By Vân Nguyễn
*With additional reporting from Minh Phương, Tricia Teo and Diệu Linh
It’s 6.00 am sharp at an outdoor kitchen in a quiet street near West Lake in Hà Nội.
Four volunteers wear aprons to prepare lunch for about 130 people.
It’s a big workload for these amateur chefs that volunteer at the “Tiệm Cơm 1k” (VNĐ1,000 Kitchen).
But cooking for children with cancer and other severe illnesses and their caregivers is a fulfilling experience.
“Food here is number one for sure,” said Trương Văn Sử, father of a 14-year-old son suffering from kidney failure.
“For many, a portion like this may not be counted as something big, but it means a lot for me,” said the father from the central province of Thanh Hóa.
|Trần Trung Kiên gives free lunch to a woman whose child is being treated at the Việt Nam National Children's Hospital in Hà Nội.|
The breadwinner of the family of four has become the main caregiver of his son who has to undergo dialysis regularly at the Việt Nam National Children’s Hospital.
The 49-year-old and his son travel 150km from Hậu Lộc District to the capital city for treatment.
Sử lines up patiently with dozens of other parents who have children suffering severe illnesses, waiting to receive free lunch from Tiệm Cơm 1k.
Instead of having to eat stale, cold food bought in the hospital, he and his son were served rice, steamed shrimp patties with lotus seed, stir-fried ribs, and side dishes of boiled vegetables which include sweetcorn, carrots and green beans.
|Lunch portions, comprising of rice, ribs, shrimp patties with lotus, and boiled corn and green beans, are delivered free for children with severe illnesses and their caregivers last Thursday. VNS Photos Vân Nguyễn|
Twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday, the volunteers including bankers, lecturers, and businesspeople, prepare and deliver free lunches to a hundred people.
“Almost all families whose children suffer cancer, even those who were wealthy, would become broke after a very prolonged expensive treatment,” said Trần Trung Kiên, founder of the project.
“We have limited capacity and can’t make impactful changes to their lives so we’ve decided to help them with these free meals,” he said.
|Volunteers package food for children.|
The 36-year-old launched the project in October last year and his team, which now has about 20 members and has called for funds through crowdfunding, has distributed food for free to hundreds of people.
It was all inspired by his three-year-old daughter who died of cancer in 2020.
“My daughter was the very inspiration for me to do all these,” he said.
His family spent two years at the cancer department of the Việt Nam National Children’s Hospital to care for his daughter, who was diagnosed at the age of two.
He said: “During my time at the hospital, I noticed that children barely ate cơm bình dân (meal portions bought at local eateries) their parents bought because of the stale appearance and colour."
|Kiên embraced his daughter while she was treated at the hospital. He set up the project last year after losing her to cancer two years ago. Photo courtesy of Kiên|
Kiên said the criteria they try to fulfil included sourcing the freshest ingredients, nutritious quality and an emphasis on not just a delicious taste but presentation.
“The food is made for children having chemotherapy and related treatments that cause them to be extremely tired and lose their appetites.
“So we try to make the dishes look much more appetising with shapes and colours that might capture their attention,” he said.
|Free lunches are distributed outside the Việt Nam National Children's Hospital every Thursday and Sunday. Recipients need to register with the project in advance.|
At least once a week, volunteers have a tester session where they attempt to cook a new dish.
Đỗ Phi Anh, 51, a full-time painter and volunteer at Tiệm Cơm 1k, comes to the kitchen almost every week to help.
Anh said: “If the test goes well and we feel good about its presentation, taste, and whether it fits our criteria, we will go on to include it in our upcoming menus. If not, we move on to try other recipes to expand our menu and keep it diverse.
“In this kitchen, anyone can be the head chef. To be honest, no one here has gone through a professional culinary school or class. It is because of our care and concern for the children that we want to continue developing and perfecting our cooking skills.”
|Trần Trung Kiên, the founder of Tiệm Cơm 1k, prepares food with the volunteers. The project has been run through crowdfunding since October last year.|
The volunteers usually prepare the menu a week in advance of distribution day, and in the days leading up to it each of them will learn the recipe they’d like to cook, which can be a dish they have made before, or sometimes not.
Anh added: “The food distribution occurs twice a week, which gives plenty of time for everyone to pitch in their idea and have equal say in crafting a truly delicious menu so the children can have the most delicious, nutritious, and fitting meals for their mental and physical health.
|The project's volunteers talk to a lady coming to receive a free meal.|
“I believe this is a worthy and meaningful cause to contribute even a small fraction towards helping seriously ill children, and particularly the young ones battling cancer.
"It is so important to spark hope and energy in them and their parents, in what can be a truly tiring race against the unknown, so they all can return home healthy and warm.” VNS