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Happy Meals: An Afternoon At Saigon’s VND2,000 Restaurant

"What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity."

- Joseph Addison

When we arrived at “Nụ Cười,” (which means “Smile” in Vietnamese) restaurant, we expected to find the typical midday crowd, jockeying for position to get their lunch. But at this eatery, located at 6 Cống Quỳnh in District 1, we were surprised to find a neat line of people buying lunch tickets, most of them low-income earners.

Kindness and charity are the core beliefs of this humble restaurant chain, which boasts four locations, each offering affordable meals at VND2,000. The set lunch is modest but filling - rice, soup, vegetables, meat or fish and a free flow of tea.

The eatery started serving cheap lunches a year ago, and the smiles and meals have since spread – Nụ Cười now has locations in Districts 4, 7 and Tân Phú.

We joined a group of volunteers to help wash dishes in the back kitchen and were received with open arms (literally) by a woman who has helped out since the restaurant’s early days. She guided us through the washing process, which included not only water and soap, but laughter and jokes.

Another volunteer we met was a high school-aged boy named Phúc, the youngest of the group. “I heard about this place from some friends who help out here. Not only is it on my way to school, but it makes me feel good,” he said.

We also met N, who, while drying plates, told us that she spends her lunch hour here instead of scrolling through her Facebook news feed.

Some say that smiles are contagious and Nụ Cười has seemingly used this proverb as the cornerstone of their business model. At these restaurants, the chain of smiles extends from the underprivileged clientele to the generous volunteers.

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