Eating out is undoubtedly one of the great pleasures of a holiday. Sampling the local cuisine; relaxing over a drink at the end of a busy day; enjoying the ambience of a well-run restaurant with perhaps a great view of the landscape or bustling city streets.
But eating out is also a luxury in which relatively few in the world are able to indulge. In many of the countries we visit local families feel well-off if they are able to put food on the table several times a day; and if they can keep their children fit and healthy. Rather than feel guilty about these discrepancies, we discovered that in Indochina it is possible to enjoy a great restaurant meal and help people in need. In several of the region’s cities we found restaurants helping tourists and more affluent locals do just that.
Friends, Phnom Penh
The first of these restaurants we visited was Friends in Phnom Penh. This is an NGO-run restaurant where street children are trained in the hospitality sector; this gives them the opportunity to take the first step on the road to a more secure future. Many of these children owe their misfortune to the Khmer Rouge period, when their families were persecuted and many killed, with the descendants not able to pick up the pieces after the war without this sort of help.
But as well as being a good cause, this is a lovely restaurant. It has a pleasant terrace (and interior too) and a great menu of what they call ‘creative tapas’. Most dishes are Asian or have an Asian influence. We shared three: a fusion dish of red pepper hummus served on crispy wontons; fishcakes with a spicy peppery sauce; and stir-fried chicken with mango and cashew nuts – all delicious.
Friends is a member of TREE, a global alliance of training restaurants run on these lines. The organisation’s website explains that, ‘All profits from TREE restaurants are invested in the students who train there and the social programmes which support them on their journey to becoming a skilled, productive and happy young person with a more secure future.’
In Hanoi we had a delicious lunch at KOTO near the Temple of Literature. Like Friends, this is a social enterprise (set up and run by Australians). It takes deprived young people and offers them training in the hospitality sector, either in the kitchens or front of house. It also provides training in life skills, enabling them to be self-sufficient.
We had a great table on the roof terrace, four flights up! There we enjoyed a really tasty light lunch, sharing a combo platter of different spring rolls, some fresh, some fried. My photo was taken after we had already eaten half of them!
KOTO stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’. You can read more about this excellent project and the young people it has helped on their website: https://www.kotovilla.com/about. The restaurant has apparently recently moved from the location we visited to a new one; but it has exactly the same ethos and, I am sure, just as tasty food!
Huong Lai in Saigon
We spent the last full day of our Indochina tour exploring Saigon, properly (but rarely!) known as Ho Chi Minh City. In the evening we ate at Huong Lai, a restaurant that employs disadvantaged young people and offers them training in the hospitality sector and in English. Unlike the establishments we had visited in Phnom Penh and Hanoi, this isn’t run by a social enterprise but by a private individual who chooses to operate his business in this philanthropic manner.
This seemed to us a good initiative to support, and the food also gets very positive reviews, so we were keen to try it. It is also very popular, so not only had we had to book a day ahead but also to eat earlier than we normally would, at 6.30. It was worth it, as the food was excellent and very reasonable at just 549,000 dong (under £20). For this we got a shared mixed appetiser platter; pork with black pepper; beef with thien ly flower (we wanted to try something different and it was lovely, very fresh and slightly iron-rich in flavour, like spinach); plenty of rice and two beers.
The service from the young trainees was polite and friendly, and the atmosphere casual and buzzy. If we had been staying longer in the city we would certainly have returned. Just a word of warning though if you fancy trying it; as with many Saigon restaurants it is on the first floor of an old and unprepossessing building, and the staircase is pretty steep.
Of course all these restaurants are closed right now, due to COVID restrictions. But when we are able to travel again, do, if you find yourself in any of these cities, consider eating out in these wonderful places serving Food from Around the World; and doing so with a social conscience.
I travelled to Indochina in early 2020, just before the pandemic took hold there and everywhere else