City restaurant's recipe for opportunity
Hoa Sua restaurant is the sort of place where you can really spoil yourself, sampling its tasty mixture of Vietnamese and French cuisine. At first glance it is nothing more - just another of the many joint-venture eating places to have sprung up in Hanoi in recent years.
But this is a joint enterprise with a difference. It's the brainchild of its director Pham Thi Vy, a former teacher with a passion for cooking. The thing that makes it different is that it's attached to a school, dedicated to helping former street children and other victims of poverty to learn a trade.
Hua Sua training school opened in 1995, funded by a grant from the French charity, La Maison de la Jongue. Ms Vy, who had retired from her job as a teacher trainer two years earlier, having taught cookery and maths, decided she wanted to open a restaurant. The idea to attach to it a training school came after a chance encounter with a French-Vietnamese woman, Song Thu Bideaux Aguyen, who works for the charity.
Since the school's opening 158 underprivileged teenagers have been through its kitchens. It now has a further 223 teenagers on its books. Trainees are taught Vietnamese and French cooking, how to wait on tables and given lessons in French and English. The restaurant is mainly staffed by trainees.
Forty per cent of the trainees are former street children, recruited from To Ban Bao Xa Me, Nha Tinh Thuong and Phuong Lao Dong Thuong - agencies which devote themselves to helping children on the streets.
The other 60 per cent come from two other charities, SOS and Birla, which take in children from the provinces who have no families, some of whom would otherwise gravitate to the streets of the big cities.
Among the trainees are some of Hanoi's poorest former street children. However, it is usually several years since they have been forced to fend for themselves. Most have built up a proven record for reliability - having been previously helped with food, shelter, education and employment by the agencies which recommend them.
"The only qualification is that the children's background is explained to us clearly and that they are of good character," says Ms Vy.
Graduates of the school have found employment in some of Hanoi's smartest hotels, including the Metropol, Daewoo, and Horizon. One of the present crop of trainees is Pan Van Cuong (see main story) who joined the school 18 months ago. His is a typical story of the children who have been helped by Hua Sua.