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Volunteer in Vietnam to Help Street Kids in Hanoi

If you’re like most travelers to Hanoi your first contact with locals will probably be one of the many children selling postcards on the streets of the Old Quarter. They’re swift-footed and charming—and know just enough in each language to make almost every visitor feel welcome. But there’s a dark side to their world.

“I used to give to children on the street—the most needy ones, the ones with babies on their backs,” says Bridget, a New Zealander who has worked with Intrepid Tours in Vietnam for the past 16 months. “But then I found out the truth. Many of those “baby brothers or sisters” are rented in order to generate extra sympathy. Then they are drugged to keep them quiet.”

Bridget has found another option: a stop at KOTO restaurant.

KOTO is also a school that provides hospitality training for children working on the streets of Vietnam. Founded in 1996 by Jimmy Pham, an Australian of Vietnamese origin, it is a registered Australian charity that aims to help children by providing them with skills and a job placement to leave street life behind. Through a training program involving theoretical and practical skills development as well as essential life skills, each of the 40 KOTO trainees has an opportunity to develop in a culture of trust and teamwork and is supplied with a training allowance, meals, medical insurance, and language lessons.

While in Hanoi last spring I visited the 80-seat restaurant, located across from the Temple of Literature in the Old Quarter, which serves a breakfast buffet as well as lunch and dinner.

“Many of us face a dilemma when we travel to a developing country,” said Pham, who continues to be actively involved in KOTO’s growth. “Faced with such poverty, we feel compelled to do something. But you need to understand that many kids make so much money from begging, that they can’t afford to go to school. And as their ‘cuteness’ factor fades they must resort to more lucrative and dangerous activities.”

“As I got older my street bosses gave me worse and worse areas,” confirmed Nguyen, a KOTO trainee who was born in a village in northern Vietnam and lived on the streets of Hanoi for several years. Now ready to graduate from the program, he has been promised a job at a major hotel. Full of confidence and hope for the future, he joked, “Maybe you hire me in Canada some day.”

Demand by street kids like Nguyen is far outstripping the school’s current capacity. Fortunately, travelers can help in many ways:

“Spread the word and encourage dining at KOTO,” says Pham. “Second, if you have skills in training, management, or the hospitality industry, talk to us about volunteering your time to work at KOTO. Or take a look at our wish list of items needed for donation.”

There are over 100 million children living and working on the streets around the world, and not all of them can be placed with extended family or the community, and in many cases are even rejected or treated as pariahs. By supporting alternatives like KOTO, we can do a little to give them options.

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