American Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 7
At 3am, I woke up and went back to sleep, but, at 7am, I woke up again. This time I had to get up. My friend, Thien, would arrive soon and take me to the Central Post Office.
The day before, I had bought a helmet and a mask at the Saigon Scooter Center near the airport. My helmet cost $80 and my mask $35.
Although my visits with teachers and administrators were going well, all of the digitized photos and all of the interviews were creating a problem. The hard disk on my computer and the outboard drive attached to it were filling up. The previous day, I had copied most of the new data to a new and larger DVD and then put the DVD into a package with some coconut candy from Elana’s brother’s factory in Ben Tre City. I planned on mailing it to my research group in San Diego.
After Thien pulled up in front of the hotel on 144 Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, he took my new helmet and mask out of my hands and examined them with a skeptical eye.
“Your helmet is good,” he said, “but your mask is not. It will filter out the larger particles, called PM10, but it is not going to work with the smaller ones, called PM2.5. Also, because of its shape and design, it won’t fit your face correctly. I will buy one for you and you can repay me.”
I sat down on the long seat behind Thien on the motorbike and put on the helmet and mask. “Okay. You know best. Buy a better one, and I will repay you,” I said.
Central Post Office
From Hotel Vissai to the Central Post Office, on 2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, it was only about 5 kilometers, but the streets were densely packed with motorbikes and buses. It would take us more than 20 minutes. We saw a string of buses ahead, spouting exhaust, and we immediately were caught in the middle of them.
“The buses, in corridors between high buildings,” Thien said, “are a special problem. Air pollution here everyday is 3 times higher than it should be for good health. In Hanoi, it’s worse. In Beijing, it’s much worse, 5 times higher.”
“I’ve was in Hanoi last year,” I said. “For a couple of days. The pollution didn’t seem bad.”
“You didn’t notice the problem because you traveled in an air-conditioned taxi. Or an air-conditioned bus?”
“Bus,” I said. “Still, I didn’t think the problem was severe.”
“It is. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, despite the rains, you should wear a mask if you ride a motorbike.”
When we walked into the Central Post Office Building, I noticed the colorful patterns on the marble floors. Thien paid no attention to them and took my package to a clerk at one of the windows in a long corridor under a high curved ceiling. At the end of the corridor, I could see a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
Outside, I sat down on the steps of the building. “Now I don’t feel too good,” I said to Thien. “I have allergies and sensitive skin. The exhaust fumes have made me a little sick. Also, they have made my legs itch.”
I looked at my cell phone. Karen wanted to meet me in one hour. It was 10:00am.
Thien dropped me off at Kumho Plaza, where Karen said she would be. I went into the building, passed through an open area, and entered the MOF Café. The place was close to the Pearl Towers, and both of them were close to the Saigon River itself.
Karen was sitting at the same table we had occupied on our previous visit. She looked tired and listless.
“Last night the general manager of Hyundai-Vinamotor, a manufacturer of automobiles, sent a text message to me,” Karen said. A young woman wearing a black uniform approached. I recognized her as the same waitress who had served us before.
Karen ordered noodles with beef and vegetables. I ordered a smoothie with banana and blueberries.
Karen looked at me. “Is that all you are going to have?”
“How’re you feeling?” I asked.
“Tired,” Karen replied. “But I don’t have the pain in my ear anymore.” She drank ice water from a glass. She continued, “Here is what I wanted to tell you.” She hesitated. “Apparently, a few months ago, when I taught some evening classes at a language center, called Atlanta Language Educator, near the Hang Xanh roundabout in Binh Thanh District, the general manager of the company attended a class. I didn’t notice him, and I don’t know what he looks like. But, for some reason, he decides, after two months, to get in touch with me. It’s odd. Somewhere, he found my telephone number. What do you think? It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “Well. Maybe.”
“Vietnam’s Vinamotor has joined forces with South Korea’s Hyundai to build a new line of cars and trucks for the Southeast Asian market,” Karen added. “Their headquarters are not too far from your hotel.”
“Yes,” I said.
