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Vietnam Cafe Is Meal Ticket for Street Kids

Australian staffs his Hanoi restaurant with 18 boys, who learn vocational and social skills.

October 13, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOI — Jimmy Pham never set out to be the Pied Piper of Vietnam. He just figured, back in '97, that he'd help a few street kids with some new clothes and food. That would be that, and he'd head home to Australia.

But after a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, when word spread among the street kids that a stranger with a generous heart was in town, a pack of 20 scruffy children was soon at Pham's heels. Within a week, their number had grown to 60. Pham shelled out for noodle soup, new clothes and showers for everyone.

"The children flocked to me," recalls the Vietnamese-born Pham, 28, who left his homeland in 1974 during the war and is now an Australian citizen. "You would have, too, if you'd been hungry. Who could blame them?"

To understand why Pham got hooked on good Samaritan deeds--he recently opened a popular restaurant in Hanoi that employs only former street kids--you have to understand something about the estimated 20,000 children who wander the streets of Vietnam's cities, selling postcards, shining shoes and hassling tourists with Oscar-winning performances about needing money for sick parents, school fees and English lessons.

Most of these kids aren't abandoned, as tourists think. They've left their villages voluntarily to support their families, and they send most of what they earn back home. They live 10 or 12 to a room, spend maybe 30 cents a day for food and take a bath once a week or so near open sewage drains. They also share something else: To a boy, they're about as cute as a kid can be, with wide, dazzling smiles, sad eyes and just enough English to be endearing to foreigners.

So that gets us back to Jimmy Pham and his Koto restaurant at 61 Van Mieu St., a spiffy, bright cafe catering to expatriates and tourists (green papaw salad with prawns, $2; espresso, $1). Pham used his savings and loans from his five brothers and sisters to gut a decrepit two-story structure and build Koto--an acronym for Know One Teach One--and to cover salaries (about $32 a month each) for the 18 kids he recruited from the streets to be his cooks and waiters.

"I couldn't say to the kids, 'I have to wait for funding from some foundation,' " Pham said. "These are kids who on the street learn to trust no one. This is a confidence-building project as much as anything. It's a chance to get them to believe they can make something of themselves, that it's OK to have big dreams in a country of limited opportunity."

Koto opened in mid-September, with the Australian ambassador one of the first customers, and so far it's a big hit. Foreign patrons are plentiful, and the teenage staff--which until recently hadn't heard of mayonnaise, didn't know it was impolite to sneeze in a plate of food on the serving tray and had never seen a dishwasher--is a model of impeccable deportment and gracious presentation.

When a pint-sized waiter in dark slacks and a white shirt with an embroidered collar smiles and says, often in broken English, "Have a nice day," it's pretty clear he really means it.

Pham works his charges hard. If one is unkempt, he'll take a mirror from his pocket and say: "Take a look. Is that really how you want to look?" He teaches them teamwork, discipline and the importance of people skills, as well as how to bake a cake, flip a pancake, carve a chicken and serve a meal. He finds housing with local families so they'll learn to interact with the community. So far, none has let him down.

"I make quite good business with postcards before, but job not stable," said waiter An Van Hai, 16. "Mr. Jimmy explain me work at Koto give future. Maybe some day I be businessman. Maybe even a trainer at Koto for other boys like me."

Pham plans to stay in Vietnam for two more years before returning to Australia. He plans to expand Koto to Ho Chi Minh City and Hue, among other popular tourist destinations.

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