3 feel-good restaurants in Indochina

3 feel-good restaurants in Indochina
By admin


It's becoming one of the highlights of an Indochina trip for those who choose to travel with a socially responsible tour operator. Dining at a vocational training restaurant is all about enjoying local cuisine while helping give disadvantaged youth a brighter future. And there are plenty of organisations in the tourism industry willing to help out.

Working at the Heritage Suites Hotel, Cambodia's only Relais & Ch√¢teau property, is not something that Sok Sara ever dreamed possible. Born in a remote province in the country's north-west, she was number six in a family of eight. Her father abandoned the family when she was still a child, and at the age of 16 she had to go and live with her grandmother as her mother could no longer support her.

Sok Sara was fortunate to have assistance with her high school fees from French non-governmental organisation (NGO) Enfants du Mékong. They also encouraged her to apply to Sala Baï Hotel & Restaurant School in Siem Reap, location of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. She desperately wanted to study there so that she could obtain a job, which would allow her to support her mother and finance her two youngest brothers' school fees. Happily, Sok Sara's application to train at Sala Baï was successful and now, at the age of 21, she works as a restaurant waitress at the prestigious Heritage Suites Hotel.

CREATING HOPE

There's a lot of need in a region like Indochina, and while socially aware tour operators support a range of different philanthropic initiatives here, vocational training restaurants are one of the most successful. Sala Baï and other similar establishments provide a way out of poverty for disadvantaged youth and former street kids Рmaking them worthwhile in themselves Рbut the benefit is also two way. As well as giving travellers the opportunity to support a good cause, they enjoy an authentic cultural experience and get to sample some of the local cuisine.

The system involves non-profit organisations or social entrepreneurs establishing a restaurant, with the purpose of training disadvantaged youth in restaurant and hospitality skills by employing them as staff. Most organisations also provide a number of social services to the students, such as dormitory housing, medical check-ups, family support services and a bicycle. The organisations also assists students with job placement upon graduation.
And many socially conscious operators offer clients the chance to dine at these establishments during their tours, one of these being Travel Indochina. Its responsible tourism coordinator, Jen Brown, said vocational training restaurants provided a "truly sustainable" way to support responsible tourism practices and development in Indochina. "While there is a fair amount of controversy around practices such as visiting orphanages or giving to beggars, these vocational training restaurants allow for long-term and valuable skill development of the trainees. They also help promote one of the best parts about travelling in Southeast Asia – the delicious and diverse cuisine," she said.

GENUINE HOSPITALITY

At Sala Ba√Ø, the menu is both Asian and Western and it changes every two weeks, in order to maximise the training experience for students. This free hotel school, which targets young Cambodians from underprivileged families, was founded in 2002 by French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge. According to the organisation, there is a very low school attendance rate in Cambodia and many young people leave school to contribute to the family income, obtaining unstable jobs with no future. Few vocational training programs exist in Cambodia – especially for young women – who often drop out of  » school earlier than boys, to help at home, work or get married. At the same time, the number of hotels in Siem Reap is rising very fast and as a consequence they require a more qualified workforce.

Each year, Sala Baï trains around 100 young disadvantaged Cambodians, with a 70% priority being given to girls. The training covers the four main professions of the hospitality industry: restaurant waiting, cooking, receptionist work and housekeeping. The school covers all the training fees and daily expenses for the students. The training lasts for 11 months, with the twelfth month dedicated to helping the trainees find their first job.

LONG TERM SOLUTIONS

Another organisation making a different to the lives of young people is Koto, which stands for Know One, Teach One. Its belief is that if you're in a position where you can help someone less fortunate, you should help them. Koto operates several training centres in Vietnam and was established by a Vietnamese-Australian by the name of Jimmy Pham.

In the late 1990s, Pham returned to his birthplace to work as a tour leader. While in Hanoi he struck up a friendship with a group of young people living and working on the streets to support their families. He used his salary to help them but knew this was only a temporary fix for a long-term problem. Pham left his job and opened a sandwich shop to provide jobs for these young people, but soon realised that they needed more than just a job – they needed proper training in order to secure a better future for them and their families.

