American Teacher in Vietnam, Episode 4
The morning light in southern Vietnam was strong; the exercise room on the fourth floor of the Hotel Vissai Saigon was empty.
It was 7:10, Tuesday morning. I lay down on a mat to start my stretching. A soreness spread across my shoulders, a result of carrying my backpack with a computer and a camera in it all day. I heard a voice, looked up, and saw a young, Vietnamese man wearing white shorts and a white polo shirt.
He approached and dangled a pair of earphones from one hand. He said he had found them on the ground after I left the facility the previous day.
Then I had been listening to several Chuck Berry songs on my iPhone. Now, because I had lost my earphones, I was recalling the lyrics to Johnny B. Goode: “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans / Way back in the woods among the Evergreens.”
I entered the dining room at Hotel Vissai Saigon at 8:30. Most tables were empty, but ten people were having breakfast at two tables at the back of the room. At the front of the room, a lone man, an American, sat at a small table for two.
I had seen the man in the lobby the night before as I was leaving the hotel; his suitcase had burst open, spilling some shirts and underwear on the floor. He was about 6 feet tall, 65 years old, and wore a short, well-trimmed beard.
The man with the beard looked at me as I passed and approached the breakfast buffet. I filled a plate with eggs and toast, while the man walked over to me. “My name is Howard,” he said. “I just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City last night from Atlanta, Georgia. You’re American, aren’t you? Have you heard of a place here called SunRise City?”
We walked back to his table.
“I’ve been to southern Vietnam before on previous trips,” Howard continued. He paused. “My friend, a petroleum engineer who works for Exxon-Mobil in a high-rise at Diamond Plaza, District 1, now wants me to find a place for him and draw up a contract. I’m a real estate investor and a lawyer.”
I called my taxi driver, Binh. “I need to go to SunRise City this morning,” I said.
“You and Thien?” Binh asked.
“No,” I said. “Me and another American.”
SunRise City was a new and modernistic complex of residential and commercial buildings on Nguyễn Hữu Thọ Street in District 7. From the hotel, Binh drove his taxi down Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, turned right on Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa Street, and then took Cầu Ông Lãnh and Khánh Hội to Nguyễn Hữu Thọ. He covered the distance, about 10 km, in 30 minutes. Traffic was heavy, and we stopped for gas.
Binh maneuvered his taxi into a circular driveway before a tall building. He rolled down his window and spoke in Vietnamese to a young woman who stood next to the entrance. She gestured in the direction of another tall structure, and Binh took us there. “The main office,” Binh said, pointing.
As Howard and I walked from Binh’s taxi to a set of glass doors, I noticed clouds gathering in the sky.
Inside the office, another young woman offered a tour. Her name was Hanh. Her English was good. “Every detail here has been designed and built to the standards of a 5-star hotel,” Hanh said.
SunRise City had three zones, North, Central, and South, with multiple towers from 31 to 35 floors in height in each zone. From the outside, the towers promised a life of luxury in a rapidly changing city. From the inside, the towers offered floor after floor of apartment units with 2 and 3 bedrooms. Some, for sale; others, for rent.
On a final stop in our tour, as Howard and I stood inside a 2-bedroom unit with a monthly rent of $1,200 on the 22nd floor, Howard went to a window and looked out and over the Saigon River which snaked through the streets below.
“Beautiful,” Howard said. “I’m looking for the Mekong River to the south.”
Binh took Howard back to Hotel Vissai Saigon. Then he drove me to the Nhà Hàng Ngon restaurant, where I had to meet Karen, on Pasteur Street in District 1.
It started raining as Binh pulled in front of the restaurant in what was formerly a traditional French villa.
On the menu, I saw a wide selection of options, both traditional Vietnamese dishes and Chinese classics. In the courtyard, I admired the stylish décor.
When Karen arrived, she shook the water off her umbrella. She had come from the University of Economics in District 3. She wore a raincoat and carried a motorcycle helmet under one arm.
“I’ve been teaching an English class two times per week there,” she said.
The waitress took our orders. “I have a student who wants to attend college in the US,” Karen added. “Her English name is Elana, while her Vietnamese name is Lan. She’s 20 years old. I’m helping her polish her English and apply to American universities.” Karen shook her head. “But her brother and uncle are upset. They don’t want her to leave Vietnam.”
The waitress placed a beer on the table for me and then some spring rolls. “A year ago, Elana was my worst student in English,” Karen added. “Now she’s my best.”
“Elana follows all of my suggestions,” said Karen. “I tell her to listen to the news in English. I tell her to watch movies in English. Now she likes to recite dialogue from movies in English.” Karen brought her left hand up toward her left ear.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. She stopped eating.
“An ear infection,” she replied. “It makes me mad.” She looked away. “I got it after someone stole my motorcycle helmet, and I was forced to wear the helmets provided by the drivers. So I had to buy a new helmet.”
The waitress brought us plates of bun cha and banh khot. The food looked good.
“I’m going back to the Victoria Healthcare Clinic,” Karen said. “So far the doctors haven’t helped me. They have no training, but I don’t have other options.”
“By the way, Sara invited us to her apartment. At 8:00 pm. I sent you directions.”
Sara, Khanh, and Phi
At 8:15, Binh dropped me off in an alley near Mac Thi Bui and Nguyen Van Thu Streets in District 1, where Sara rented several rooms.
A Vietnamese man in his late 20s opened the door. He was tall, slender, and handsome. His name was Khanh. But the house belonged to his father, not to him. “You’re looking for Sara? Come in,” Khanh announced. “We like hanging out with her.”
Khanh wore shorts of a dark salmon color and a T-shirt of a light salmon color. Also he wore Vans shoes of many colors.
In a small kitchen, another young Vietnamese man cut up a large cheese bar and several pieces of fruit, placing the slices onto a large plate. His name was Phi, and he appeared to be in his early 30s. He wore sky blue shorts, a silk shirt of a lighter blue, and Louis Vuitton moccasins.
“We’ve heard a lot about you,” Phi said, glancing at me. “Any friend of Karen’s is a friend of ours.”
Like Khanh, Phi wanted to show off his slightly accented English. When I looked at the two men standing side by side, I saw their outfits matched, if not in color, in pattern, and I realized they were lovers.
“Go on up to the terrace,” Khanh said. “We’ll be up in a minute.”
The rooftop terrace was approximately 10 by 20 feet in size. I could see across the neighborhood into other residences and the few shops still open in the evening.
Sara and Karen sat next to each other on a narrow, bright orange couch. Sara had a glass of white wine in one hand and was using her other hand to gesture while speaking in Karen’s ear. I wondered if it was the ear in which Karen had lost her hearing.
“How do you feel?” I asked, looking at Karen.
“How does she feel?” Sara demanded. “What about me?” Then she laughed and took a big gulp of wine. Her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been crying.
“Christian called and said he couldn’t make it,” Karen said, referring to Sara’s much younger boyfriend from Denmark.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The party at Sara’s house ended quickly. Sara drank too much and decided to go to bed. I walked Karen around the corner to her house, and then I walked 10 blocks to the Notre Dame Cathedral on Công xã Paris Street. I plugged in my earphones and listened to Chuck Berry as I went. Johnny B. Goode, Maybellene, etc.