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Cambodia,  Food & drink,  Friday’s Foods of the World,  Vietnam

Eating out with a conscience in Indochina

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.’

KOTO, Hanoi

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


  • wetanddustyroads

    I absolutely love the idea of these initiatives where their goal is to help the less fortunate … and bonus points: The food looks really great!
    This reminds me of a similar restaurant here in Cape Town (Brownies & Downies). These are people with intellectual disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Autism. They’ve learned to serve as waiters, make coffee, help in the kitchen and clean around the restaurant … but I’ve recently read they had to close due to the ongoing coronavirus and hard lockdowns we’ve had last year – such a shame.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you – yes, the food was excellent in all three 🙂 That Cape Town place sounds great too. I used to visit a UK cafe many many years ago run on similar lines.

  • Fergy.

    Hello again Sarah,

    it’s Fergy here and I still cannot get onto your site via WordPress even though I have been happily answering that way on other sites this morning. Are you sure you haven’t blocked me lol? If you have I wouldn’t blame you.

    Another great post here and , like you, I love this concept. I have eaten in several of these types of places in SE Asia and I think they are such a good idea. The food is usually pretty spot-on as well.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I promise I haven’t blocked you 😆 And I can see that it’s you and link to your gravatar so I have no idea why it’s not working at your end!! Anyway, lovely to hear from you, as always!

      I can completely see that these would be right up your street, especially Huang Lai which had a more local vibe with a mix of locals and a few tourists eating there, and very authentic food 🙂

  • maristravels

    Hope you don’t get this twice. I’d hit the Post button when it all vanished and your comment box came back empty!
    We enjoyed meals in the Hanoi and HCM City restaurants you mention but didn’t know of the one in Phnom Penh. The first of this type of restaurant we ever ate in was Cabbages and Condoms in Chiang Rai which was dedicated to teaching young people about birth control as part of their education programme. Of course the name attracted people, so they were able to expand and open many more in Isan and other places. I wonder if they are still in existence? When in Sicily – especially Palermo – we always use the recommendations of AddioPizzo, the anti-Mafia organization that supports businesses that refuse to pay extortion money to the Mafia. https://addiopizzotravel.it/ As travellers I think we should do our best to support these sort of NGOs.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No, it’s only here once Mari 🙂 Thank you for mentioning AddioPizza. I’d never heard of them but as it happens Palermo is somewhere we’ve mentioned as a front-runner for when we can get back to Italy. We were there briefly some years ago for a football match but only had one morning in the city and I’d love to see more of it! I’ve book-marked their website – thanks again 😀

  • SandyL

    Excellent. I think I visited one of these establishments, except I attended their cooking school rather than the restaurant proper.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ooh, that would be good! Something to consider if we’re in that region again. Certainly Hanoi is a city I’d love to return to, should we get the chance.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Absolutely! Our guides introduced us to the first two (Friends and KOTO) while I read about Huong Lai in the Lonely Planet guidebook. I will seek out more in the future if I can 🙂

  • Rose Vettleson

    Thank-you for continuing to write about traveling ‘with a conscience’. I think sometimes we’re so busy marveling at all the things we haven’t seen before, that we don’t always recognize the hardships many places in the world face. Everything we do when traveling should be making us all better – connecting and understanding each other, taking care of and supporting each other and our planet, and having a great time exploring and learning new things.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose 🙂 I so agree with your points about travelling. We can have a great time while doing so but we should try not to lose sight of the fact that we are privileged to be able to do so and that our visit should at best benefit the places we go and at worst at least not have any negative impacts. And if you can help local people while also enjoying great food, what a wonderful win-win!

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    How very interesting? In Saigon did the service providers speak to you in English? The food all looks wonderful and and appetizing! All three restaurants were very different weren’t they? I think the locations would make you want to go there also! Too bad the “upstairs” restaurant has moved. I hope they got another location with a great view! Cady

    • Sarah Wilkie

      HI Cady, and thanks for all your comments 😀 Yes, the staff in all three restaurants spoke enough English to be able to serve us well. The food in all of them was good. We only had a light lunch in the first two – I would have liked to have tried Friends in particular for an evening as their menu was so interesting, but we didn’t have very long in Phnom Penh and found other good restaurants much closer to our hotel. The new location for KOTO seems to be in a trendy nightlife area so it will be good for their business but I suspect it doesn’t have such a good view.

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