|Students queue in line for food at the cheap vegetarian Hue Thuong Restaurant. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu
by Phuoc Buu
THUA THIEN - HUE — Contrary to popular Vietnamese imagination, Tran Van Lanh, a 11th grade student, looks hale and hearty after more than two months on a mostly vegetarian diet.
He feels it too.
"I don't feel anything wrong with my fitness," said the student of Dang Tran Con High Shool in Hue.
Lanh is one of thousands of poor students who can have a tasty, hygienic meal – lunch or dinner – for just 5,000 dong, money that would not fetch them a simple banh my on the street in HCM City.
The meals are served by the Hue Thuong Vegetarian Restaurant that opened last July. The eatery has been a boon for students like Lanh, who no longer have to worry about their diet and are happy to have money to spend on other essentials.
"The meals here are significant for me. I have enough energy to study and can save at least 450,000 dong (US$22) a month for other stuff at school", Lanh said.
Lanh's family lives in Lang Co Town, 60km away from Hue City, so he has to stay and take care of his meals on his own.
He has frequented the vegetarian restaurant for two months now.
"Food here is well cooked and I don't feel anything wrong with my fitness," Lanh said.
Dinh Thuy Trang, a native of Quang Tri Province, studying at the Hue Music Academy, also said food at the restaurant was very good. "The food is yummier than in eateries around the city, where I have to pay much more than this," she said.
"I feel the food here is safer and more hygienic as well," she added.
The restaurant serves an average of 400 guests a day, including students, lottery ticket vendors and other people in difficulties.
While students pay 5,000 dong, others get their food for free.
At the restaurant's reception desk, guests get a small registration sheet where they sign of for a free meal or for a 5,000 dong meal and a cup of soy milk. After each meal, a student will return the sheet, show his or her ID, and pay 5,000 dong for the meal and 1,000 dong for the drink.
Nguyen Van Sum, manager of Hue Thuong, said the restaurant is open six days a week, with Sunday off for chefs and volunteer waiters and waitresses.
He said that the restaurant has a business licence, but it receives full tax exemption and household rates (instead of commercial rates) for water supply and waste collection.
Ward authorities have also promised top security for the restaurant's operation as it helps many students, one official said.
Sum pays VND7 million (US$330) for three chefs each month, and spends a lot on purchases of ingredients needed. He declined to give exact figures, only saying: "I have to use cash donations to be able to supply the 5,000 dong meals and free meals."
He said kitchen equipment and utensils used in the restaurant are of the best quality, and were donated by local and international donors. Some meet European standards and can make vegetarian pizzas, he said.
The donations have mainly come through Venerable Thich Tu Thong who is with a Buddhist pagoda in the city. He initiated the restaurant couple years ago.
"I was close to many students and found out that almost all of them had a tough life in Hue as they live far away from home.
"Some struggled with the expense for a good meal while others didn't feel safe with the unhygienic food in street eateries.
In addition, I also wanted to give the students, those from Ha Tinh and Quang Binh, for instance, the finest vegetarian food in Hue cuisine."
Thong mobilized funds from donors that he knew well, and expects the restaurant can stand on its own, some day.
"I plan to sell food to guests who want to pay for them and use the revenue to provide free meals," he said.
Thong and Sum also said they do not see the restaurant merely as a place to provide hygienic and cheap meals to students, but as one that also teaches a "decent and responsible lifestyle.
"As you can see, students queue in a line to get their food, different from the messy crowd found everywhere," Sum said.
After meal, each student is responsible for washing the dish, spoons, chopsticks and glass that they use.
"I also want the students to understand and appreciate an environmentally-friendly lifestyle through vegetarian food," said Thong, emphasizing, that this aspect was not related to the vegetarian diet advocated by the Buddhist religion.
Thong also said that the restaurant does not encourage use-and-throw plastic food containers and focus on those that can be recycled.
While serving students, the restaurant also gives students the opportunity to be of service themselves.
A group of students have volunteered to assist with the chores. They help serve food to the guests, and make tofu and soya milk every evening.
"I am a student living far from home, in Phong Dien District, and I understand the problems other students face, including food," said Nguyen Van Tu, who is studying culture management at a local college.
"I find joy in helping the restaurant because the 5,000 dong meal helps many of my friends," he said. — VNS