Mankind has known of the connecting nature of food for millennia. For thousands of years we have held lavish banquets in honour of our victories, and feasts marking the most important dates on our calendars. Food connects us to one another, and in doing so it connects us to moments of love, passion and joy. It could even be said that food is love made manifest.

Social enterprises and charities have used this positive power of food to bring hope and purpose to the lives of the impoverished and marginalised in Vietnam. The success of KOTO — ‘Know One, Teach One’ — set up in Hanoi 10 years ago to train disadvantaged youth in cooking and hospitality skills, may have influenced and paved the way for smaller and lesser-known organisations to adopt a similar model.
We have looked up and down the country and have found a growing number of small organisations that have food and love at the centre of their operations. Here are some of the most inspiring.



Ho Chi Minh City


Green Bamboo Warm Shelter Restaurant (GBWS)

40/34 Calmette, Q1

(photo above)


The GBWS is a project of the Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation. The project provides care, education, housing and other daily assistance to street boys aged eight to 16. The restaurant was established in April, 2013 by some of the older boys living in the shelter, who wanted to raise funds and mentor the younger boys.


Each month the menu changes, but the food is generally in the style of com tam, with chicken, pork, fish and beef. There are also noodle dishes and vegetarian options. One dish is VND25,000, or the buffet costs between VND50,000 and VND150,000 per person.


After making your selection at the buffet cart, sit down at one of the metal tables to be waited on by the enthusiastic and caring young staff. When you’ve finished eating the generous portion set before you, have a chat with one of the boys about their experiences at the shelter and in the process, give them the opportunity to practise their English with you.


All profits go to supporting the boys who live in the shelter.

Open Monday to Saturday, from 11.30am till 1.30pm



Smile (Nu Cuoi)

6 Cong Quynh, Q1; 6/22 Nguyen Ngoc Nhut, Tan Phu;

298A Huynh Tan Phat, Q7; 132 Ben Van Don, Q4;

43B Trung Trac, Thu Duc. A Hanoi eatery is in the works.


There are six Smile — Nu Cuoi — restaurants, five in Ho Chi Minh City and soon one in Hanoi, and all of them serve meals for VND2,000 each to low-income families, the elderly, disabled and students in financial difficulties.


Smile was set up by the charity Love Foundation — Tu Thien Tinh Thuong — as a way to promote kindness and sustain the poor and needy. Nevertheless, all are welcome; Smile doesn’t discriminate.




The simple dishes consist of rice and meat, soup, stir-fry and a dessert. Locals rave about the great taste and the welcoming and comfortable atmosphere. 


The public can contribute financially to the running of Smile in many ways. For example, there are opportunities to purchase paintings from local artists with all funds going directly to the restaurants. Smile restaurants are all operated by volunteers.


Some Smile restaurants’ services shift on a location-rotating basis, however, all restaurants open from 11.15am till 12.45pm. For up-to-date info, check Tu Thien Tinh Thuong on Facebook




176 Bui Vien, Q1


SOZO started life as a cart from which a local woman was given the opportunity to sell cookies to the growing number of tourists coming to visit Ho Chi Minh City. Many poor families saw the economic benefits of this scheme and wanted an opportunity to find employment, which led to SOZO opening their three-storey cafe in the centre of Bui Vien.



Still serving their mainstay of freshly baked American-style cookies, SOZO’s menu has grown and now offers full breakfasts, western and Asian meals, smooth cappuccinos and some of the best desserts in Ho Chi Minh City — regulars can’t get enough of their cheesecake and cinnamon rolls. 


Every customer is helping physically challenged and disadvantaged Vietnamese to break the cycle of debt, work their way out of poverty and provide a hopeful future. All profits go back into SOZO and those they help.


Open seven days a week, from 7am till 10.30pm





Project for the Deaf


Bread of Life

4 Dong Da, Hai Chau


As well as serving great food, Bread of Life have been equipping 16 to 26-year-olds within the deaf community with vocational training since 2005. Depending on the needs of the individual and the business, trainees can then be offered employment in the Bread of Life restaurant. To date, there are 15 to 16 deaf staff; all baristas, bakers and cooks are deaf, with the longest-serving staff running their own departments.


A popular restaurant for Danang’s expat community, Bread of Life serves all homemade western food with a varied and flexible menu while every dish uses only fresh ingredients. The bountiful selection of breakfasts comes from around the western world; Australian, American, basic English and hearty English are all firm favourites.


Whether you fill your boots with a sloppy joe or slurp up your spaghetti bolognese ask to learn a few basic signs in order to communicate with servers and baristas. And being a few minutes drive from Danang Station, Bread of Life is a perfect place to stop at before or after a long train journey.


All tips are equally distributed among staff, from the cleaner to the supervisor, and all profits are reinvested back into the business.


Open Monday to Saturday, from 8.30am till 9.30pm





Hope Club


Hope Club

Hanoi University, 334 Nguyen Trai, Thanh Xuan


Their tagline is ‘Taking Care — Giving Love — Sharing Happiness’, and the organisers of Hope Club hope to bring sincere love and friendship to those who are disadvantaged. One of Hope Club’s most successful initiatives sees them serving vegetarian food to poor students at Hanoi University.


Each portion contains rice, stir-fried vegetables, spring rolls, fried mock pork ribs or eggs, and soup. Their expenses per serving range from VND25,000 to VND30,000 — however, each student receiving a meal only has to pay VND5,000. Students are also provided information about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.


Hope Club - Com Chay 5k


The club is open to the general public. People can also contribute by purchasing products made by club members.


In the next phase, the project will expand to more universities in Hanoi, and there are also plans to open a vegetarian restaurant next June.


Hope Club’s food stands can be found at the university every Friday morning from 10.30am






In 2005, SympaMeals began providing patients at the National Cancer Institute of Vietnam (K Hospital) with one free meal a day by distributing coupons worth VND15,000. The coupons could be exchanged for food such as rice, porridge, noodles, soup or milk at anytime in the hospital’s canteen.


SympaMeals have now expanded to include many other activities, such as providing milk powder to outpatients.


SympaMeals - Delivering Milk powder


In 2012 alone, 67,000 free meal coupons and 2,000 tins of milk powder were given to the poverty-stricken patients of K Hospital.


Volunteers assist staff in distributing meal coupons and milk powder, however it is difficult to obtain permission for foreigners to work in the hospital as volunteers. The public can help by spreading the word and making donations that go towards paying for coupons.

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