by Minh Thu
Finishing a vegetarian meal at Đồng Quang Pagoda in Hà Nội, I stand in queue with other people to put money in the donation box. How much money we donate depends on us.
The pagoda organises vegetarian feasts such as this several times a year on special occasions of the Buddhist calendar such as the Buddha's birthday. It is open to all on a first-come first-served basis. After the meal, people put money in a donation box voluntarily as they don't pay for food, but support the pagoda and show gratitude to people who prepared the meal.
Chief monk Thích Bảo Nghiêm, said his pagoda, said Đồng Quang Pagoda was not an exception. "All pagodas organise vegetarian meals with the aim of providing feasts to people. We don't sell food. We open the pagoda's gate to everyone," he said.
"Buddhism gives prominence to tolerance, mercy and salvation. Anyone interested can join the vegetarian feast and leave money as he wishes. Of course, poor people can come and have food for free," he said.
Inspired by the way vegetarian feasts are organised at pagodas, Dương Khánh Đạt, a Buddhist, has opened a vegetarian food shop to spread Buddhism's philosophy and to encourage people to turn veggie.
The small shop in Cầu Giấy District, Hà Nội, is always crowded, especially on the first and 15th day of a lunar month. On these days, people often visit pagodas and have veg food.
Customers choose the food themselves. When they finish the meal, they leave money in a donation box, giving as much as they want.
If they want to understand more about Buddhism and the advantages of being veggie, they can take CDs and books displayed at the shop for free.
Đạt was born in a poor family in the northern province of Thái Nguyên. He had to do different jobs to earn a living and to fund his studies.
While working as a butcher for two years, he started feeling guilty and afraid of slaughter. He began eating veg food and became a Buddhist. He went to live at Phú Liễn Pagoda in his homeland to assist the monks and to learn to cook veg food.
Three years ago, he opened Phước Hậu veg shop in Cầu Giấy District. It receives more than 100 customers a day.
"I believe in people's honesty and kindness. If they have money, they will pay suitably for the meal. If they don't have money, it's okay. I just want more and more people to turn veggie," he said.
"I did not open the food shop to make profit. The income is just enough for buying ingredients, hiring two workers and paying bills. It's not very profitable," he said.
Nguyễn Thuỳ Nga, an officer, said she often visited the Phước Hậu shop on the first and 15th day of the lunar month. She usually leaves VNĐ40,000 (around US$2) in the donation box. That sum is equal to what she often pays for a meal at other food shops.
Huy Hùng, a retired man, has become a regular customer of the shop ever since it was established. He often pays VNĐ100,000 ($5) for his meal. He can easily get three meals for this amount, but he donates the money to support the shop's owner.
Hà Mạnh Cường uses a similar method to attract customers to his Singapore frog porridge restaurant on Huế Street in Hà Nội.
Normally, a set of Singapore frog porridge costs VNĐ50,000 ($2.5), but customers can enjoy the food for three days and any donation will do.
However, Cường has dared to launch the programme only for three days as a promotion to pay tribute to customers and advertise his restaurant.
"I'm a businessman, so I can't run the restaurant the way Đạt runs his veg food shop," he said.
"During the promotion programme, people always pay less than the real value of the food they order. I sold food for a loss, but it's okay because it's an acceptable cost for advertisement.
"Frankly, I don't believe in people's honesty that we can run such a model of restaurant in which people will come, eat and voluntarily pay for food in accordance with the menu rates. That is fiction." — VNS