Tastes Great, Feels Good
There are reportedly tens of thousands of NGO (non –government organizations) operating in Vietnam. Some are branches of international organizations like World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam, others small but no less significant.
Education, health care, AIDS, the environment are just some of the areas where voluntary efforts are doing important work and complementing the work of government agencies or filling the void where none exists.
Vietnam is a country that is going through dramatic change. I see it every day outside my window. New schools, high rises, bridges, shopping malls and more pop up on the Saigon landscape and in the other major cities of the country. Income is up, education is up (Vietnams literacy rate equals that of most Western countries) and the society is making that leap from overwhelmingly agriculture to manufacturing and beyond in a generation.
Still, there are those left behind and I learned of one NGO that is making a real difference, STREETS.
I took a group of visitors to Hoi An (a must-see historic city near Da Nang and a short drive from the eventual American University of Vietnam home in Da Nang). In an historic house in downtown Hoi An Neal Bemas from New York, a hospitality industry exec and entrepreneur, welcomes us to the restaurant but not until after the maître’d had already greeted us and escorted us to our table on the second floor.
Neal and STREETS are in the business of changing lives and what passes for a restaurant (with incredible food, service, and vibe) is really a classroom. Students, often themselves from the streets, abandoned, abused, enter the rigorous education program at STREETS with a goal of achieving a career, not merely a job in the hospitality industry.
They learn English in high-tech classrooms, live together, take classes and master every aspect of the hospitality industry, a growing career path in places like Hoi An, Da Nang and SaPa in the north.
But Neal is not just a “do gooder”. He, the board and staff run STREETS like a business, and unlike so many NGO’s around the world, Vietnamese take the lead role in its management, not well-meaning, well-paid Westerners.
The first class of this intensive 18 month program are already employed at Ham Hai, the most exclusive resort on the central coasts, with fluency in English, leadership skills and a professional demeanor. We are impressed.
As we watch the video on STREETS I think of my own son, Chris, who found hospitality and culinary as a career path and life raft and, now successful, is giving back; volunteering to cook for the homeless and helping disadvantaged and challenged young people find their own path and passions.
The food arrives. It is traditional Hoi An cuisine, shopped for at the early morning market prepared by these young chefs in training, complemented by a glass of wine and for desert an incredible coconut ice cream desert. We leave STREETS full –in body and soul – feeling that this was a meal that not only tasted great, but felt good too.