Javelin thrower by day, chef by night. Such is the life of Paralympic bronze medallist, Cao Ngoc Hung. Renowned for winning the first ever Paralympic medal for Vietnam in 2016, Hung always planned on opening his own restaurant after retirement. “My family has been in the hospitality business for generations. Before Lau Bo Para, we already had three other eateries around Saigon.”
Lau Bo Para was founded by Hung and wife Nguyen Thi Hai, who is also an athlete. While running their hot pot joint every day in District 6, they also still train for competitions like the ASEAN Para Games, which will be held in Jakarta later this year.
“After I came home from the ASEAN Para Games in Malaysia last year, my wife and I’s benefits got cut without any clear reason, even though we performed well,” Hung explains. “That’s why we decided to do things for ourselves.”
Previously, Hung and Hai ran a pho shop together. “I used to wake up at 4am to sell pho. Then at 9am, I trained. At 11.30am, I returned to the shop for a lunch shift. Then at 3pm, I went to train at Thong Nhat stadium again.” For years, he kept up this daily grind. “That is how a disabled athlete must live. We only receive salary when we get called up to compete. When we are not competing, we have to make our own living.”
Thus, Lau Bo Para was born. Hung is the head chef of the restaurant, while Hai manages front of house. Here, his family’s traditional techniques, which he tells with great pride, are utilised to create the impeccable beef hotpot that Cao Ngoc Hung is known for. “We use the best ingredients. Our broth doesn’t contain any impurities. It also doesn’t emit the heavy musk you’d maybe find elsewhere. We pre-boil the beef in salted water with vinegar, and then we add onions, gingers, lemongrass to the broth.
“If you don’t put your heart into making the dish, you can use the same recipes, same ingredients, same techniques, same everything, but the food won’t turn out as good.”
Lau Bo Para has a policy of hiring and training disabled and orphaned youths. “Disabled people have a really hard time finding employment and supporting themselves. I want to give these youths a career path, as long as they want to work hard. After I help them, they can help others as well. This will make for a better world for disabled people.
“I was 13 years old when I was discovered. In the beginning I was put to wheelchair racing, but after a while, I told them I wanted to do something else since I could walk despite my bad leg. So I started javelin throwing.” The following year, he won three gold medals at the Asia Youth Para Games in Hong Kong. Despite all odds, he has proved himself as not only a sports champion, but a culinary hero as well.
Lau Bo Para is at 156 Chan Hung, District 6, Tan Binh, Ho Chi Minh City.