Sunday, 9th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Into the Frying Pan

Posted on 20. May, 2008 by in Curious Travel

Into the Frying Pan

Vietnam’s street kids learn the restaurant business

HANOI, Vietnam

“Postcards, mister?”

I explained to the teen-aged boy outside a luxury hotel in Hanoi that I didn’t need any more postcards.

“Please mister.”

So I bought a few more postcards, hoping my dollar would buy the young man a meal or two.

Officially there are some 19,000 street children in Hanoi, but social workers estimate the number of destitute youngsters at twice that number. Most of these children and teenagers have no support system and scrape out a hard-scrabble living flogging trinkets.  Some turn to drugs, crime or prostitution.

A lucky few get accepted to Koto, an imaginative program that trains street kids in restaurant-related skills.

I did my bit for eco-empowerment by eating a tasty lunch of prawn tofu crepe, fresh mango juice and banana-coconut-rum cake (about $6.50 for the lot) at the 80-seat Koto Café, adjacent to Hanoi’s famous Temple of Literature.

Koto, which stands for Know One Teach One, was created by Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-born, naturalized Australian who decided to do something for street kids that would be longer-lasting than buying them a few bowls of noodles and some clothes. He established Koto in 1996 to train young men and women as chefs and restaurant managers, skills that are much in demand in booming Vietnam.

I spoke with Koto-graduate Do Van Kiem, a bright-eyed man with neatly-parted hair who now works as a bartender at the elegant Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi.

Kiem, now 22, explained that four years ago he had shined Jimmy Pham’s shoes. Pham asked Kiem about his life, and heard a story that was touching, but perhaps not all that unusual.  Kiem had arrived in Hanoi from Ha Nam province when he was 13.  His family were farmers (“it was a boring existence” he recalls) and he sought a better life.  But things weren’t easy once he got to Hanoi — in the capital he slept rough, was arrested for being a street peddler, and sometimes went ten days without earning a single dong.

Jimmy Pham listened to Kiem’s tale with a sense of recognition and empathy.  Pham’s family had fled the war zone of Vietnam in 1974.  They escaped initially to Singapore, then were shunted to Saudi Arabia and eventually settled in Australia. After completing high school, Pham worked at a variety of odd jobs – from making sangas at an all-night sandwich shop in Kings Cross to selling vacuum cleaners door to door. It was a tough upbringing for Jimmy and his four siblings as Jimmy’s mother, on her own at that time, struggled to bring up her family in a new country. But it wasn’t as tough a life as the situation for kids like Kiem.

Pham enrolled in a travel and tourism course, and returned to Vietnam in the early 1990s as a tour guide.  He spoke enough Vietnamese to be able to understand the harrowing stories of the street kids in Saigon.

He fed them, bought them clothes and paid for them to attend school.  But perhaps most important, he listened as the kids explained that if they were ever going to get off the streets they needed to learn a trade.

Kiem graduated from Koto in 2002.  He remembers the date, March 18.  Like all the Koto graduates, he was immediately offered a job, he explains as we sit at a table in the luxurious garden of the Sofitel.  “I’m lucky to be working here.”

Nadine Ziegeldorf, chief executive officer of the project, took me to the Koto training center and described the 18-month training program, developed by Melbourne’s Boxhill Institute.  There is practical training to be sure, but perhaps equally important is the students —  some 100 of them to date —  are provided with a sense of family and responsibility.  They earn salaries, are given loans to buy bicycles, and look after one another.

After lunch I stopped by the kitchen.  Some twelve young women and men were busy slicing, frying, steaming and hustling to prepare lunch for a restaurant full of curious and hungry folks – a combination of tourists and expatriates working in Hanoi. Half of the kitchen staff wore the white uniforms of trainees, half wore the blue uniforms of Koto graduates who were employed full time by the restaurant.

The cooks were busy, but without interrupting their work managed to smile for a quick photo.  I tried to imagine the scene in 2001 when the restaurant was given three hours notice that former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and his 130-strong entourage, was going to have lunch at Koto. As an added challenge, the VIP group had to be fed during the 25 minutes allotted in their tight schedule.  Clinton asked his trainee waiter, 18 year-old Phung Van Hai, what was good. The president, known for his love affair with food, ordered grilled vegetables and humus in a baguette, washed down with a banana milkshake, a café latte and a Diet Coke.  Clinton left satisfied;  Phung Van Hai now has a steady job at the Hanoi Sheraton.

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