Steve Jackson Learns to Know One and Teach One in Hanoi
Excerpted from To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
I have two families—one with five members in northeast England and another with 300 and growing in Vietnam.
In Hanoi, I was accepted into, and proud to be part of, the KOTO family.
KOTO is a restaurant run by street kids and disadvantaged youth. If you’re a tourist, it’s an incredible location to eat at and a great way to give back. If you’re a volunteer worker, like I was, it’s a place that changes your life as profoundly and absolutely as those of the street kids it teaches.
There are moments experienced there that will stay with me forever. I remember on Christmas Day, when I was feeling a little homesick, I found myself alone with a trainee for a moment. In his previous life he had shined shoes on the street. He smiled, looked me in the eye, and said, “I am very happy.”
It nearly broke my heart.
Later, as part of KOTO’s outreach program, we visited a residential community of people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. It is the cruelest affliction. No two symptoms are the same. I have seen sufferers with only one eye, no legs, stumps for bodies, or half their torsos missing. There I approached a KOTO kid, who I saw taking a quiet moment to compose himself after being hit by the sadness he saw around him. He told me through tears, “I am so lucky. I look at myself. Two arms, two legs—I can work.”
And I thought the same as any Westerner would think in that position. White, healthy, and middle- class—what does that make me? Born lucky.
Here I was, with a kid who had spent his whole life struggling. His family had tried to grow enough rice to feed itself, and when that proved impossible, he left the countryside for the Hanoi streets with the aim of sending money home.
How can hearing that he feels lucky, in those surroundings, not change your life?
There was no spin to KOTO. What you saw was what you got. Its rationale was magical. If you had promise and if you worked hard, you could make it. You could go from working the streets to working in the Sheraton in eighteen months. It is an incredible transformation that 90 percent of each class made and nearly 300 in all have made to date.
It wasn’t all hard work though. One week a year we closed up and went on holiday. As a volunteer from a marketing background, suddenly finding myself as travel agent was daunting. With virtually no funding, I had to take staff and kids—close to 100 in all—on a trip.
It was the excursion to Sapa that really stays with me. We had planned a trek for the trainees. Only twelve kilometers, I recall, but we arrived the day before the trek to an absolute downpour, and it had obviously been soaking the place for weeks. Everywhere was muddy. I called the staff together. We were going on the walk no matter what, but I was aware we might have a revolt on our hands. My plan was to out-smile the kids. Not allowing gloom to settle for a second, we’d beam our way round and just hope it was contagious.
So in the morning, we went out and bought 100 pairs of brightly colored rubber boots. For the next few hours we dragged an elongated tail of kids around the mountains and valleys. I recall tap dancing the route at one point. We sang. We chivvied. We made light of wet clothes and boot-induced blisters. And we arrived at our bed for the night in a small ethnic village.
An hour later, the sun was out and the rain had stopped. The kids changed into dry clothes and there was this growing sense of achievement along with genuine, solid contentment and happiness. I could feel us all getting closer as a group. I ducked into the ramshackle kitchen, and there were thirty trainees crammed in there, laughing away, already starting on dinner for us all. Everyone was cutting, peeling, and washing veg, or slicing meat for stir frying.
I was so proud. I was overwhelmed. I smoked a cigarette at the outskirts of the village. Facing away, I cried. Not for the first time, I didn’t know why. I can only explain it as being so humbled by these amazing people and by what we could do to help them and the experiences we could give.
They sang into the night. They danced, played games, and put on shows. Too tired, I barely said a word, but my jaws ached from grinning.
I remain so proud of being part of that family. We looked after each other. And I wasn’t the only one moved to tears. A Danish documentary filmmaker missed more moments than she caught because she kept having to leave the room. A big, tough, New York Chef confided in me of the same problem. Was this normal, he asked. I assured him it was.
Eventually, though, like the trainees themselves, my time with KOTO was up. Just as they had to graduate, I knew it was time for me to move on. I dreaded my leaving party. I knew once more that I would be in pieces. I had seen others say goodbye before, and few could manage it without breaking down.
My lasting memory of that final evening is of me, with my arms around a dozen kids and my t-shirt soaked in their tears and mine. KOTO changed my life, just as it has changed the lives of 300 kids.
These days, KOTO has a new restaurant that seats 150 and is regularly full. KOTO provides homes, training, healthcare, an allowance, love, and support for up to eighty trainees at a time. It also provides international standard certificates in kitchen or front-of-house skills. Please, go and eat at KOTO. Tell everyone Steve says hello and that I miss them all so much.
There are future plans to help more young people with more KOTOs across Vietnam and internationally. The Hanoi restaurant serves up the most fantastic Western and Asian food, as well as great lattes, cakes, juices, and shakes. It is adjacent to the Temple of Literature.
59 Van Mieu St.
Dong Da District
To find out more about To Vietnam With Love, go to ThingsAsian Press.
To read more essays from To Vietnam With Love, click here.
Published on 4/14/08