Hoa Sua - food for thought

by Samantha Coomber, Nov 17, 2006 | Destinations: Vietnam
Hoa Sua restaurant. Outside on the patio.

Hoa Sua restaurant. Outside on the patio.

Hoa Sua restaurant. Outside on the patio.

The familiar smell wafts across and hits me straight away: freshly baked pastries and bread. I walk inside Hoa Sua Restaurant and am greeted first by a patisserie packed with European delights. Stepping out from the streets of Hanoi, I have just gone to heaven. “Paradise” is not surprisingly frequented constantly by a steady flow of ex-pats, who swarm to buy the tempting croissants, bread and cakes that perhaps remind them of home. After deliberating a few minutes, I opt to buy a few delicacies, yet I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty. Next I am led through by charming staff into a delightful courtyard patio – the main part of the restaurant. Here I discover I can dine out amongst parasol-shaded tables, and leafy trees and potted plants, day and night. If I happen to be here on either Saturday night or Sunday morning, I can even be serenaded by a classical musical quartet whilst I eat. If it’s raining – or too hot in the summer – there is the always the interior, which is in tasteful colonial style of rattan furniture and polished wooden floors. Tiny pink rosebuds burst out from delicate blue and white china and the young staff always on hand are anxiously friendly and attentive.

And I haven’t even told you about the cuisine yet. With a predominately French leaning, there is a mouth-watering selection of dishes enjoyed by ex-pats and tourists alike. This is a great place for breakfast, but this establishment comes into its’ own with lunch and evening dining. Choices range from goat cheese puff pastries with walnut, or traditional Hue-style nem, or perhaps the sumptuous plat du jour range. I opt for a delicious vegetable terrine with fresh tomatoes and basil and demolish the absurdly rich chocolate mousse – part of a sinful dessert selection. Again, I do not have any conscience; surprisingly I feel positively good. For this is not just an enchanting restaurant. I have stumbled into a present-day Vietnamese fairy-tale.

Hoa Sua Restaurant is in fact part of a vocational training school and a non-profit, charity based organization established in Hanoi back in 1995 by retired teachers and a French N.G.O volunteer. Hoa Sua’s main purpose is to provide disadvantaged Hanoi youth – such as street and impoverished children, orphans, and those with some disabilities – with free vocational training opportunities. This is mostly specializing in the hospitality business – for instance patisserie, waiting service, and European and Asian catering– but also covering housekeeping and tailoring.

Being a private enterprise, Hoa Sua has to rely not only on donations from various organizations but also on income-generating businesses. Hence as well as the bakery and restaurant, there are also an embroidery and sewing shop managed by speech and hearing impaired students and a professional catering service. All the profits from these enterprises are ploughed back into covering the obvious administration, education and training costs. These four businesses provide an excellent opportunity for trained students to gain valuable practical experience in their areas of specialization. The average length of the training programs for the youths –mostly aged between eighteen and twenty-five years – is about six to twelve months and includes primary education. Most of the initial training occurs first at a residential vocational school, about twelve kilometers out of the city. Many of the students then move on to Hoa Sua Restaurant for on-going practical training, such as cooking and waiting at tables. So as you choose from the menu, you are actually helping students master a life-long career. 

You can’t really miss the residential school; lying west of the city in a somewhat spacious residential suburb, the massive pastel yellow construction stands out like a sore thumb. I am shown around by a kindly Ms Hien, who takes me through practical kitchens where students are training in European and Asian cuisine. I also stumble across the very place where those delicious pastries, purchased earlier, are created. Then there is a training restaurant where food is prepared and served as a dummy-run before students go to Hoa Sua Restaurant for the real thing and dauntingly, real customers: even worse, discerning Western customers. On upper levels are rooms where tailoring and embroidery skills are taught for the many outlets in Hanoi, including their own tailor’s shop.

Whilst here, I espy some obviously non-Vietnamese students. One, nowhere near resembling a local, comes over to talk. The giveaway of course is the massive height, blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Yes, he’s from Belgium and like some others I notice, he is on an exchange here. Conversely, some of the Vietnamese youth find themselves on exchanges to Flemish lands as part of their program, something perhaps previously only part of their wildest dreams.  A few of the teachers here are European and on short exchanges to offer their services to the school. Perhaps what is almost humbling is the sight of former students who are now established teachers and are set up with a skill for life.

Hoa Sua is one of the most successful vocational schools in Vietnam; ninety percent of its graduates are placed in full-time work after their training. Over the last six years more than eight hundred students have graduated from the school and been placed in full-time positions in businesses throughout Hanoi. As well as ending up as teachers for the school itself, some are plucked for the top restaurants and hotels in Vietnam and there are many wonderful success stories from what would have amounted to a hopeless situation. As a spin-off from this, some students placed together even end up falling in love and getting married. Consequently, as well as learning a trade, there could also be a husband thrown in for good measure.

So when you come to Hanoi, make sure that you support Hoa Sua and maybe pop into the embroidery shop and take home a locally-made garment. Or perhaps enjoy the guilt-free delights of the bakery and restaurant. And as you may be served by a young Vietnamese in perhaps the up market Hilton Hotel or Victoria Resorts, just remember that there might be a bit of a long story behind that smiling, gentle face. Food for thought, indeed.