Lanterns and an ancient past make up the face of the Vietnamese tourist town Hoi Ann. But, hidden amongst the bike filled streets, is a restaurant with a conscience. Named ‘Streets’, this eatery is run by a team of trainees, all of whom are children who come from a background of poverty. The aim of this 2007 mission is to create a place for young people to learn the skills required for a successful career in the hospitality industry. As one of South East Asia’s most prosperous industries, Streets is addressing a long term issue and meeting it with a sustainable solution.
Tucked into Hoi Ann’s backstreets, a yellowing Vietnamese house acts as Streets base, where children are taught through classroom instruction and hands on work experience. They are also provided with housing, food, basic financial support and medical care. This experience helps deliver the necessary training to prepare young people for careers in luxury services.
In partnership with G Adventures, Oodles of Noodles is a project that runs from within Streets, allowing tourists to participate in this culinary experience. The morning project is led by the trainees, allowing them to exercise their English speaking skills and for outsiders to meet the people who benefit from the charity’s work. And at the heart of their good work, Streets dishes up some incredible food - the best on our trip in fact.
The morning begins with a demonstration on how to steam glass noodles, “Bún", led by a chipper, young trainee. The display is framed using Vietnamese terms for the varying types of rice noodles such as, “bánh canh”, “bánh phở”. Once again, we Brits are rightfully embarrassed by our poor language skills. Awkward giggles are shared as we struggle along with the pronunciation, and are given the opportunity to take noodle making into our own hands. The rice mixture is poured onto a taught muslin cloth and spread into a circle, where it transforms into a rubbery texture, a little thinner than a pancake. This is transferred onto a banana leaf, our eco-friendly plates for today, before it is placed on top of a crisper, thinner cracker (locally known as Banh Trang). It is then chopped in half using a karate-like method of attack. Served with a selection of hot dipping sauces, Banh Dap is simply a starter for today’s meal. After the bizarre preparation techniques of our first course, we are served a hot bowl of Mì Quảng from the trainees in the kitchen. The Vegetarian option contains a delectable pile of rice noodles, turmeric, tofu and the all important lime, ever present in Asian dishes.
As we wave goodbye to Hoi Ann’s quaint streets, we are left with a sense of balance, that perhaps tourism could offer a slow solution to tackling poverty in South East Asia. But whilst the World Bank reports that the poverty headcount in Vietnam has fallen from nearly 60% to 20.7% in the past 20 years, critics argue that this decrease is in conjunction with an increase in tourism, and these visitors do not always have a positive impact on communities.
Tourism within the region is arguably problematic, as whilst it boosts trade, foreigners often visit for sex tourism. Not only does this leave women in the industry vulnerable, but promotes wider trafficking. This is an industry that has become institutionalised at the hands of Western visitors. This demonstrates that there is a need for initiatives such as Streets more than ever, and amongst all the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s pertinent concerns, there was never a dish that tasted quite as flavoursome, energetic and full of social good.