“The name of the general manager of the new joint venture is Pham Nhat Duy,” Karen said. “Although I don’t know him, he says he knows me and has a job for me.” The waitress placed my smoothie on the table. “He wants me to go to his office tomorrow to talk about it. I want you to go with me. I don’t want to go alone.”
I said I would go with her, but that, in a few minutes, I had to leave and meet Howard. I said I would see her and Elana in the afternoon after their class.
Entering the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental, I walked directly to the elevators. Although Howard and I had agreed to meet in the lobby, I decided to wait, since I was early for our appointment and felt queasy, by the swimming pool.
I found the long, narrow outdoor pool on the 3rd floor, overlooking Hai Bà Trưng Street. Along one side of the pool, I sought shade from the sun in a chair under an umbrella. It wasn’t hot. In the sky, there were gathering gray clouds, but they were higher up in the sky.
Several voices caught my attention. To my right, two figures stood by the pool next to more chairs and umbrellas, although the umbrellas had not been opened up yet.
The two men stood in the sun, partially facing each other and facing the city streets below them. One of the men was Emile, Howard’s friend. The other was the same height, but bald, paunchy, and older. I had never seen him before. Both were dressed in white shirts with dark ties, and both wore large sunglasses. The other man, I assumed, was Andrei, Emile’s boss. I had heard about him.
Then I became aware of a third figure, sitting upright at table twenty feet away and typing on the keypad of an iPhone. It was Howard.
As I watched the two men, Emile turned away and then back again toward Andrei, who was speaking and chopping the air with his hand. “No. Ignore it. It’s not important,” Andrei was saying. He had a harsh voice and a heavy accent, which, I assumed, was Russian. “We need to follow the plan We need to do what we agreed on.”
Andrei terminated the conversation, turned and walked past me, not noticing me. He coughed and hesitated, then raised a cigarette to his lips and disappeared through a door.
Emile didn’t react to Andrei, but said something to Howard. Then Emile walked away, re-entering the second floor of lobby of the hotel through a different, smaller door.
Howard continued with his keypad on his iPhone. My eyes closed. When I opened them again, Howard was standing and checking his watch and looking at me.
My lunch with Howard at Market 39, the Hotel InterContinental’s main restaurant, just off the lobby, was brief. He wanted to enjoy his food. He had a large glass of red wine and, once again, dumplings.
But he was distracted. The iPhone, the same one I had seen earlier, rested on the table, vibrating periodically.
“Emile’s boss, Andrei, is in town,” Howard said without looking up. He hesitated. Then he said, “Emile is getting heat.” He shrugged nervously. “Emile and Andrei just had a confrontation. Statistics from the latest tests on the drill site in Nha Trang are not good.”
I wanted to admit I had witnessed Andrei’s tantrum, but didn’t.
Howard noticed my change in expression. He finished his wine, looked around, and waved to a waiter.
Next, Howard pulled out some papers from a pocket in his shirt and placed them on the table. He chose a business card from the pile, glanced at it, and slid the card across the table toward me.
“Andrei is the CEO of an oil and gas business in Ukraine,” Howard said. “But its headquarters are in Cypress, in the middle of the Mediterranean.” He smiled and shook his head. “I checked him out just now.”
I looked at the card. Neither the name of the company, Burisma, nor the name of the man, Andrei Bestimova, meant anything to me, only the island of Cypress. I had been to Cypress when I worked in Italy for a year as an editor of a magazine. The island was a haven for Russian oligarchs, trying to escape Putin.
“You told me that Emile worked for Exxon-Mobil,” I said. Suddenly, though, it occurred to me that Howard himself had been misled. He’d been emphatic that Emile worked for Exxon-Mobil.
Maybe Howard was having second thoughts about Emile.
“Well….” Howard’s voice trailed off. He was silent. Finally, he remarked, “The oil business is complicated.”
Howard stood up. “I’d better go,” he said. “Order anything you want. Don’t worry about the bill. It goes automatically to Emile.”
But Howard didn’t leave. He stood, looking across the room.
“How’s the apartment search going?” I asked.
“We’ll talk later,” he replied. He remained standing. “Natasha, Emile’s fiancée, was supposed to arrive today. Now, she’s postponed her arrival for a week.” He was silent again. “And today,” he said, “I found out something else. Natasha is Andrei’s step-daughter.”
