American Teacher in Vietnam, Episode 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 put on the new mask I had purchased half an hour before. Thien looked at me.
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 next to the canal trying not to breathe, I realized that it would not help me with a bad smell.
At Binh Tho Canal in 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 both household sewage and industrial run-off, posed the most serious threat.
I started to feel sick.
“Ho Chi Minh City discharges almost 400 million gallons of household sewage every day,” Thien said. “But less than 15% of it is 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 his helmet. “Binh Tho Canal is just one of many canals across the city causing health problems for residents,” he said. He got on the motorbike and turned on the ignition. “In fact,” he continued, “more than 2,000 canals in Ho Chi Minh City are health hazards.”
I put on my helmet and sat down on the seat behind Thien. I adjusted my mask. 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 company would produce a new line of cars and trucks for the Southeast Asian market.
The general manager, a man by the name of Pham Nhat Duy, had sent a text message to Karen a couple of nights before. He said he had a job for her.
Karen was interested, but she also was nervous. She wanted me to go with her to the meeting.
As I waited for Karen at the entrance to the 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 smiled, waved, and then drove away.
“I think I might like this job,” Karen said, looking at me.
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 good.
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 red tie. “I’m Pham Nhat Duy,” he said, looking at Karen. Then he glanced at me. “Your boyfriend?” he said to Karen.
“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 the board of directors 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, entered the inner chambers. 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 pudgy little GM. It was obvious he had a crush on Karen. I walked over to a window and looked out. Ho Chi Minh City extended in every direction as far as the eye could see.
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, my taxi driver.
“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. “Yes, I know. Duy is a funny-looking, little man. But he’s harmless.” She paused again. “Also, it sounds like easy work.”
Binh arrived in his taxi. I told him to take me to Hotel InterContinental, where I would meet Howard, and to 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 of the small car. Dark clouds gathered in the sky. It would be raining soon.
“What I wanted to say,” Karen said, “is that Elana has some questions for you about the United States.” Karen was helping Elana prepare applications to several American universities. “Can you meet us at the University of Economics this afternoon?”
Just as Binh brought his taxi to a halt in front of Hotel InterContinental, the rain came down. I hurried into the lobby.
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 one of the two men on the other side of the door, and 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, an exotic Vietnamese woman in her late 20s who was generating new data for a series of drill sites. Emile had not been able to synthesize the data on his own and make a decision about where to drill test holes.
“But you’d better be careful,” Andrei added. “I’ve noticed how close you and she have become. Personally, 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 giving her jewelry. Natasha, when she arrives, will figure it out in a hurry. Then what?”
Emile didn’t respond. I realized that both of the men were walking away from the door back into the room.
A few seconds later, Howard emerged from another door of Emile’s suite and saw me in the hallway. I was recording my notes on my iPad. “Oh good, you just arrived?” he said. “I’m hungry. Let’s go downstairs to the Italian restaurant. I feel like eating pizza.”
In Basilico, on the ground floor of Hotel InterContinental, Howard and I sat at a table just off the lobby. He ate a margherita pizza and drank red wine while I ate fettuccine alfredo and drank water.
“You know the Ukrainians are in Vietnam to help government officials launder money from oil operations?” Howard said, glancing up at me from his plate and then taking a sip of wine. “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.”
I didn’t answer.
“Emile and Andrei want to start drilling this week,” 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 a sip. He placed the glass back on the table and looked across the lobby. “Emile and Ngoc spend a lot of time together,” he said.
Howard looked at me. “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 when Natasha arrives.”
I realized that Howard was attempting to make sense of a situation, but could not figure out what to do.
Howard looked back across the lobby. “I haven’t met Natasha,” he said, turning toward me. He took another sip of wine. “Probably, she will want to search for apartments on her own,” he added.
“You mean start over?” I said.
Howard glanced at me before allowing his gaze to shift back to the lobby. A baby started crying somewhere. “This thing could blow up,” he said.
Then Howard picked up the 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 may 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 drank my own glass of red wine. 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. Sara had invited us to her place for wine and cheese.
The clock radio next to my bed showed 6:17.
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 late 20s, looked at me. But he didn’t speak. Then he spoke in Vietnamese to his younger sister.
Elana replied, and she and her older brother spoke to each other for a few minutes. Then Karen joined in the conversation, and the three of them spoke among themselves in Vietnamese. They ignored me.
Finally, Elana looked at me and said, speaking in English, “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 responsibilities.”
Karen looked at me. “I didn’t know he was going to show up at the school this evening,” she said. “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, whose uncle owned the property.
It was almost 8:15.
Phi, Khanh’s boyfriend, opened the front door on the ground level of the 3-story townhouse. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Phi said. “Sara and Khanh are having an argument. It started as a friendly talk. But now I’m afraid the alcohol has caused them to make serious criticisms of each other. Both of them have had several glasses of wine.”
Phi led Karen and me into the kitchen, where he was preparing several plates of sliced cheese, fruit, and smoked salmon. “Please go on up to the terrace,” Phi said. “I’ll be up there 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 straw on the opposite side. Each held a glass of white wine.
“Tell her she can’t trust Christian,” Khanh said when he saw Karen and me. “I’ve known him for 2 years. You’ve 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 sensitive person I know in Ho Chi Minh City,” Sara said, referring to her younger 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. The wine was good. Despite what she said, Sara needed Khanh more than anyone. Then I realized their heated exchange, however stormy at the moment, would blow over soon. I finished my wine.
Khanh got up and walked away, disappearing down the stairs.
It was after 10:30 that night when I arrived at the swimming pool on the 4th floor of Hotel Vissai.
As I was submerging myself in the water, I saw Lan, the hotel’s assistant night manager, approach the chair on which I had left my towel. She placed a plastic bag on it.
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?”
“Inspiring,” I said.
She laughed. “You know, some canals in Ho Chi Minh City actually 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.”