 20th-century Chinese, Japanese and European architecture as well as pagodas and temples. The city is charming, the people warm and friendly.
Visitors to Streets Restaurant often take home more than a full belly. There’s a line of products including aprons and chef’s toques, plus a glossy Streets Cookbook for $25. Profits are pumped back into the training program.
At these training restaurants, good food equals good opportunities. Students are empowered with knowledge and skills while patrons delight in carefully prepared meals. What better way to a strong, sustainable future than through the stomach? It’s a win-win situation.