American Teacher in Vietnam, Episode 9
I took off my helmet and got off the back of the motorbike. Lan removed her key from the ignition and re-arranged her hair.
We entered the Big C Supermarket on Hoàng Văn Thụ Street, not far from Hotel Vissai. I stopped near a customer service desk. Stretching out before me were aisle after aisle of familiar foods.
“Just like home?” Lan asked.
“Not that different,” I said.
“Large, Western-style supermarkets are new to Vietnam,” she replied.
The night before I had told Lan, a Vietnamese woman in her early 30s and a manager at Hotel Vissai, that I wanted to go to a supermarket. She had replied that she would take me.
It was a Friday morning, a few minutes after 9:30. Lan had proposed that we first go to a food stall next to Kênh Nhiêu Lộc-Thị Nghè Canal, which wandered for almost 10 kilometers through Ho Chi Minh City, and eat some snails. “No,” I had said.
I entered the produce section.
“You already ate the bananas and mangoes I brought you last night?” Lan said.
“Not yet,” I replied, picking up a jackfruit. “But I haven’t tried this thing yet.”
She took the jackfruit and examined it. “It seems okay,” she said. “But I can’t say for sure.” She paused. “In Vietnam we have a serious problem with chemicals which shop owners use to ripen and preserve their fruit.”
Lan put down the jackfruit. “The chemicals are dangerous,” she said. “The key is to know the shop owners. Usually, they will tell you which fruits have ripened on the tree, not with chemicals.”
“Now,” Lan said, moving away. “Let’s find some soap.” She looked at me. “Didn’t you say you wanted to wash your underwear in your room?”
Com Tam Cali
At 10:45, Lan dropped me off on Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street in front of Hotel Vissai, and I entered the lobby and took the elevator to the 7th floor.
In my room I was composing a message to a colleague in California when I received a message from Karen. She asked if I could meet her for lunch, before her first day on the job at Hyundai-Vinamotor.
At 11:45, I walked out of the hotel and proceeded southeast on Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street. Almost immediately I felt the sweat running down my back. My walk lasted 5 minutes, but the heat and humidity made it tougher than I expected.
Looking toward the horizon, I could see dark clouds gathering.
I approached the two-story structure with a purple and yellow façade which Karen had described. The restaurant, called Com Tam Cali, had five tables in the front room on the ground floor.
I saw Karen at a table. Next to her, I saw Pham Nhat Duy, the general manager of Hyundai-Vinamotor. I heard him say, “I look forward to many opportunities to practice English with you.” I tried not to laugh.
Suddenly, Duy stood, saying to Karen, “See you at the office in one hour.”
“He had just finished lunch upstairs when he came downstairs and saw me,” Karen explained as Duy disappeared. “This place is close to his Centre Point Office. It was the reason I suggested you meet me here.”
Amused, I sat down in the chair vacated by Duy. “The pressure is on, isn’t it?” I said. “Don’t let Duy down.” I picked up a menu. “What’s good?”
“Order the pork,” Karen said. “It comes with rice and fresh cucumber and tomato slices.” She paused. “I wanted to ask you something,” she said. “Do you think it would be a bad idea to ask Duy for an advance on my pay?”
I started laughing. “Well. You haven’t done any work yet. So, technically, it wouldn’t be an advance, would it?”
Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street
After Karen left the restaurant to walk the few hundred feet up Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street to Centre Point Office Park, I pondered her financial problems for 30 seconds. I finished my pork and tomatoes, and I didn’t finish my rice. I called Binh.
Driving down Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, Binh practiced his English while I looked out the window of his taxi at the scenery. The dark clouds I had seen on the horizon earlier now were closer.
It was a very hot day.
“You have a Vietnamese girlfriend?” Binh asked.
I thought he had seen me with Lan, but then I realized he was asking a routine question in English. It was a question every taxi driver posed, often many times.
It was strange that Howard asked me to meet him at the Sailing Tower, a luxury complex in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. The previous day he had told me his apartment search for Emile and Emile’s fiancée, Natasha, was done.
Binh turned onto Pasteur Street and stopped.
I passed through the glass doors into the lobby of the Sailing Tower, but didn’t see Howard. The lobby was deserted. My digital watch showed 2:02.
I sat down on one of the benches and heard sounds coming through a partially closed door of the conference room across from me. Two men were talking in low voices in English. The first man had a Vietnamese accent; the second, a Russian one.
Then I heard a third voice.
I got up, went to the door, and peered through an opening.
Andrei, Emile’s boss, stood at the head of a table with his back to me. To his left, Emile sat on the edge of the table, leaning over a briefcase. Across from Emile, a Vietnamese man in his mid 40s sat in a chair. The man wore an expensive suit without a tie and watched Emile, who was taking bundles of $100 bills out of the briefcase and stacking them on the table. He counted the money as he went.
“I’m not sure it’s enough,” the Vietnamese man said.
“I thought so,” Andrei said, “But don’t worry. It’s just the first installment.”
Andrei picked up one of the bundles and gestured at the Vietnamese man with it. “Which one of the apartments upstairs did you like? You’ll have your own apartment so that you and your lady friends can get together whenever you like.”
I retreated a few steps, turned around, and then walked to the glass doors at the front of the lobby.
I saw Howard approaching and went outside.
“I had to get some fresh air,” Howard said. “I drank a cup of coffee at the café around the corner.”