Every six months Koto recruits up to 30 street or disadvantaged youth, aged 16 to 22, who face difficult life circumstances including poverty, abandonment, abuse and exploitative employment.

Students are provided with 24 months of free training in restaurant and hotel skills at Koto centres, as well as other areas such as basic English and an introduction to life skills. The organisation now runs Koto Hanoi (its flagship restaurant), Pots 'n Pans (also in Hanoi) and Koto Saigon. At all the restaurants menus change every four months and they also offer cooking classes.

Other vocational training establishments in Indochina include Streets Café, which is located in Hoi An. It serves up contemporary Vietnamese and international cuisine and even has a special Hoi An Tasting Menu, offering diners a taste of the iconic dishes unique to this World Heritage listed town.

DINING WITH A DIFFERENCE

International visitors are embracing the concept. Brown said many Travel Indochina clients cited a visit to a vocational training restaurant as a highlight of their trip. "On our journeys, tour leaders and guides often take travellers to dine at Koto and Streets in Vietnam, and the restaurants operated by the non-profit Friends-International in Cambodia and Laos, where we actually sponsor a student," Brown said. "In Hoi An, many of our journeys include a market tour by the Streets students, giving them additional opportunity to cultivate their hospitality skills."

A number of Travel Indochina's itineraries include a visit to Streets Café, these being the 10-day Highlights of Vietnam, the 11-day Vietnam Insight and the 18-day Vietnam Revealed. The operator doesn't include a visit to the restaurants operated by Friends-International but allows time within some of its Cambodia and Laos itineraries should travellers wish to visit.

All of Peregrine Adventures' Hanoi and Saigon itineraries include a visit to Koto, such as the 16-day Vietnam Experience, the 16-day Cycle Vietnam and the 10-day Vietnam Culinary Journey. Intrepid Travel, meanwhile, includes lunch at Sala Baï in several of its Indochina itineraries, such as the six-day Classic Cambodia. In other itineraries it also offers travellers the option of lunch at another non-profit restaurant in Siem Reap РGreen Star. This casual eatery helps generate funds to support the Green Gecko Project, a home and school for former street kids. Around 75% of Intrepid's tours visit the Koto restaurants in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

"Today, many travel operators visit a number of vocational training restaurants in Indochina, which is driven in part by the travellers themselves," Intrepid's regional head of sales and marketing Alison Mead said. "When they visit countries like Vietnam they want to be able to see its progress and get a feel for how travellers like them are making a difference to people's lives.

"There is an added benefit that a travel company which visits an establishment like this is seen to give something back, which can be a very important factor when travellers choose the company they book a tour with initially," she said.

In addition to ploughing the revenues from their restaurants and hotels back into the students' training, the organisations that run them rely heavily on donations to cover the costs of their operations.

THE FEEL GOOD FACTOR

World Expeditions chief executive Sue Badyari said many of the operator's clients appreciated opportunities to assist people struggling with poverty. "As well as the company's Community Project Travel initiatives, in which travellers work on individual projects for communities in need, several itineraries include visits to vocational training restaurants," she said.

World Expeditions incorporates visits to vocational training restaurants like Koto and Hoa Sua (the latter located in Hanoi) on some of its Indochina trips, like the 15-day Vietnam by Bike and 11-day Bike, Hike and Kayak Northern Vietnam. "Both restaurants also provide cooking classes, which are highly valued by World Expeditions travellers," Badyari said.

Visits to Koto restaurants have been a highlight for many participants on trips with Helen Wong's Tours, including the 12-day Glimpse of Vietnam and the 14-day Halong to Mekong. Marketing manager Kevin Du said the operator felt it was a good move to include Koto in its itineraries, as the story behind its creation was inspirational.

"Furthermore, it's worthwhile for us to contribute to the cause – and the food is exceptional," he said. Understandably, the staff at these restaurants are hard-working and brimming with enthusiasm – they're keen to do a good job and improve their skills, knowing they now have a brighter future ahead of them.

Email the Travel Weekly team at traveldesk@travelweekly.com.au

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