American Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 8
Thien and I got off the motorbike and walked toward the canal. It was 9:15 in the morning. As we peered into the water, we pinched our noses. The smell was upsetting.
I pulled the new mask which Thien had purchased for me a little tighter. Thien started laughing.
The mask, designed to filter even the smallest particles from the air, would protect me when I rode a motorbike through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. But, as I stood by the canal, I realized that the mask was almost totally useless.
At Binh Tho Canal in the Hiep Phu Ward of District 9, garbage of all types, from plastic bottles and Styrofoam coolers to broken helmets and watermelon rinds, littered the banks. But the water, a mixture of household sewage and industrial run-off, was a more serious threat.
I felt queasy.
“Ho Chi Minh City discharges almost 400 million gallons of household sewage every day,” Thien said. “But less than 15% of it has ever been collected and treated.”
We walked back to Thien’s motorbike parked alongside Khu Công Nghệ Cao Street. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Thien put on his mask and helmet. “Binh Tho Canal is one of many canals across the city posing a serious threat,” he said. He got on the motorbike and turned on the ignition. He continued, “we have more than 2,000 canals in the city like it.”
I put on my helmet and sat down on the seat behind Thien. Then we left.
Centre Point Office Park
At 9:50, Thien dropped me off at the Centre Point Office Park on 106 Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, not far from Hotel Vissai. At 10:00, Karen had to meet with the general manager of Hyundai-Vinamotor.
The joint venture between the large Korean auto maker and the much smaller Vietnamese auto maker now was selling a new, low-cost line of cars and trucks in the Southeast Asian market.
The general manager, a man by the name of Pham Nhat Duy, had attended a class by Karen several months before and had decided that he wanted to hire Karen to teach English to some of his business managers.
Karen was interested in the job, but she also was nervous. She wanted more information and wanted me to help her gather it..
As I waited for Karen at the entrance to the Centre Point building, an orange Hyundai sedan approached and stopped 10 feet from me. The back door opened, and Karen emerged. She thanked the driver, a middle-aged man with long, flowing hair. He waved at me and drove away.
“I think I might like this job,” Karen said, looking at me. “But I need more details.”
We entered the modern, high-rise office building and took the elevator to the 11th floor. As we walked down a narrow corridor, we passed a series of offices belonging to different businesses. Each office was separated from the corridor by an opaque partition, with a glass door, offering a view into its interior. A young woman, in every case, sat behind a desk and looked up as we passed.
When we reached the office of Hyundai-Vinamotor, a young, Vietnamese woman wearing a modern version of the traditional ao dai dress opened the door and greeted us.
“The general manager will be with you shortly,” she said. Her English was hard to understand.
A man appeared suddenly from an interior room, as if he had been listening at his office door. He was in his early 30s, slightly pudgy, and wore black-rimmed glasses. He also showed off an expensive, blue suit with a gray tie. “I’m Pham Nhat Duy,” he said, looking at Karen. Then he glanced at me. “Your boyfriend?” he said to Karen when he turned to look at her.
“No, a friend,” Karen replied. “He returns to California soon.”
“Ah, I see,” Duy responded, not looking at me a second time. He relaxed. He focused on Karen. “I have a job for you, if you would be interested,” he said. He seemed overly polite. “You would be teaching English to a group of managers of Hyundai-Vinamotor. The class would meet two nights per week. Why don’t we go into the conference room for a few minutes and discuss the details?”
Karen, with Duy following closely behind, passed through the inner door of the office. The young Vietnamese woman at her desk looked up from her papers and smiled at me. I smiled back at her, but, inwardly, I was smiling at the behavior of the little GM. It was obvious that Pham Nhat Duy had a crush on Karen. I walked over to a window and looked out. Ho Chi Minh City extended in every direction.
Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street
After the meeting with Duy, Karen re-joined me in the reception area. We went downstairs, left the building, and stood next to Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street waiting for Binh. It was ll:30.
“Remember the man with the long, flowing hair who drove me here in the orange Hyundai sedan?” Karen said. “His name is Cao Hoai Lam. He will pick me up and then drive me home after every class. I have a chauffeur.”
“So you took the job,” I said, laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Karen asked. “The pay is good.” She paused. “Duy is a little odd, but harmless.” She paused. “Also, it sounds like easy work. What is there to think about?”
