Chao Lao Su learns to prune vegetables into the shapes of flowers and animals at Van Sam Restaurant at Mount Fansipan cable car station. Photo courtesy of Chao Lao Su.
Struggling with poverty and doing different jobs to support his family, Chao Lao Su, 29, never dreamt of becoming a chef at the Fansipan cable car station restaurant.
Born and raised in a family of seven brothers and sisters in a poor village about 30 kilometers from Sa Pa, a popular tourist town in northern Lao Cai Province, ethnic Dao chef Su as a child assisted his parents to cultivate rice, regardless of the biting cold.
One of the best-performing village students, he secured a ticket to Hanoi University of Technology in 2010, when according to local custom, he wed aged 18.
However, unable to abandon his family for Hanoi, Su found part-time work and enrolled at Lao Cai Medical College.
As a porter, he earned about VND10,000 (0.44) a night to cover his school expenses and support his wife and parents back home.
After graduation, he struggled for years to gain employ at the local medical center, but to no avail.
In 2014, Su's first born turned one. Expecting another child, he left Lao Cai to grow rice and breed livestock back home, though due to inexperience, both projects ultimately failed.
A year later, a tourism complex was built on Mount Fansipan at 3,145 meters (10,311 feet), nicknamed ‘the roof of Indochina’ and a Mecca for Vietnamese trekkers, with a cable car service to Sa Pa entering operation.
Taking advantage of the new opportunity, Su applied to work as a waiter at Van Sam Restaurant, serving the cable car station, though he longed to one day return to the medical profession.
Daily, Su rode his old motorbike on the nearly 30 bumpy kilometers to the restaurant, where he did his utmost to learn and grow. Even in the presence of foreign colleagues, unable to communicate, he would take notes with his eyes.
"Sometimes, I felt frustrated since I had to learn everything from scratch, but thinking of my family’s strife, I was determined to succeed," Su recalled his first days in the kitchen.
His first monthly salary of VND2 million, considered a large sum locally, was more than he had ever held in his hands at any one time.
Encouraged by his colleagues, Su gradually took to life as a chef, his calloused hands skillfully molding pruned vegetables into flowers and animals.
With his talent, Su was soon promoted to assistant chef, and after a year, had mastered local specialties, as well as other Asian and European cuisines.
"I never thought of going to the kitchen to cook, let alone memorizing each recipe to make a delicious and beautiful meal," he commented.
Since becoming the head chef, Su no longer has to work as a xe om (motorbike taxi driver) at night to earn some extra cash.
Now, Su still has to travel nearly 60 kilometers from his home to the restaurant, though the road has been paved and cleared of potholes.
Standing in front of his stilt house, Su shared his biggest wish is that his two children could gain access to education so their future would be bright.
Lao Cai is famous for the popular highlands resort town Sa Pa that boasts a cool climate and green scenery, and is home to ethnic minority groups like the Hmong, Red Dao and Tay who mainly subsist on agriculture.