American Teacher in Vietnam, Episode 12
Five bundles wrapped in brown paper lay on one side of the table. On the other side were ten bottles. Each one had a label displaying a name in Vietnamese.
“This one is for women with uterus tumors,” Lan said, picking up a clear bottle containing a dark liquid. The label had the words, trinh nu hoang cung. Below them were the words, crinum latifolium.
We stood in front of a table for two in the dining room of Hotel Vissai in the Phú Nhuận district of Ho Chi Minh City. It was almost 9:45 in the morning.
Lan prepared to hand out herbal medicines to her colleagues. Every month she took orders from the members of the hotel staff. Then her mother, who operated a traditional medicine clinic in District 5, filled them.
“You are going to learn about the healing power of plants,” Lan said, looking at me. “Pay close attention.”
A man in his 50s came into the dining room. Lan picked up a bundle from the table and gave it to the man. He paid and left.
“We use a large quantity of herbs,” Lan said, “but, in contrast to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, we rely on fresh herbs.”
Other hotel employees came and went.
“Vietnam has almost 4,000 species of herbs,” Lan continued. She handed out the final bundle to a young woman who worked at the front desk. It was the bottle of trinh nu hoang cung. “About 1,000 species have medicinal applications.” She paused. “But many are on the verge of extinction.”
Traditional Medicine Institute
At 10:15, we exited the hotel and walked southeast on Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street. The temperature outside was climbing fast, but a mass of dark clouds gathered above us, blunting the full force of the sun’s rays.
“My husband wouldn’t listen to me when I urged him to let my mom treat him for the cancer in his lungs,” Lan said as we turned on Nguyễn Trọng Tuyển Street.
We arrived at a large building. On a sign attached to the front wall were the words, Viện Y Dược Học Dân Tộc, and below them, the words, Traditional Medicine Institute. It was almost directly across the street from Hotel Vissai.
“After rising to a high-level position in the communist party, my husband thought he was an important man,” Lan continued. “An important man, apparently, only trusts Western or modern medicine.”
Lan was silent. “Six months after his diagnosis he was dead,” she said.
Lan and I entered the main hall of the Traditional Medicine Institute and found ourselves in a crowd.
“It’s a busy hospital,” Lan said. “This way,” she added, opening a door. “I’m taking you to the director,” she said.
The director, a small, neat man in his early 60s, stood up from his desk. “We have an important role,” he stated matter-of-factly, speaking English with no trace of a Vietnamese accent. “We offer all of the modern equipment of a conventional hospital.” He paused. “But patients want traditional cures.”
Lan spoke in Vietnamese to the director.
“Although we possess a wealth of herbs with medicinal applications in Vietnam,” he replied, “we haven’t developed the ability to cultivate them in large numbers. We have to import 80 percent of the medicinal herbs we use in Vietnam from China.” He paused. “At this facility alone,” he continued, “we use 100 tons of herbs each year. We import 70 percent from China.”
The director handed some papers to me and pointed at them. “We can build up our domestic industry quickly,” he said. “The government recently launched an initiative to raise production to 2,500 tons of medicinal herbs per year. The challenge, as always, is funding.” He paused. “We need foreign investors.”
Golden Smile Health Shop
“The hospital director spoke fondly of you,” I said to Lan as she and I waited for my taxi driver, Binh, next to Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street. Lan had left her motorbike at her mother’s shop. Above us the rain clouds hung low.
“He should mind his own business,” Lan said.
Inside the taxi, Binh was unusually quiet and, at the same time, polite.
Binh brought us to a stop in an alley between Lương Nhữ Học and Triệu Quang Phục Streets in District 5. It was a section of Ho Chi Minh City well known for its herb shops. “Wait for me here,” I said to him as Lan and I got out.
I looked at Lan. “I can’t stay long.”
“Let me guess,” Lan said. “You have to meet your friend, Karen, for lunch.”
I didn’t reply.
“Maybe you spend too much time with her,” Lan added.
Lan directed my attention to several stores. “This place specializes in red ginseng,” she said, pointing through an open window. I saw a sign displaying the words, hong sam, on a display case. “And this place sells only palmarosa,” she said, pointing to another shop. I saw the words, xa hoa hong.
Finally, we came to a blue door in the center of a green storefront. In the window, I saw a wooden sign with four words, Golden Smile Health Shop.
Lan opened the door, and we entered.
Inside the air was cool, but no one was visible. Lan called out in Vietnamese. A girl of about 12 appeared. She approached, and replied in Vietnamese.
“Well,” Lan said, turning to me, “it seems my mom is out.” She paused. “We’ll have to continue your education later.” She paused again. “Go and eat your lunch with Karen.”
At 12:30, Binh dropped me off at 35 Lý Tự Trọng Street in District 1, and I went inside the café where I had met Karen on a previous occasion. This time, I needed to pick up some reports which Karen had printed.
Kujuz Centro was popular because of its stylish décor and its food. But it was small.
During the lunch hour on that day, the restaurant was overflowing. As I moved away from the glass doors at the front, I had to make my way carefully through a crowd of people at eight tables. Karen sat in back at a table next to the cash register.
“Here are your reports,” Karen said, removing a folder from her bag and giving it to me as I sat across from her. On the table were two plates with remnants of recently finished meals and two half-empty glasses of water.
“Emily joined me for lunch,” Karen said, referring to her friend from Texas who was engaged to an officer in the Vietnamese army. “She’s using the bathroom.”
I got up again to go to the counter and place my order. “Try the garlic beef stir fry with flat noodles,” said Karen as I passed.
When I returned to the table, Emily was sitting next to Karen. “Sorry,” Emily said, “to eat without you. Both of us have to be at work by 1:00.”
Karen, who taught a class at the SEAMEO school, only a couple of blocks away, had plenty of time. But Emily, who, like Karen, was a teacher, worked at a language institute across town.
Emily looked at her watch and said, “I better leave.” She stood up. “Don’t forget,” she added, gesturing at me, “Cao invited you to dinner this Saturday.” Cao was her fiancé.
Emily left while a waitress delivered a plate of food and a glass containing a yellow and orange concoction, my smoothie, made of pineapple, mango, and mint.
Karen picked up the smoothie. “May I?” she said. I nodded.
Karen tested it. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, placing the smoothie back. “Emily told me that she and Cao are trying to have a baby,” she added. “Cao’s mother won’t approve their marriage unless they produce a child.”
I reached for the glass, but Karen picked it up again. She drank again. “Yes,” she said. “That’s very good.” She smiled. “Once Cao marries a foreigner,” she continued, “he no longer can serve in the army. But a baby who is half white gives him more status than a career in the military.”
Karen stood up. “I have to go now,” she announced. “Remember, at 7:00 we’re meeting Duy at the opera house. Can you pick me up at 6:30?”
Lý Tự Trọng Street
But I had a question about the reports she’d just given me. I followed her outside.
“Emily says she wants to have a baby with a Vietnamese army officer,” Karen said again. She faced me on the sidewalk by Lý Tự Trọng Street. “Beware.”
“What do you mean?”
Karen looked at her watch. “Vietnamese males are notorious for having multiple women,” she said. “Two years ago, I met a security guard at a bank, and we started out fast.” She looked down the street. “He introduced me to his mother the first month.”
I forgot my question about the reports Karen had given me. “Then I began to notice troubling signs,” Karen said.
“After two months,” Karen said, raising her voice slightly and looking at me to be sure I was listening, “I started to catch him in lies every other day.” She looked down the street again. “Each time I tried to reassure myself,” she continued. She looked back at me again. “Well, after three months, I couldn’t hold back,” she added, “and I confronted him.”
Karen shook her head and started moving down the sidewalk. I followed her. “He had a wife,” she said. She paused. “And they recently had a baby.” She stopped and faced me. “Do you know how old the baby was?” She asked. “Three months.”
After Karen left, I looked at my iPhone and saw a text message from Howard, who asked if I could meet Natasha at Hotel InterContinental.
I looked at my watch. “See you at 2:00,” I replied. “Suite 1702.”
Outside the temperature had fallen. A slight breeze moved through. The rain clouds were ready to start dropping water on the streets below. I thought about Natasha, Emile’s fiancée, who recently arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from Moscow. I had met her once. She was tall and slender with long brown hair, shapely legs, and, I heard, very rich.
I looked at the sky again. I headed southwest on Lý Tự Trọng Street toward Hai Bà Trưng Street.
As I approached Hotel InterContinental, I felt raindrops hit my head and shoulders. I hurried through the front doors into the lobby and went to the elevators.
At suite 1702, Howard opened the door and led me into a room with two couches, one long and one short.
Natasha stood next to a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto the city below. She wore a black, linen button-down shirt to match black linen shorts and a large gold watch on one wrist. In her high heels, she was 6 feet tall.
“I was saying to Howard that I already spend too much time in hotels,” Natasha said, turning toward me and speaking English with a Russian accent. “The apartments you found are nice, but they are too much like this hotel.” She gestured around her.
“This city is big, and it certainly has people,” Natasha continued. “If I’m going to live here for any period, and especially if I’m going to have my son, Sergei, here with me, I want a little more, well, separation from other people.”
“Privacy,” Howard said, nodding and glancing at me. He sat on the long couch. He brought a glass of wine to his lips.
Natasha looked at Howard. Then she looked back at me. “Howard tells me you know a neighborhood where we can find a villa like I want,” she said.
“An Phu,” I said. “It’s in District 2.”
“I’m already checking it out,” Howard said.
“When can you go there with Howard and me?” Natasha said, staring at me.
“I’m happy to help however I can,” I said. “But I really don’t know much about that place. I only know what I’ve heard from a friend who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for several years.”
“Karen?” Natasha said.
“Yes,” I replied. I looked at Howard. He looked away.
“And I need to find a good school for my Sergei,” Natasha said. “Can Karen help?”
“Yes,” I said.
Natasha moved across the room to a table on which several bottles of wine and Scotch whisky rested. Next to the bottles were glasses in various sizes.
“The boy is 12 years old,” Howard said. “He’s a good kid.” Natasha looked at Howard. “Well, actually, I haven’t met him yet,” Howard said. He took another swallow of wine.
Natasha selected a bottle and a glass from the table. “What can you tell me about Ngoc?” Natasha said, pouring herself a glass of white wine. Howard suddenly took a large gulp of red wine from his glass. Then he took a second.
Ngoc was Emile’s assistant, an exotic, young Vietnamese woman who worked as a project manager.
“She and Emile seem to spend a lot of time together,” Natasha said. Now, she fastened her eyes on me. “Oh,” she said. “Please excuse my manners,” she added. “What can I offer you?”
Hai Bà Trưng Street
After a quick glass of red wine, I told Natasha and Howard that I had to leave. “I’m going to the opera tonight,” I said, “and I have to send a report to my colleagues in California.”
I left the suite and took the elevator to the lobby.
Outside the rain was blowing hard. I stood on the side of Hai Bà Trưng Street holding my umbrella over my head. I waited for Binh to pick me up.
“I’m guessing Emile and Ngoc are lovers,” Natasha said. She had emerged from the hotel and appeared at my side. Her umbrella hit mine, and a stream of water splashed on my face. “Pardon me,” she said. She removed a silk scarf from the pocket of her blue-jeans and handed it to me. I dried my face. The scent of her perfume lingered.
“I want to know what you think, not what you know,” Natasha continued. “Howard is Emile’s friend. You are not. I understand that you, too, are reluctant.” She studied my face. “What about it?”
Binh arrived in his taxi. As I opened the front door of the small car, I recalled Emile’s request to help Natasha however I could. “Okay,” I said. I got into the car. She got in too.
Saigon Opera House
The Saigon Opera House occupied a prime spot, Lam Son Square, in District 1, at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Built by the French in 1897, the building was, perhaps, the most famous landmark in the city. When Binh dropped off Karen and me next to the steps leading up to the main entrance, the entire front side of the building was lit by lights.
It was a few minutes before 7:00. The rain had stopped.
Our plan was to meet Duy and then watch a production, called Soul of Vietnam, whose star was the country’s most acclaimed opera singer and, also, Duy’s friend. