From living on the streets to Iron Chef

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He spent his youth living and shining shoes on the streets of Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. Now Nam has escaped exploitation and become a successful head chef.

How did Nam turn his life around? It's all thanks to his own hard work, and a World Vision-backed project offering vulnerable children a way out.

While other children swam or played games during their summer holidays, Nam used to trudge 30-40 km every day in the heat to peddle chopsticks and toothpicks in Vietnam’s tourism hotspots.

“I earned 200-300,000 dong [A$12–18] a day, but had to give it all to my boss,” he says. “My boss sometimes told me to pretend to be blind or deaf to sell more toothpicks. But when the three-month period of work finished, he only gave me 700,000 dong [A$32].”

After his parents divorced in 2002, this little income wasn’t enough to support his mother and two younger brothers, so Nam dropped out of school and left his northern province to go to work full time, shining shoes in the capital.

Today, Nam sweats in the kitchen of a well-known rooftop restaurant in downtown Hanoi as he prepares his signature dishes: fried duck and mango salad, shrimp-packed spring rolls and fresh sea bass drizzled with grape sauce.

Left: Nam preparing the ingredients for one of his popular dishes. Right: Nam and his team at the restaurant in downtown Hanoi. Photos by Tran My Hang/World Vision

Getting a step ahead

The 27 year old is the popular restaurant’s head chef, a position he would never have dreamed of before joining Step Ahead. Step Ahead is a World Vision-funded project, run by a non-profit organisation called the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. It aims to give street kids a brighter future, by providing shelter, meals and training in English and IT. Step Ahead also offers routes into secure employment, with a range of vocational training opportunities. 

“I chose to study cookery,” says Nam. “I wanted to learn how to make delicious food to please others.”

With his passion for cooking, Nam's skills improved swiftly. Then he got the chance to appear on a TV talent show, Iron Chef Vietnam, which opened the door to his future career.

“I’ve worked hard every day for three reasons,” he says. “First, for my family, who used to be very poor. Second, I didn’t want to disappoint the people who’ve helped me. And third, for a better life for myself.”

The chef and his wife have recently had a baby boy named Phuc An. “His names mean happiness and peace,” the proud father explains. “Peace is essential for my family and me. My parents split up when I was a child, so I don’t want my son to experience that.”

Remembering his former life, Nam supports street children by preparing meals for them and teaching them culinary skills through the Step Ahead project that once helped him.

“I hope other street kids will find good jobs like me,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of my past and I want to write a book about my life in the future.”