Binh arrived in his taxi. I told him to take me to Hotel InterContinental, where I would meet Howard. He would drop off Karen along the way.
“After the meeting,” Karen said, “I told Duy I needed to talk with you.” She laughed. “He didn’t seem pleased.”
As Binh drove downtown along Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, I looked out the window. Dark clouds gathered in the sky. It would be raining soon.
“By the way,” Karen said, “Elana has some questions for you about universities in the United States.” Karen added. “Can you meet us at the University of Economics at 4:15?”
Just as Binh brought his taxi to a halt in front of Hotel InterContinental, the rain came down. I hurried into the lobby and stopped and looked at my watch. I was 15 minutes late. It was 12:15
Shaking water off my clothes, I took the elevator to the 18th floor, where Emile, Howard’s friend, had an executive suite. Howard had told me to meet him there. At room number 1828, I stopped. I didn’t knock on the door because it was ajar. Voices came to me through the narrow opening. I recognized them from several days before.
“Natasha arrives in a few days,” Andrei said. “How is the apartment search going?”
“Howard has narrowed down our choices to three,” Emile replied. “I just haven’t had time to look at them.”
I couldn’t see either of the two men on the other side of the door. They couldn’t see me.
“All right,” Andrei said, “let Natasha decide. It’s her money anyway.”
Emile didn’t respond. A few seconds passed.
“By the way,” Andrei continued, “I’m glad we have Ngoc. We couldn’t get this project going without her.”
I pictured Ngoc, Emile’s assistant, a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s. She was not only a secretary, but also a statistician who was running tests on new data for Emile and Andrei. They were evaluating a series of prospective drill sites. Emile had not been able to synthesize the data on his own about the sites which were offshore from XXXXXXX..
“You’d better be careful,” Andrei added. “I’ve noticed how closely you work with Ngoc. I don’t care, as long as we start pumping oil soon. But Natasha might not be so forgiving. I know you have been taking Ngoc out at night, and you have been giving her jewelry. It’s obvious. Ngoc doesn’t have the money to buy those rings. Natasha, when she arrives, will figure it out. Natasha sometimes has a very bad temper. Her mother is impetuous also. You can’t depend on me. I can’t protect you.”
Emile didn’t respond. I realized that both men had finished talking. They were walking away from the door and back into another room.
A few seconds later, Howard emerged from a second door in Emile’s suite and saw me in the hallway. I was reading notes on my iPhone from my colleagues in San Diego. They were questioning me about the data I had sent to them. “Oh good, you just arrived?” Howard said. “I’m hungry. Let’s go downstairs to the Italian restaurant. I want some pizza.”
In Basilico, on the ground floor of Hotel InterContinental, Howard and I sat at a table just off the lobby. He had ordered a margherita pizza and some red wine while I had ordered fettuccine alfredo and some water.
“You know the Ukrainians are in Vietnam to help government officials launder money from their oil operations?” Several seconds later, Howard said, while glancing up at me from his IPhone and then accepting a large glass of wine from the waiter, “Well, they are doing it. They are paying off officials in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But now they now have to start pumping and selling the oil. And they are getting nervous about all of their delays.”
I didn’t answer.
“Emile and Andrei have to start drilling this week and selling the oil. They have been selling contracts for it,” Howard said, still holding his wine glass in one hand. “Ngoc is generating the numbers now.”
I remained silent.
Howard raised the wine glass to his lips and took another large swallow. He placed the glass back on the table and looked across the lobby. “Emile and Ngoc spend a lot of time together,” he said, without any warning. Then he changed the topic. “I appreciate your help in my apartment search for Emile,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything more we can do.” He paused. “Especially after Natasha is here.”
I realized that Howard was attempting to make sense, but could not figure out what exactly to say to me..
Howard looked back across the lobby. “I haven’t met Natasha,” he said, looking straight at me and then looking away. He took another swallow of wine. “Probably, she will search for apartments for her and Emile on her own,” he added.
“You mean start over?” I said.
Howard glanced at me before allowing his gaze to settle on a tall woman entering the lobby from the street. A baby started crying. “This thing could blow up,” he said.
