In a humble restaurant nestled in the streets of Hoi An, you’ll find Chu’ong, a bubbly 18-year-old teaching Western tourists how to make rice noodles and laughing along as they try to count to 5 in Vietnamese.
You’d never guess that she spent most of her childhood as an orphan, begging on the steps of a pagoda.
Chu’ong’s difficult background is not dissimilar to her fellow employees at STREETS Restaurant and Café. Every chef, server and tour guide working at the restaurant is part of STREETS International, a not-for-profit organisation transforming the lives of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam by giving them the education and life skills to get off the streets and into the workforce.
“The power of having a safe, clean place to sleep, three good, nutritious meals per day, and a professional, caring, supportive community, often for the first time in one’s life, cannot be overstated,” said Neal Bermas, the former businessman who founded STREETS International after a 1999 trip to Ho Chi Minh City confronted him with the reality of poverty and homelessness plaguing Vietnamese kids. Bermas and his team at STREETS developed an 18-month hospitality and culinary training program for at-risk youth aged 17-22, who are chosen to participate at no cost to them or their families. On top of a fantastic education, trainees are provided with housing, food, basic medical care and a monthly allowance.
The lifeblood of the program is the STREETS Restaurant and Café located in picturesque and touristy Hoi An, where trainees have the opportunity to put their newfound skills to the test and practice their English with tourists. “The ability to practice all their hospitality, culinary, English language and overall professionalism from working with and for the many travellers that visit STREETS cannot be underestimated as they prepare for their new careers and lives working for international 5-star hotels and resorts,” said Bermas. Over 250 people have participated in the program, with 100% of graduates going on to find employment in some of Vietnam’s best hotels and resorts.
Aside from being a restaurant, STREETS runs tours and cooking classes so that every trainee has the opportunity to interact with visitors. One of
these classes is “Oodles of Noodles”, which is run in partnership with the Planeterra Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation operating with G Adventures to establish tourism projects that help local communities. “Their tour leaders and their corporate organisation all the way up to [G Adventures and Planeterra founder] Bruce Poon Tip were not just talking about sustainable and good practice, community-based tourism but they were actively doing it and especially looking for programs like STREETS to partner with,” said Bermas.
In July, I had the opportunity to attend an Oodles of Noodles demonstration while touring Vietnam with G Adventures. It was here that I met Chu’ong. She led our group through a fun-filled session where we learned about different types of rice noodles and even got the chance to make our own, all before devouring a delicious local dish called My Quang that was prepared by the talented chefs-in-training. Chu’ong and her fellow trainees enthusiastically taught us about the STREETS program and cheered us on as we fumbled through noodle-making and Vietnamese pronunciation.
When I chatted with her after the program, it was hard to believe how someone so full of life was homeless so recently. “She started the program five or six months ago, that is why she doesn’t have much English,” explained one of her fellow trainees, who was helping translate my questions and her responses. “Before coming here, she didn’t know English, but now she can tell [sic] about herself and her desires in life.”
According to Bermas, Chu’ong’s heartbreaking beginnings were not uncommon. “We have many trainees that have been abandoned at birth or shortly thereafter and left at the step of pagoda orphanages.”
But the freedom and empowerment Chu’ong has received through education and support has already made a huge impact. “I love working in the restaurant,” she said. “It’s my second time doing the Oodles of Noodles demonstration.” She laughed as my jaw dropped; the way she seamlessly and patiently worked with my group of sweaty Westerners was something you’d expect from a seasoned tour guide, not a rookie.
Chu’ong’s gleeful disposition is shared by everyone working in the restaurant and quickly rubs off on the guests. “Perhaps most importantly is the confidence that comes from nearly 18 months of this type of daily and very positive interaction [with tourists]”, said Bermas.
Having established such a successful system in Vietnam, Bermas is keen to expand the STREETS program. “STREETS has been called a ‘Center of Excellence’ and I believe it is,” he said. “We are focused and ambitious. We have begun to make outreach to Cambodia and our last two classes have some Trainees from there. We are often called upon to help other programs and we seem to always have some discussions going on about where we might go next. Stay tuned!”
As an affluent-traveller-turned-humanitarian, Bermas encourages young people to travel far and wide, but to always maintain a level of respect and social consciousness. “Be especially careful about making a difference,” he said. “Is it a difference for oneself or genuinely to be helpful?”
Recently, there has been considerable criticism surrounding “voluntourism”, where young, middle-to-upper-class Westerners visit developing countries with the intention of helping out, but often end up doing more harm than good with their limited training and tact. The programs organised by the Planeterra Foundation that are included in the majority of G Adventures tours are a great way to get around this, as they allow tourists to help out local communities under the guidance of trained tour operators and volunteers.
For those who do want to get more involved, Bermas suggests doing your research and opting for a more long-term program. “I think the so-called gap year-long programs may be the best way to find suitable volunteer placement where significant contributions can be made.”