Meet the young Vietnamese who cook out of necessity

In Hanoi, an inspiring social enterprise gives disadvantaged young people new hope for the future, one recipe at a time.

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Do is from a small village, tucked away in the mountainous region of Dien Bien, Vietnam, about as far west as you can get from Hanoi. It is a place that is rarely visited by tourists. Or anyone, for that matter.

18-year-old Do is Hmong, one of Vietnam’s 54 recognized ethnic groups, and today in Hanoi he politely asks me a series of questions about my life in London. We talk about food, weather and football – agree to disagree on who the best English team is.

Although he seems jovial, Do is far from home. He shows me a traditional pearl bag that his big sister has made for him. “When I miss home, I get this out to remind me why I’m here,” he explains. “When I arrived here, I cried because it’s hard to be away from my family. But after two years at KOTO, I know that I will get a stable job and be able to support my family. ”

KOTO began in Hanoi almost 20 years ago. Photo: Travis Hodges

KOTO, which stands for ‘Know One Teach One’, has changed lives in Vietnam since before Do was born. Established in Hanoi almost 20 years ago, the social enterprise’s two-year scholarship program offers disadvantaged young people hope for a better future through training and opportunities. Do is such a young man.

“The acceptance letter says ‘Congratulations, you’re changing your life,'” explains KOTO founder Jimmy Pham. And life is really changing – there is no other training like this in Vietnam that is free, nor is there any welfare system in Vietnam. “Without education, some of these children would return to a life of crime, back to drugs or prostitution,” Jimmy says. “But with the training, they get practical hospitality expertise, an internationally recognized accreditation.”

Along with a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, the young participants in KOTO are also offered training on important life skills (including personal finance, sex education, English and health and interpersonal skills). The program not only equips young people with the skills needed for a sustainable career, it also provides them with a family.

Jimmy was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1972 to a Vietnamese mother and a Korean father. His family left Vietnam when he was two, eventually settling in Sydney, Australia.

“The children are now very different from the children when I started. KOTO students today generally consist of young people who have been trafficked, imprisoned or physically and sexually abused.”

Jimmy Pham

As a 23-year-old, Jimmy returned to Vietnam as a tour guide for Intrepid Travel and was inspired to do something about the level of poverty he saw. “You see poverty so clearly; you can not do that does not be touched, ”he says. “I saw a little girl cry – her father was an alcoholic, her mother a gambler … And I decided to make a change.”

The situation in Vietnam today is very different. The proportion of people living in poverty had dropped from nearly 60 percent in the 1990s to less than 10 percent today.

Class 34 trainee, Kiev. Picture Travis Hodges

While widespread poverty is less worrying, greater economic wealth has yielded some unexpected side effects. “The kids are now very different from the kids when I first started,” Jimmy says. “KOTO students today generally consist of young people who have been trafficked, imprisoned or physically and sexually abused.”

The focus has also shifted to Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, many of whom live in mountainous areas. About nine million Vietnamese still live in extreme poverty, with ethnic minorities making up 72 percent of Vietnam’s poorest.

While exploring KOTO’s gym, I am greeted by smiling teenagers who are all eager to practice their (already impressive) English. “Hello good morning! Welcome to KOTO!” a young man smiles as he rushes past me to class.

“It’s hard to enjoy life when you worry about money all the time. I used to think only of earning enough to eat, so it was hard to make friends. ”


The facility consists of classrooms, exercise kitchens, a library, canteen and dormitories. With four simultaneous groups of trainees – each starting at six-month intervals – the center has the atmosphere of a busy university campus.

The most recent group of 36 trainees (or ‘Class 34’ as they are called) receives support from The Intrepid FoundationIntrepid’s charitable arm, through their two-year journey with KOTO.

Students from class 34 get their first introduction to KOTO restaurant kitchen. Photo: Travis Hodges

In KOTO’s courtyard, I find a group of trainees gathered around one of the volunteers. ‘Overall’ is an understatement; I can barely see the figure as he is being bullied by trainees who are all fighting for his attention.

Andrew, an American volunteer who has been with the program for the past six months, shares handshakes and encouraging words to everyone around him. “I’ll probably end up in the staff here,” he says. “Since I got involved in the organization, it’s hard to see myself doing anything else in life.”

Andrew has been involved in hospitality all his life, including a number of years as an international tour guide. Despite having traveled to over 74 countries, he says he has never been happier than when he participated in meaningful social work. “I used to take tour groups to the KOTO restaurant,” he says. “That’s how I learned about the important work they’re doing here.”

Students often prepare lunch for the 100+ KOTO students. Picture: Travis Hodges

Andrew reminds me that the students in class 34 have only been together for two weeks. “I admire their courage. They come from rural communities, often from terrible personal situations, and into a city of 10 million people. They are a special group of people.”

Over lunch in the canteen – which is staffed by the trainees themselves – I chat with a group from class 34. At 22 years old, Phat is the oldest and dreams of opening his own restaurant so he can help other children. He says he feels like an older brother to many of his classmates. He worked on a construction site as a 15-year-old and then as a motorcycle taxi driver. “It’s hard to enjoy life when you worry about money all the time,” he says. “I was just thinking about earning enough to eat, so it was hard to make friends.”

Another intern, Nhi, lights up while we discuss favorite food. “I want to bake!” she exclaims. “I want to be the world’s best cake maker and know all the world’s cake recipes!”

Nhi comes from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta and had a difficult childhood. Her mother has a mental disability and was not able to take care of her at all. Nhi has had to rely on handouts from the local community for everything from food to clothes and the little schooling she received.

Nhi’s ambition after two weeks at KOTO is typical of the trainees I meet: Many start with a desire for a permanent job and the ability to support their family, but as their self-confidence grows, their ambitions skyrocket.

Thắng from class 34 shows off his KOTO T-shirt. Photo: Travis Hodges

Much is also being said about the KOTO alumni, the more than 700 people who have walked through the doors of the organization over the past 20 years. “It’s great to see where KOTO candidates show up,” said Ngoc Nguyen, one of the staff. “Many support graduates with jobs in the restaurants they run, and some come back to volunteer and work with KOTO.”

The current marketing director, Huong, is one of those returnees. Forced to drop out of school as a 13-year-old, she moved to Hanoi alone in hopes of earning money to support her mother and sister. After graduating from KOTO in 2007, she received scholarships to study business in Australia and then a master’s degree. She now works back with KOTO to transform other lives and is a role model for many of the interns.

My day with KOTO ends the way most travelers get to experience the organization – with a visit to the training restaurant in Hanoi. Students from Class 34 are in the restaurant to observe Class 32 in action. The senior class, who are now halfway through their training, are clearly safe in the kitchen.

True to the ‘Know One Teach One’ principal, these students take class 34 under their wings – guiding them around the restaurant and showing the gaping newcomers how everything works. “I’m always ready to help Class 34,” explains 19-year-old Tho. “They are brothers and sisters to me. And even though I have no money right now, I have something better to share – I have knowledge.”

Visit The Intrepid Foundation to donate to KOTO and help transform the lives of young people in Hanoi.

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