From rags to vegetarian riches

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"When I was a poor little girl, I wished someone would bring me gifts but my wishes never came true," said Huynh Long Ngoc Diep, managing director of Viet Chay Group, which recently opened Mandala, a charity restaurant, in Ho Chi Minh City.

The young entrepreneur, who has been raising funds to help poor students for years, opened the Tibetan-themed vegetarian restaurant to raise funds for people in need.

"All profits from Mandala go to charity. We go to different provinces in Vietnam to give gifts to poor and disadvantaged students," said Diep.

Mandala offers a variety of Vietnamese vegetarian dishes made using fresh local produce, with prices ranging from VND20,000 to VND100,000 per dish.

Paintings of Tibetan landscapes, monks and other religious objects line the walls. Upstairs, there is a small lotus lake for prayers and meditation.

Diep was born to a poor family and could not afford to continue studying after high school. She had good English and Chinese language skills and started working as tutor, secretary, shopkeeper and tour guide. After working hard to save money, she opened a small fabric shop and glass jar business that enabled her to help her four younger sisters and brothers through school.

"After helping my family, I decided to help poor people in need," Diep said.

She invited me to accompany her on a charity trip next month to a remote province in Mekong Delta.

"We will rent boats to distribute gifts to poor students. In remote areas, it is not easy for them to come to town to take gifts. For me, the value of the gift is also in the way it is offered," said Diep.

Although the restaurant just opened, it has cultivated a following. Both city dwellers and monks go to Mandala for healthy vegetarian dishes, and to help poor students in Vietnam.

Besides feeding your soul, you can expect a healthy and tasty meal at Mandala. Viet Chay Group has a stellar reputation and operates a number of for-profit vegetarian restaurants in both HCMC and Hanoi, including Viet Chay (Viet Vegetarian) in famous Vinh Nghiem Pagoda at 339 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in HCMC's District 3, Vajra at 711 Le Hong Phong Street in HCMC's District 10 and Viet Chay Thang Long at 1/26 Nguyen Hong Street, Hanoi.

Mandala Restaurant is open daily at 110 Suong Nguyet Anh Street, District 1, HCMC.

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