The year was 1996 and Jimmy Pham had landed in Vietnam. Born in the Southeast Asian nation but brought up in Australia, he arrived on a temporary assignment as a tour operator.
He left with a new life purpose.
It came to him after a stroll through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, a chance encounter with some children in the street. “You see the poverty so visibly there; you can’t not be touched,” he explains over Skype. “I saw a little girl crying – her father was an alcoholic, her mother a gambler… And I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world”.
That night Jimmy ended up taking 60 kids out for a bowl of noodles. Then, after, a period of reflection, he moved to Vietnam. This move took him from Intrepid Travel tour leader to founder of KOTO, a hospitality training center in Hanoi (that functions as part of the not-for-profit Intrepid Foundation).
His aim was simple, the execution less so. “I came back to Vietnam with $200 in my pocket, a job at Intrepid, and love and passion,” Jimmy tells me. But he had to figure out exactly how he could help best – how he could focus on empowerment, not on charity; how he could build skill-sets, not reliance on handouts.
He came up with the aim of creating “a Harvard for disadvantaged youth”. It would target the disengaged, the trafficked, and anyone between 16 and 22 in desperate need of support.
That was quite some time ago, and the hurdles were huge. “18 years ago, running a social enterprise in Vietnam was very lonely,” recalls Jimmy. “It was a challenge pioneering something many Vietnamese people had never heard of; it was a challenge getting funding.” Back in 1999, KOTO started as a humble sandwich shop with nine trainees. Nowadays, the foundation (which stands for “Know One, Teach One”) has changed hundreds of lives thanks to its two-year hospitality training program, which is offered for free.
KOTO has over 400 graduates – many of whom work at the KOTO training restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Some now work at five-star hotels and restaurants throughout Vietnam, and others have gone on to work in hospitality internationally and set up their own businesses.
Thao, for instance, used to work seven days a week selling postcards on Vietnam’s streets. Now she’s one of KOTO’s restaurant managers. Another KOTO alumni, Nga, had to drop out of high school age 13 to work full-time and support her mother (her father had disappeared and her brother was hooked on heroin). Having learned of and trained with KOTO, she’s now graduated and has worked for some of the capital’s most prestigious hotels.
From starting KOTO and wanting to create a support system for at-risk youth in Vietnam, Jimmy has gone on to achieve so much more. Applying for the program is a big deal – it’s a four-stage process that only one in seven get through. And when the disadvantaged youth do make it? “Most of the time they cry,” explains Jimmy.
The acceptance letter says ‘congratulations, you’re about to change your life’ and lives really do get changed. There’s no other training in Vietnam that’s free of charge, and there’s no welfare system in Vietnam either. Without the training, some of these kids would go back to the life of crime, back to drugs or prostitution. But with the training, they get practical hospitality expertise, an internationally-recognised accreditation.
Jimmy is right to feel proud of his achievements. “18 years ago when I suggested people hire disadvantaged youth, people told me not to be so silly,” he reflects. “Now they’re working at five-star hotels.”
He even wants one of the KOTO alumni to take over his position one day, so it comes around full circle. “It’s a job I love so much,” he tells me (though he doesn’t have to – his passion is evident). “When you give someone love and empowerment, the future is limitless.”
By the end of the Skype call, I’m inclined to agree. As would Bill Clinton, who visited Hanoi’s KOTO restaurant in 2000. More importantly, as would the KOTO alumni, with their gratitude endless and their futures bright.
I ask Jimmy is he has anything else to add. He tells me to tell you to visit Vietnam. “You’ll find the friendliest people, an incredible culture, a cuisine that just won’t let you lose weight.”
And how best to help KOTO? “We make it easy for you. Local Intrepid leaders often take their trips to KOTO restaurants for lunch or dinner. You’ll be contributing to sustainable tourism and helping the livelihoods of disadvantaged youth.”
It’s hard to argue with that, so we’ll say no more.
To find out how you can best support KOTO, check out the Intrepid Foundation.
To visit KOTO for yourself, check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Vietnam.