Spending Christmas or New Year’s in Vietnam is rather surreal. If you’re in Saigon, it’s hot but there are holiday decorations and Christmas music. I particularly love the fanfare on December 31 because Saigon locals come out for fun; Tet (Lunar New Year) is typically a quiet time for family. Vietnamese people love public celebrations like the one on New Year’s Eve, and the park in front of the Reunification Palace is a giant party and public performance area. Young families ride up on their motorbikes, 3 to 4 people on each, and they hang out, snacking and visiting with friends. It’s loud, colorful, and fun. Multiple stages are set up and you can choose from classical music performance, torch singers, and dance performances by cute young girls dressed up in frilly outfits with stage moms in tow. That night, the scene in the park reminds me of the crazy Asian variety shows that my parents watch on Vietnamese-American television channels.
Indeed, much has changed for the better in Vietnam in the past decade and people, especially young people, are full of optimism. But there is still much to be done to provide greater opportunity to more people. Lots of people visit Vietnam during this season and part of the experience is to understand the needs and potential of the country. We can help out with tourist dollars but you don't have to visit to contribute to change.
Here are three non-profits that are doing interesting work to help improve the lives of Vietnamese people, particularly in the kitchen:
KOTO – It’s based in Australia and founded by Jimmy Phan, a Vietnamese-Korean-Australian. (Remember the Vietnamese Korean connections post on pork belly earlier this year?) KOTO trains and assists at-risk youth in Vietnam for professional careers in cooking and hospitality. There are KOTO restaurants in Saigon and Hanoi. They also offer cooking classes to the public. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled the work that KOTO does in a story called "Recipes for Getting Kids off the Street."
Little Lantern Foundation – What is it with these Aussies? Luke Nguyen recently launched this foundation to raise funds specifically for disadvantaged kids in Hoi An and Danang in Vietnam. Luke’s foundation employs funds for training kids for the hospitality and tourism industry in Vietnam. He hopes to build a school and small hotel to train at-risk youth, offering them English language training and international curriculum and skills training. That's to say, Luke is going to help Vietnam's youth leap frog into the hospitality industry with a world-class education. I hung out with Luke in Sydney last November and we toured Cabramatta, the Little Saigon of Australia. During our daylong outing, he told me about the Little Lantern Foundation and he said that he was so moved by the young people in Vietnam — how motivated they were but how few resources they had — that he and his partner decided to found the non-profit organization. "I wondered, what if that were me?" Luke told me.
East Meets West Foundation – Was started by author LeLy Hayslip in the late 1980s and is based in Oakland, California. (Remember Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth movie? That was based on Hayslip’s book.) She’s no longer with the foundation but it continues to do amazing work. One of the EMWF’s initiatives that I’m fond of the is the clean water and sanitation program. Think of what your life would be like without potable water. It would be unconvenient, unhealthy, and not so tasty.
Consider the work of these foundations and others and give a little, if you can. You don’t have to do during the holidays, either. Or, if you’re in Vietnam, organizations such as KOTO-run businesses. Stop by, enjoy and make donation in the form of your patronage.