Howard picked up his wine glass and drained its contents. He looked at me. “I don’t know what more I can do for Emile,” he said. He paused. “I think it will soon be time for me to go home.”
University of Economics
After Howard went back upstairs to Emile’s suite, I remained at the table for another 15 minutes and ordered a glass of wine on my own. I charged it to Emile’s account. Then I returned to Hotel Vissai.
I was completing a report in my room on the 7th floor when I received a text message from Karen, who said she and Elana would be finished in 1 hour. They would meet me on the street next to the main entrance of the University of Economics. Also Karen asked if I wanted to meet her friend, Sara, later that evening. I wondered what Sara wanted to talk about. The clock radio next to my bed showed 4:00pm.
When Binh brought his taxi to a halt in front of the University of Economics at 59C Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street in District 3, I told him to wait. As I stepped out of the car, Karen and Elana stepped out of the shadows. But they weren’t alone. A third person was with them.
“This is Le Phuoc Huu,” Karen said, “Elana’s brother.” The Vietnamese man, who appeared to be in his early thirties, looked at me, but he didn’t speak or extend his hand. Instead, he spoke in Vietnamese to his sister. Elana replied to him, and then she and her brother spoke to each other and seemed to argue. Karen joined in their conversation.
Finally, Elana looked up and, speaking in English to me, said, “My brother wants to know if there is a limit on the amount of money a person can send from the U.S. to Vietnam.”
Inside Binh’s taxi, I said to Karen, “Elana’s brother is worried less about his sister’s well-being in the U.S. and more about her family’s needs back in Vietnam, I think.”
Karen looked at me. “I didn’t know he was going to show up at the school this evening, and I didn’t know what he was going to say,” she replied. “Elana wasn’t surprised to see him. So I guess she knew.”
Binh dropped off Karen and me in an alley near Mac Thi Bui and Nguyen Van Thu Streets in District 1, where Sara shared a house with Khanh.
It was almost 8:15pm.
Phi, Khanh’s boyfriend, opened the front door on the ground level of the 3-story townhouse. “I’m glad you’re here,” Phi said. “Sara and Khanh are arguing. It started as a friendly talk. But it turned into complaints and then into criticisms. Both of them have drunk several glasses of wine.”
Phi led Karen and me into the kitchen, where he was preparing several plates of sliced cheese, different fruits, and smoked salmon. “Please go on up to the terrace,” Phi said. “I’ll be up as soon as I finish here.”
On the rooftop terrace, which was approximately 10 by 20 feet in size, Sara sat on a narrow, bright orange couch on one side while Khanh sat in a tall chair made of wood on the opposite side. Each had a glass of white wine.
“Tell her she can’t trust Christian,” Khanh said when he saw Karen.. “I’ve known him for 2 years. She’s known him for what? 3 months?”
Karen went and sat next to Sara. I went to a small table on which two bottles and two glasses rested. I selected one of the bottles and poured red wine into a glass and gestured to Karen. She nodded, and I took the glass of wine over to her. I poured a second glass for myself.
“Tell him Christian is the most patient person I know,” Sara said, referring to her boyfriend. “He’s the only person who listens to me here.”
Sara was going out of her way to hurt Khanh, whom, she knew, would take offense.
I took a long drink from my glass. Despite what she said, Sara needed Khanh more than anyone. I realized their exchange, however stormy now, would blow over and be forgotten tomorrow.
Khanh got up, opened the door, and disappeared down the stairs.
It was after 10:30 that night when I arrived at the swimming pool at Hotel Vissai.
As I was submerging myself in the blue waters of the pool, I saw Lan, the hotel’s night manager, appear on the pool deck. I had left a towel on a wooden chair on the deck. She placed a plastic bag on the towel.
I had talked with Lan, a woman in her early 30s, on several occasions during my stay at the hotel. The night before, I had mentioned my plans to visit Binh Tho Canal the next day.
“I brought you some bananas and mangoes,” Lan said. “How was your visit to the canal this morning?”
“Depressing,” I said.
She laughed. “You know, some canals in Ho Chi Minh City are quite pleasant,” she said. “For example, next to the Kênh Nhiêu Lộc – Thị Nghè Canal, there is a good food stall, called Oc Muoi, serving snails.” She paused. “I could take you there.”