There’s a great Friends episode somewhere in the middle, when the series was at its best. You know, before Joey started hitting on Rachel, when Monica wasn’t anorexic and when Chandler probably was. Anyway, Phoebe tries to do what she calls a ‘selfless good deed’. After numerous attempts, she realises there’s no such thing. Every good thing you do for someone else earns you a bit of self-satisfaction in return.
Think about it. We feel good when we give money after disasters, like bushfires, tsunamis and earthquakes; our media tells us how generous we are and we give ourselves a nice big collective pat on the back. Shane Crawford walked from Adelaide to Melbourne for breast cancer yet all we heard was ‘oh, Shane’s so brave’. Closer to home, I’ve had emails from friends saying that I should donate money because they are skydiving for charity.
I’m definitely not immune from this. In Vietnam, my selfish good deed comes in the form of food.
Drinking cocktails on the rooftop of the Sofitel, you can get the feeling that Vietnam is doing pretty well. It is, of course, when compared with a couple of decades ago. Today, about one in nine people in Saigon live below the poverty line. It’s pretty important to remember that the definition of the poverty line changes in every country, and indeed in every city. In Saigon, living in poverty means earning under 1.8 million dong a year.
That’s roughly €66, AUD$84. A year.
We dropped that sort of cash on four nights at our guesthouse in Saigon.
So that means, in some sort of warped way, that someone who earns €67 a year is by definition, not poor. There must be thousands – no, millions – more in Saigon living on little more.
So yes, we wanted to do something. Before I visited Hanoi, my friend Dean had recommended I visit a cafe called KOTO. It was easy to find, just opposite the Temple of Literature. It was packed with people. And it was amazing.
For the last four years, we talked about KOTO’s food. The delicious bo bun for me, the perfect club sandwich for Paul and the delectable spring rolls for the both of us. Yes, we remembered the food, rather than the reason why we sought it out in the first place.
KOTO is an acronym, and stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’. The restaurant in Hanoi is just one part of the organisation; essentially it is a training program for impoverished and street kids in Vietnam, set up by a Vietnamese-born Australian. Its methodology is quite simple; teach these kids not only professional skills in the restaurant and tourism industry, but also life skills, and in turn pull them out of the poverty cycle. The training goes for two years – and includes housing and employment – and is accredited by the Box Hill Institute in Melbourne.
Basically, it’s awesome. You go to the restaurant, eat fantastic food and your bill goes towards the training of your chefs and wait staff. Everyone’s a winner.
Late last year, KOTO opened its second Vietnamese restaurant, this time in Saigon. We didn’t need to be told twice; off we went. Twice.
Whilst KOTO Hanoi is all hustle and bustle, casual and catering to the steady stream of tourists at the Temple of Literature, KOTO Saigon is completely different. It’s down an alleyway called Hai Ba Trung and REALLY hard to find; popping in the details on Google Maps will send you to a completely wrong area. We had to find the restaurant the old-fashioned way; by finding the street and then counting down the street numbers. There’s a small sign on the main street, and on both occasions we nearly walked right past. You need to keep your wits about you.
If you think an alleyway is dodgy, KOTO Saigon is anything but. It’s slick, classy and if it were in Europe I would head straight in the opposite direction, thinking it would be way out of my budget. KOTO can really charge what it wants; mains are around 100,000 dong but we’d happily pay triple. You know, that selfless good deed thing. But prices are reasonable, so both times we ordered a feast.
You won’t need a reservation at KOTO Saigon just yet; on our first visit there was just one other couple present, and on our second we were the sole diners (although we did arrive at the weird time of 4pm). The good service therefore is even more pronounced; we would have about half a dozen people waiting on us.
KOTO Saigon is a bit fancier-looking than KOTO Hanoi, but the food is similarly fantastic. The first thing we ordered was a spring roll tasting platter, full of fried and fresh spring rolls with two different dipping sauces. No meal in Vietnam is complete without them.
Sorry, I lied. The first thing was actually my Singapore Sling. If you think cocktails in Asia are a little bit hit-or-miss, this was the best Singapore Sling I’ve ever tasted. Including the one at Raffles.
Paul had an old favourite, bun bo. Basically a vermicelli noodle salad with beef, coriander, lime, chilli and peanuts (and sometimes chopped up spring rolls, but hey, we’d already had our share), you can’t ever really go wrong.
Me? I tried bun cha for the first time. It is a dish from up north, but I’d read about it in my research (yes, I take food research very seriously). It came out in three parts; one consisted of barbecue pork in a vinaigrette, another was the vermicelli noodles and the other was pickled vegetables. I didn’t really know what to do, so I just tipped everything into the bowl and mixed it up. Tasted delicious, whether or not I ‘did it’ right!
We were full to bursting, but we also couldn’t help but order dessert. I’m not a huge fan of Asian desserts so we went Western; a good old chocolate mousse cake.
The bill? All that, including cocktails, for less than 500,000 dong (€18, or AUD$23). Yes, more than you’d pay in most restaurants in Vietnam, but for quality – and a cause – you’re not going to complain.
We visited again on our last day in Saigon, about a week later. It was our last day in Vietnam, and we’d loved KOTO so much we didn’t want to risk a new place. We walked the hour from the backpacker district to the restaurant, and were greeted like celebrities. This time Paul opted for his good old club sandwich (no photo needed there) whereas I tried the pho xao bo. I thought it was going to be pho, because of the name, but instead it came out like this.
I can’t even begin to explain to you what it was, but I wasn’t disappointed. The colour, the freshness, even the fact that it came out completely different to what I expected, summed up dining in Vietnam to me.
And you see that? Apparently we did a good deed, by coming to KOTO. Take away the charity element and we still would have sought it out. For a second time though? Well, yeah probably.
I’ve never written a restaurant review before, and I did want to do this for KOTO. I’ve spent two hours on it, so is that my selfless good deed? No, I enjoyed remembering the experiences. So I agree with Phoebe. There’s no such thing as a selfless good deed. But there’s nothing wrong with selfish ones either.
151a Hai Ba Trung St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
T: +84 8 3934 9151
Open: lunch from 10am daily, including dinner Wednesday – Saturday