In Vietnam, Lotus Charity Foundation serves up low cost meals with a side of self-esteem


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In Vietnam, Lotus Charity Foundation serves up low cost meals with a side of self-esteem

Vietnam’s economic powerhouse of Ho Chi Minh City has seen explosive growth in the last few decades. Not everyone gets a share of the wealth, however. In this article, writer Linh Pham talks to a manager, volunteer, and customer from a charitable chain of Vietnamese restaurants that help to provide those in need with cost-saving nutritious meals.

It’s Monday morning and people are buzzing around Smile restaurant number 9, probably one of the least profitable eateries in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Serving food from 10:00 am until the food runs out, there is only one item on the menu: stir-fried pork noodles with spring rolls. The price for each portion? 1,000VND, or about 0.04EUR.

Thirty years ago, 1,000VND could buy you a bag of chips. Now, that bag of chips costs 20 times as much, and if somebody sees a 1,000VND bill on the ground, chances are they won’t even bother picking it up. Ever since the socialist country embraced the market economy in 1986, Vietnam has enjoyed steady growth thanks to trade agreements, tourism, and foreign direct investment. HCMC has become an economic powerhouse and, incidentally, the most expensive city in the country. To buy a whole meal for 1,000VND is unthinkable. And yet that is the reality at Smile restaurants every day.

“The first Smile restaurant opened in 2011,” says Lan*, the manager of two branches out of 14 branches of the food chain, five of which are located in HCMC. The rest are spread across other cities in Vietnam, where they are known by the alternative name ‘Peace and Happiness Shop’. “I helped set up number 4 in 2013, so about 10 years ago. This one, number 9, has been running for two years.” Owned and funded by the Lotus Charity Foundation, the aim behind these restaurants is to help provide those in need with cost-saving nutritious meals, as well as a comfortable place to eat. “Our customers are mainly people who make a living on the streets: peddlers, lottery ticket sellers, motorbike taxi drivers… and poor families around here,” adds Lan.

To best serve the people, Lan’s number one priority in the restaurants is cleanliness. “We source all of our ingredients from supermarkets and shops with food hygiene and safety certificates,” she says. “Even with all the donated items, we must check the expiration dates and make sure they are still fit for consumption. Just because we are a charity doesn’t mean anything goes.” The location matters, too: restaurants are set up near densely populated areas, main roads that peddlers pass by, or markets that traders and laborers frequent. “Number nine is near a couple of hospitals, so that healthcare workers can come here to eat,” Lan adds.

When asked why the restaurant sells the food instead of giving it out for free, Lan says it’s all about self-esteem. “If the food is free, then people might feel like they are begging. Even when the cost is only 1,000VND or 2,000VND, people still feel like they’re buying it with their own money. We don’t only sell them food, but self-respect.”

“Even when the cost is only 1,000VND or 2,000VND, people still feel like they’re buying it with their own money. We don’t only sell them food, but self-respect.”

Each restaurant has a few core staff—a manager, accountant, and a couple of cooks—who are responsible for its day to day running. There are also volunteers who come on their own time to help with all sorts of work, from chopping vegetables and setting up tables and chairs to selling food. Phan Thị Nhân, who has been helping at the restaurant for five years, is one such volunteer. For her, working at the Smile restaurant is a source of joy. “When I was younger, I focused on making a living and taking care of my family,” says Nhân. “Now I’m retired, and my kids are all grown up. I have lots of free time, so why not help people?” Nhân used to be a hairdresser, so at the beginning of her retirement, she gave out free haircuts to people in poverty. “I realized people only need a haircut once a month, whereas they need to eat every day. I come here to help. I don’t have much to give, only my labor. It’s for a good cause so I feel happy.”

Nhân says what distinguishes the Smile restaurants is the people behind them. “Everyone here, the manager, the servers, the staff, they are all so kind-hearted,” she says. “They always think about the less fortunate. And there are a lot of the less fortunate here. HCMC may be filled with lots of tall, flashy, modern buildings, but it’s a facade. Beneath all of that, there’s so much hardship.”

Wealth is seldom shared equally. Kim Chi*, who has been eating at Smile for the last two years, is among those who were left behind in the affluent city. “I was a janitor for a company,” Chi shares, “but then the pandemic hit. The company closed down and I lost my job.” Now over sixty, she struggles to get work due to her age. “I get some odd jobs here and there, but not enough to make a living.”

“Lá lành đùm lá rách: the healthy leaves protect the tattered ones.”

Chi was born and bred in HCMC. Her childhood house—which was sold a long time ago—was located in the middle of the bustling central district. “Nowadays you have to be very wealthy to be able to live in HCMC. Everything is so expensive. You can’t live here if you are poor.” It is only thanks to places like the Smile restaurants that people like Chi can get by. “The first time I came here I was so ashamed. Now I’ve gotten used to it.” She also resonates with the restaurant’s policy of selling, not giving out food. “That’s right! Even if it’s only 1,000VND, it’s still my money that I bring here to buy food.”

The work of Lan, Nhân, and everybody at the Lotus Foundation is an embodiment of a well known Vietnamese idiom: “lá lành đùm lá rách”, or “the healthy leaves protect the tattered ones” in English. Looking to the future, the foundation hopes to receive more support and donations so it can bring more cheap meals to people. The same goes for Nhân. “I only hope for my continued good health so that I can keep coming here and serving others,” she says.

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in HCMC, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.

*The person prefers not to give their full name

Text: Linh Pham
Photography: Megan Courtis and Felix Glasmeyer


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