Vincom B Shopping Center
I left the restaurant without eating lunch. I still felt queasy. Overhead, more rain clouds appeared. Standing on the sidewalk in front of Hotel Intercontinental, I received a text from Karen, saying her class was over. She and Elana were in an ice cream shop at Vincom B Shopping Center.
I replied, “I’m two blocks away.”
I turned left on Hai Bà Trưng Street. I carried the motorcycle helmet, but I put the mask on. I felt odd wearing it while walking on the street.
When I entered Bud’s Ice Cream Shop, Karen and Elana were sitting at a table. They had ordered chocolate ice cream. Karen and Elana sat on one side of the table together. I sat on the other. Outside, the rain came down hard and made a loud noise.
When the ice cream arrived in one large dish, Karen scooped it into three separate ones. Then she said, “I’ve started helping Elana prepare her applications to universities in the United States.”
“Where are you applying?” I asked Elana.
“My top choice is the University of Texas,” She replied. “The school has an accounting/economics program that I want.” She paused. “I’ve met all of their requirements,” she said. “They’ll accept me. I’ve seen their course outlines. I already know most of the material they teach.”
“She’s the best student in her class here at the university,” Karen noted.
“But you said your aunt and your cousins live near Los Angeles,” I said. “How can you go to school in Texas?” I ate the last of my ice cream.
“Yes,” Elana said, “It’ll cost more for me to go to Texas, but I don’t want to live with my aunt in California, who only wants to marry me off. I’m certain she already has negotiated a contract with a man who lives near her. She’s sent pictures of him and—can you believe it?—lists of his properties. My mother and her sister are alike. They always think about money. They’ve had a hard life. I understand.”
“What do you say to them?” I asked. “What do you say to your mother?”
Elana swallowed a scoop ice cream.
“I have to finish my education first,” she said, looking at Karen. “They’re selling me off, and they’re selling me cheap. I’m an economist. I know numbers. They do not, although they think they do. What if, at some point, I get married and don’t go to school and my husband opposes my decision to send money to my mother? What do I do? What does my mother do? If I will have nothing. No career, no money, no choice? Right?”
Karen didn’t say anything.
Elana said to me. “What’s Texas like?”
As soon as Elana had gone and Karen and I had started walking toward Lê Lợi Street, Karen said to me that her friend and fellow teacher, Sara, had invited us to meet her at Hotel Caravelle’s rooftop bar, Saigon Saigon, at 4:00, once again.
“I think Sara is going to ask us what we know about her boyfriend, Christian, and his boyfriend,” Karen said as we arrived at Hotel Caravelle.
Karen and I rode the elevator to the 9th floor. From there, we ascended to the 10th floor and entered the rooftop bar. The late afternoon air, bathed by the recent rain shower, was fresh.
Suddenly, I stopped and said to Karen, “By the way, the argument Elana made about going to Texas and about her aunts trying to sell her cheaply in California was clever. But it didn’t sound like her, did it?”
Karen didn’t look at me. “Where did you get that idea?”
I raised my eyes, adjusted them for the dark room, and nodded to Sara sitting at a table by herself. It was exactly 4:15.
We walked over and sat down with Sara. I ordered red wine, and Karen ordered white.
As soon as the waiter delivered our two glasses, Sara took a sip from her glass of wine and said, “By the way, I’ve known Christian was gay since the day I met him. You don’t need to worry about me. And neither does Khanh. I can take care of myself. I hope I can.” She smiled.
After drinking for two hours, fatigue came over me. I was ready to go to bed. But I had to wait for another 30 minutes before Binh arrived in his taxi to pick us up. Then Binh had to drop off Karen and Sara, who lived in the opposite direction from Hotel Vissai. Finally, he took me back to the hotel.
When I reached my room, I didn’t go to bed, though. I stayed just long enough to change my clothes.
Arriving at the swimming pool on the 4th floor, I submerged myself in the water. Then I swam under water to the shallow end of the pool. I rose to the surface, put my hand on the concrete deck and started floating on the surface while kicking slowly. I continued to float in this way until I felt the day finally was over.