It was my first trip to Vietnam, and what a remarkable country it is. Vietnam is a country just tumbling into globalisation, and everyone seems to be clambering for a piece of the action, from Han, our amiable Intrepid Travel tour guide to the fruit sellers hawking their wares and the myriad of small shop owners on every street block. You cannot forget its harrowing past and what the country has had to overcome, but its people are so full of hope for a better future that it is difficult to not want to contribute in some way.
My journey to Vietnam was to savour the fresh flavours of its cuisine, and at KOTO, you can do that and assist a lauded charitable organisation.
KOTO, an acronym for ‘Know One, Teach One’ was started by a Vietnamese-Australian, Jimmy Pham, to equip street kids in Hanoi and Saigon with both vocational and life skills in a nurturing environment in order to break the poverty cycle. The students are trained at internationally recognised standards, and graduates are offered positions at 4-5 star hotels in Vietnam and overseas.
KOTO Hanoi is conveniently situated across from the Temple of Literature, providing a calm respite from the heat and bustle of the city. There is a beautiful lounge area upstairs (I later found out the restaurant is spread over 4 levels), however, we were desperate for air-conditioning, so sat in the downstairs restaurant.
I wanted something light, so I went for the green mango and prawn salad. The heaped helping came beautifully presented on a bed of perilla leaves. It was sweet, sour, crunchy and fresh, so flavourful, my tastebuds were dancing.
I ordered dad the bún chả, a Hanoi speciality of grilled fatty pork (chả) and noodles (bún). It was my introduction to bún chả, and I was mesmerized. It’s a DIY meal, you put a portion of noodles in a bowl, some herbs, some lightly pickled vegetables and a pork pattie or two, then douse the ingredients with the dipping sauce. This simple dish is utterly delicious. (and has put me in a predicament: where can I get bún chả in Auckland?)
KOTO is one of the charities that Intrepid Travel supports. In Ho Chi Minh City, we sat down for a set menu at KOTO Saigon for the group’s farewell dinner. We started with an entrée of duck ravioli (perfectly tender, pink duck breast), beef wrapped in betel leaves (an intriguing spicy-bitter taste) and lemongrass stuffed pork.
We were served four mains to share. The braised fish in clay pot was the best I have had; the stuffed calamari with mince pork in tomato sauce was above average, a mediocre sautéed beef with broccoli and an exceptional sweet & sour seafood soup. Sweet & sour soup is a taste sensation completely new to me, it is a light, tangy soup seasoned with fish sauce and a little chilli and cooked with pineapple, tomato and still-crunchy okra.
The service at both the KOTO establishments were courteous and professional. There is a hint of tentativeness and minor misstep (missing cutlery), but as far as a training facility goes, KOTO is well deserving of their high reputation.
KOTO on Van Mieu
59 Van Mieu Street, Dong Da District, Hanoi, Vietnam
T: +84 4 3747 0337
Opening hours: Daily, 7:30am – 10:00pm
KOTO Saigon Restaurant
151A Hai Ba Trung Street, District 3, HCMC, Vietnam
T: +84 8 3934 9151
Opening hours: Daily, 10:00am – 10:00pm