He looked upset. Above us, the dark clouds threatened rain. A cool breeze blew down the street.
“Last night Emile asked me to come here with him and Andrei today,” Howard said. “I thought Emile wanted to make one final effort to find an apartment for Natasha before her arrival this week-end.” He paused. “Well, as Emile, Andrei, and I were about to view the first apartment, another person, a Vietnamese man, joined us.”
Howard paused again. “We weren’t looking for an apartment for Natasha,” he said. “We were looking for an apartment for this man. Andrei and Emile are buying off Vietnamese officials. They’re expecting me to help.”
Bud’s Ice Cream Shop
Howard went back inside the Sailing Tower. I watched him disappear. I wondered what he would do.
It was almost 2:30. Suddenly, I felt like eating ice cream. During lunch at Com Tam Cali, Karen had invited me to meet her at Bud’s Ice Cream Shop. I had told her that I couldn’t. Now, I could.
I sent a text message to Karen, and she replied that she and Elana were on their way. I walked down Pasteur Street for several minutes. The breeze caressed my cheek. When I reached Lê Duẩn Street, I turned left and walked for another several minutes. The first rain drops landed on my shoulders as I entered the shop.
After ordering a chocolate shake, I found a booth, removed my iPad from my bag, and started on a report.
I had finished both my shake and my report when Karen and Elana appeared.
“Sorry,” Karen said. “The traffic was bad.” She added, “Friday afternoon.” She paused. “But we can’t stay,” she continued. “Elana has decided to go home for the week-end. I have to meet Sara and Khanh at Caravelle Hotel.”
Lê Duẩn Street
Karen, Elana, and I walked outside and stood on Lê Duẩn Street. A few rain drops fell here and there on the pavement before us, and, thankfully, the humidity was falling fast. The dark clouds, still looming overhead, had sheltered the city from the sun.
“My brother is inviting you to visit him in our village outside Ben Tre City,” Elana said, looking at me.
“He’s inviting me, too,” Karen said. “We can go together.”
Elana said she needed to use the bathroom and went back inside.
“How was your first class at Hyundai-Vinamotor?” I asked Karen.
“I provided a brief orientation to Duy and the other officers on the board,” she replied. “The classes themselves are in the evenings.” She paused. “The first class will be on Monday.”
“Did you ask Duy for an advance?”
“No,” Karen said. “After your warning, I changed my mind. Instead I’ll ask Sara and Khanh. Do you want to go meet them at Caravelle Hotel? Happy hour at the rooftop bar starts at 4:00.” She looked at her watch. “Twenty minutes.”
“All right,” I said. “But I can’t stay long. I have some business.”
After Karen and I said goodbye to Elana, we walked down Công xã Paris Street, turned right on Nguyễn Du Street, and left on Đồng Khởi Street. Finally, 10 minutes later, we turned left on Công Trường Lam Sơn Street and arrived at Caravelle Hotel. Just as we entered the lobby, the skies opened up and started dumping water on everything.
Sitting side by side on a sofa in the lobby, laughing and talking loudly, were Sara and Khanh. The last time I had seen them they were in the middle of a heated argument, dealing out insults.
But, as I suspected then, the quarrel would pass. Sara, a vivacious woman in her early 60s from Australia, and Khanh, a stylish young man from Ho Chi Minh City, not only shared a house. They were friends.
“Aren’t we lucky there are no classes at SEAMEO today,” Sara said, hugging Karen and referring to the government school. “I don’t think I’ve ever been here at the beginning of happy hour before.”
We took the elevator to the 9th floor. As we were ascending the stairs to the rooftop bar, called Saigon Saigon, I heard my iPhone ringing. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”
When I entered Saigon Saigon, I could see that the indoor section of the bar was filling up rapidly; the outdoor patio area appeared to be under water from the heavy rain.
Sara, Khanh, and Karen sat at a table in the center of the room. As I approached their table, I could hear Khanh leaning in close and speaking to Karen while Sara had her arm around Karen’s shoulders. “Don’t ever hesitate to ask,” Khanh said, “as long as you only want to borrow $20.” He smiled.
Noticing my arrival, Khanh, who was laughing now, straightened up and glanced at me. “How about a bottle of champagne?”
I managed to avoid drinking any champagne and took my leave of Sara, Khanh, and Karen half an hour later.
Fortunately, Binh was not far away. When he brought his taxi to a halt on Công Trường Lam Sơn Street in front of Hotel Caravelle a little after 5:15, I dashed through the rain and got into his little car.
At 6:00, Binh dropped me off at Hotel Vissai. The rain had stopped. I looked forward to the evening ahead.
At 7:00, I exited the hotel, walked to the side of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, and got on the back of Lan’s motorbike. I put on my helmet. Lan, sitting in the forward position on the bike, already had on her helmet. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I’m taking you to a food stall called Ốc Mười. I think you’ll like it.”
An hour later, Lan and I sat in small plastic chairs on a sidewalk next to the Kênh Nhiêu Lộc-Thị Nghè Canal between Hoàng Sa Street and Trường Sa Street in Phú Nhuận District. We were eating snails and watching the debris in the canal as it floated by. “Five years ago, this area was full of all kinds of garbage,” Lan said. “It smelled so bad nobody could stand it.” She paused. “Now look at it.”
“Yes,” I said. “The debris is only in the water, and it doesn’t smell at all.”
Lan looked at me.