American Teacher in Vietnam, Episode 10
Lan pulled to the side of Hai Bà Trưng Street and brought her motorbike to a halt on the crowded sidewalk. I sat on the seat behind her.
“Wait for me here,” she said.
Lan took several steps and stopped in front of the counter of a small shop. She wore the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her head and underneath her helmet. She also wore a pair of large black sunglasses, a decorative fabric face-mask, and gloves to her shoulders.
Behind the counter, a young woman wearing a white frock listened as Lan described my ailment. A couple of days before, I had developed a persistent cough because of exposure to air-conditioning.
The roadside pharmacy, with no door or windows, was one of many open-air pharmaceutical suppliers lining city blocks in this part of Ho Chi Minh City.
Lan returned. “Here,” she said, showing a black bottle. “Take this medicine.”
On the front of the bottle was a picture of a person’s lungs. I started to unscrew the cap.
“Not now,” Lan said, seizing the bottle again and placing it in one of the bike’s compartments. “You need to eat something. Let’s go across the street.”
Lan shot her motorbike through the traffic flowing in both directions along Hai Bà Trưng Street. On the other side of the street, she stopped the bike in front of Tân Định, a market in District 1 known for its food stalls and textiles.
“Have you ever tried Com Tam before?” Lan asked, as she and I walked toward a food stall in a long line of similar small, primitive restaurants. “It’s a specialty of Vietnam.”
We sat down, and she ordered. In the center of my plate was a mound of broken rice topped with fresh green onions and pickled daikons and carrots. To one side, I saw a large glazed pork chop and an egg prepared sunny side up. On the other side, I saw slices of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes.
We sat at a small metal table next to the traffic flowing along Hai Bà Trưng Street. It was only 9:00 in the morning, but already too hot. It didn’t seem possible so early in the day.
The source of the heat, I realized, was a makeshift grill 10 feet away. The wire rack rested on a terra cotta pot full of hot coals. In front of the grill stood a man with his polo shirt pulled up to his chest exposing his belly. While he fanned the flames of the fire, he alternated between marinating and flipping pork chops.
Lan placed the black bottle on the table. I drank its contents. “You may need to take another one later,” she said. I finished the food on my plate.
Around us women wearing pajamas and conical hats cleared tables as diners departed. The women picked up bowls from the tables, walked into the middle of the traffic on Hai Bà Trưng Street, and poured unfinished noodles and scraps of meat through the manhole covers into the sewers.
“It isn’t surprising that flooding is so bad in Ho Chi Minh City,” Lan said. “As you can see, the people here clog our sewers and storm drains with food and all kinds of other garbage.”
Lan looked at her watch and stood up. “We have our heaviest rains during the summer months of June, July, and August,” she continued. “We have to roll up our pants above our ankles, put on rubber slippers, and walk carefully through the city streets.” She paused. “One of these days I’ll take you to Ba Tháng Hai Street in District 10 during a heavy rain,” she added. “The water will rise above your knees.”
Lan completed the 1.5-mile drive to Hotel Vissai in 10 minutes. As she brought the motorbike to a halt on Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street in front of the hotel, I felt my iPhone vibrate.
Getting off the back of the motorbike, I removed my helmet and checked my phone. I saw a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. The message, I discovered, was from Duy, the general manager of Hyundai-Vinamotor, who invited me to take a tour of his factory the following Monday.
I wondered where he had gotten my telephone number. Then I remembered I had given it to his secretary the previous week.
Before entering the hotel, I sent a text message to Karen, asking if she was available for lunch. She replied that she could meet me at Morico Modern Japanese Restaurant Café on Lê Lợi Street at 12:15.
At 11:30, I left the hotel and got in Binh’s taxi. His smile was bigger than usual.
“She is pretty,” Binh said, maneuvering the car into the stream of traffic flowing down Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street toward the city center. I realized he had seen me with Lan. Probably, also, he knew her from the hotel.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. I pointed out the window. “Here come the rain clouds.” I looked at Binh. “It’s very hot today.”
Binh shrugged and started talking to me about a big Russian man, dressed all in black, whom he had taken to the airport earlier that morning. The man sounded like someone I had met recently, Emile’s boss, Andrei.
Morico Café was nearly empty. The usual customers, local office workers, were absent on the week-end. I told Karen about the invitation from Duy. “I think he’s changed tactics,” I said. “Previously he ignored me. Now he’s inviting me places. What do you think he wants?”
“How should I know?” she asked. “What did you say to him?”
“Nothing yet,” I answered. “But I want to visit his factory and see his new line of buses and trucks. Probably I’ll have to answer questions about you. Don’t worry. I’ll make up a good story.”
Karen finished her seafood spaghetti and crepe cake, and then she invited me to meet her at a badminton court not far from my hotel later that afternoon.
I finished my sashimi and iced matcha latte and sent a text message to Duy. Immediately, he replied, saying he would send a driver to pick me up at noon on Monday.
My iPhone buzzed. I saw a text message from Howard, who wanted to know if I could meet him and Natasha at the Sailing Tower that afternoon.
Natasha, Emile’s fiancée—she also was Andrei’s step-daughter—had arrived finally in Ho Chi Minh City late the night before, after delaying her arrival several times. I was curious to meet her.
I stood up from my table, went to the front door of the restaurant, and looked out. The rain clouds hung low over the city, but they weren’t ready to burst. A slight breeze was blowing. I decided to walk to the Sailing Tower. It was less than half a mile away.
I walked northeast on Lê Lợi Street for a couple of minutes, turned left on Pasteur Street, and walked north for another 10 minutes. When I arrived at the Sailing Tower, I passed through a set of glass doors into the lobby.
Howard was talking with a woman. As I approached them, I saw the woman more clearly. She was about 35 years old, tall and slender, and had long, brown hair. Also, I noticed, she wore a pair of black linen shorts and a pair of black, high-heeled sandals, showing off her shapely legs. I had never seen her before.
Howard turned toward me for only a moment, and then turned back to the woman. She wore a loose gold watch on her arm and a large gold necklace hanging down over a blue silk blouse.
Suddenly, I realized the woman was Natasha.
“We already have viewed the apartments,” Howard said, looking at me and referring to the five apartments which he and I had chosen as possibilities for Emile and Natasha. “Natasha didn’t like any of them.” Howard paused. “Except for one….”
A strange expression passed over Howard’s face. “I need to sit down,” he said, moving toward a wooden bench.
“I will be back in a moment,” Natasha said. She went into another room.
Howard turned to me. “What am I going to do? Natasha likes the apartment which Emile and Andrei promised to the Vietnamese government official.”
Cau Long Club
Natasha returned holding a bottle of water in one hand. “Emile’s driver is waiting for us outside,” she said, extending the bottle toward Howard. “Let’s go back to the InterContinental. Both of us have had enough for one day.”
Howard took two large gulps of water.
Natasha looked at me. “Can you meet us at the InterContinental tomorrow?” she said. “You can help us evaluate all of the apartments from the other buildings in Ho Chi Minh City.”
After Howard and Natasha returned to Hotel InterContinental, I returned to Hotel Vissai and took a nap. When I got out of bed and checked my iPhone, I saw a text message from Karen, who told me to meet her at the badminton court at 4:00. She gave an address next to the airport and a park, called Gia Dinh.
A few minutes early, Binh dropped me off in front of a dull, grey building at A75 Bạch Đằng Street, Phường 2, in Tân Bình District. The rain was coming down hard now.
Inside the building Karen guided me toward a group of people gathered around a flat, wooden surface preparing to start a new game of badminton, known as cau long in Vietnamese. “I haven’t played in a while,” Karen said, “but I never stopped paying the monthly fee.”
“Where have you been?” said a young, blonde-haired woman, who approached Karen and hugged her.
“Emily is from Texas,” Karen said, turning to me. “She’s been an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City longer than I have.”
Emily wore a white polo shirt, a pair of white shorts, and white tennis shoes with white socks. She was slightly taller than Karen.
“A lot has happened since the last time we saw each other,” Emily said, looking at Karen, then at me. “Here,” she added, turning back toward the group of people behind her. “I want you to meet someone.”
A young man came to Emily’s side. “This is Cao Hoai Lam,” Emily said, putting her arm around the young man’s waist. “My knight in shining armor,” she added, gazing into his eyes for a few moments. “He’s a captain in the Vietnamese army.”
Karen didn’t speak.
“We’re engaged,” exclaimed Emily. “Let’s all go out to dinner tomorrow night to celebrate.”
Karen didn’t move.
The medicine I had taken in the morning wasn’t helping me. In fact, I was feeling worse by evening.
When I returned to Hotel Vissai around 7:00, I decided to go for a swim.
In the swimming pool on the 4th floor, I moved slowly through the water for 30 minutes.
A violent coughing attack shook my whole body as I emerged from the water and moved toward a lounge chair.
Lan appeared next to the lounge chair. “That medicine was bad,” she said, looking down at me. “You need traditional Vietnamese medicine.”
Lan removed a small clear vial from her pocket.
I took the vial from her and observed its fine grey powder. “Which kind of plant is it from?” I said.
“Not a plant,” Lan said. “An animal.”