We met Everywhere John when we first arrived in Hanoi. At the time his name was just John but he turned up so regularly at social engagements of such a wide variety that Nathan and I started calling him Everywhere John. As this name was factually accurate, it stuck, and this is what John is now called.
Everywhere John is an engineer of some description. Like Beth, I am confused about, and uninterested in the diversity of engineering types so I forget what kind he is. Maybe electrical? I just know it’s not bridges because I remember talking to him once about model bridges made of pasta and disappointingly he didn’t seem to know much more about this subject than me.
A few months ago, Everywhere John decided to open a café. That’s the kind of thing that an engineer can do in this land of opportunity called Vietnam, much like how I became a newspaper columnist, and Nathan became a crime-fighting superhero.
The café is called the Hanoi Social Club, and I’m sitting in it RIGHT NOW (whoah, meta). I’m here most days actually, sucking up their wifi, drinking a long black and eating roast pumpkin salad with lentils and ricotta, followed by flourless chocolate cake. They have many other things on the menu, but I’m stuck on these for now. Almost all of my social engagements take place here, and some of my work ones too.
The café is like a little piece of Australia (Melbournians like to say “a little piece of Melbourne” because they don’t want to admit that other cities might have cafes too). They play The Lucksmiths, they have copies of Frankie and Dumbo Feather and the other day I even read the Review section of the Weekend Australian.
I know better than to take any international guests of ours to the Hanoi Social Club. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there said “Hmm, there sure are a lot foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics. To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.
It’s okay for minority communities in Australia to maintain their own culture, foster their own communities, and continue eating their own food – Multiculturalism! Diversity! Vibrant Community! – yet we don’t like the reverse idea of Anglo expat communities doing the same overseas. There’s a distasteful colonial overtone to it.
I know I felt exactly the same way about expat enclaves before I moved to Vietnam. Even just the word “expat” seemed sleazy and unsavoury somehow. But now I’m here, I really do think that the development of any cultural or ethnic community is just the most natural thing in the world, no matter who’s in it, and that those communities contribute enormously to the broader society that houses them. Eating flourless chocolate cake at the Hanoi Social Club doesn’t lessen the “Vietnam-ness” of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.
The staff at the Hanoi Social Club, who are all Vietnamese, are really great. Apparently Everywhere John has asked that during their shifts they work their way through the menu, trying every dish at least once. But the rest of the time, they go out of their way to make their own meals – Vietnamese meals – and eat those instead.
I think that is totally awesome. I know enough about Vietnamese eating habits to know they wouldn’t take too kindly to eating lentil pasta or bulgur salad every day, just like I don’t want to eat pho seven days a week.
The unofficial motto of the Hanoi Social Club is more like a directive: “Love Your Town”. And no, it’s not referring to Melbourne. This little patch of Australia, frequented by foreigners, really, truly does fuel my love of Hanoi.
And so ends this post about the important work that engineers do. We so often take them for granted, and yet our society depends on them. Nice work, Everywhere John.