It’s 2pm, and Mon is alone in his restaurant. He’s had two cooks call off work for the night, and he’s feverishly texting every chef in town to find cover. He takes a drag off his cigarette and gets a response. A restaurant owner knows someone, but he doesn’t speak English. Mon smiles. “It’s okay, I can teach him,” he says as he texts back.
“I feel lucky,” he says. After seven years in Hanoi, he’s amassed a community of friends across the city who he can call on when he needs help. “I had to make a new family here. And after all these years, I’ve made so many friends who’ve come and gone, and we all support each other.”
Support is necessary when you’re as motivated as Mon. He’s currently running the kitchen at Tuk Tuk Thai, a brand new Hoan Kiem eatery, where he’s filled the menu with dishes he grew up eating as a first generation Thai-American. He’s no stranger to the restaurant business; his parents ran a successful restaurant in Philadelphia. “I worked in the kitchen, I worked front of house. It’s where I learned how to cook.”
The young entrepreneurs behind Tuk Tuk found Mon on Facebook, via his posts on the popular Foodies in Hanoi group that he co-founded two years ago. But this isn’t his first culinary endeavor here. In 2010, he started a street food spot called Hanoi Panic, after his LGBT zine of the same name.
It was a success for a year-and-a-half, until trouble arose with his Vietnamese business partner, and he had to step away. Luckily, the much-loved but now-defunct venue Madake was just getting off the ground then, and they hired Mon to work as their opening chef.
Cooking wasn’t his first plan in Vietnam; it was actually love that brought him here. “I was engaged to be married to a person that owns a restaurant here in Hanoi. They were going to travel through Asia when they left Philadelphia, and I told them if they found a place they liked and wanted to stay, I would move there with them.”
It may not have worked out between them in the end, but it led Mon to a different kind of committed relationship. “I’m still in love with Vietnam,” he admits.
“I originally came here to teach English,” he says, but he struggled to land jobs because he didn’t look ‘American’ enough. “They prefer Caucasian faces, what they see on TV or in movies, rather than the truth, which is that America is a melting pot.”
The classes he did find were spread far and wide across the city, and the long commute through rush-hour traffic every day burnt him out. Instead, he took a job teaching in the small northeastern city of Lang Son.
“I hated it. There was one bar. No one spoke any English. I lasted two months, I couldn’t take it,” he remembers. So he returned to Hanoi, a place he’s come to consider his Southeast Asian hometown.
Space to Express
“It’s such a young country. Most of the citizens were born after the war, so they’re still young and have a lot to learn,” he says. He sees a lot of potential here for the kind of DIY projects he’d worked on in Philadelphia, and their ability to empower marginalised groups.
“I grew up listening to riot grrrl music, I know Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill. Her words and music always inspired me to support women’s rights all over the world. I want to train women how to be stronger, how to be more assertive, and break the stereotype that Asian women are submissive. Vietnamese women are not submissive.”
Mon works to create spaces where misunderstood youth in Hanoi can express themselves, regularly DJing LGBT parties and printing personal essays and photographs by the community in his bilingual, DIY zine, distributed for free in queer-friendly venues across the city.
It’s been a month since he’s had a day off from Tuk Tuk, but still, he thinks up new recipes constantly. “Nothing can stop me when I put my mind to something,” he says.
Through all his struggles in Hanoi, he’s remained positive, and determined to stay in the city he loves. “I’ll give myself five more years,” he estimates. But we all know how hard it is to leave.
To see the rest of this cover story, please click on the following links: