Tucked into a tiny side street in the Truc Bach neighbourhood of Hanoi is a stately house that has been transformed into elegant restaurant. White linen covers the tables and menu choices are a fusion of French and Asian. Is this a high-end celebrity chef’s signature locale? Not exactly. It is Song Thu Restaurant, a learning restaurant run by Hoa Sua where disadvantaged youth whip up delicious meals and serve them to customers, often tour groups visiting Vietnam.
Created in 1994, Hoa Sua is a vocational training school for kids who otherwise would slip through the cracks—war orphans, street children, hearing impaired and physically disabled—giving them professional training in European and Asian cooking, catering and hotel services, sewing, embroidery, baking and languages. When it started, the school was graduating around 20 students a year. Today around 700 students graduate yearly and to date more than 6,000 graduates have found work in the tourism and hospitality sector.
The brainchild of Mrs. Pham Thi Vy, Hoa Sua has received support over the years from many local and international partners including World University Services of Canada (WUSC), Samaritan’s Purse, Kraft, Gapyear, Oxfam Quebec, Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO), Plan International and UNICEF.
The school provides students with on-the-job training and practical experience at Song Thu, as well as a bakery café located at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, a mini hotel/restaurant called Baguettes and Chocolate in Sapa, and a small baked goods outlet at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi. These enterprises help fund the school’s operations.
“Most of the students are in their 20s and are from ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of Vietnam. They have limited education and language skills. Most speak just a little Vietnamese and no English, but they have a passion for the work,” explains John Matthewman, a Canadian volunteer with the WUSC/Center for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI) Uniterra program (one of Canada’s top international development volunteer programs), who is working with Hoa Sua to develop a soft skills curriculum to be delivered to students by teaching staff. Soft skills are those little touches that are so important in the hospitality industry—smiling, communicating with customers, listening to their requests and complaints, and solving their problems.
Most students stay in dorms and at the end of their training do internships with partner hotels and restaurants. This is where communication and teamwork involving soft skills is most important. “I’m here because these areas need improvement,” notes John, who says there is an fairly equal ratio of male to female students at the school.
To get a job in Vietnam, high grades are important. “The passionate Hoa Sua students are employable with the training they receive,” says Matthewman, adding, “Soft skills are an extra consideration, but if they have them, they will have an edge and be eligible for better employment.”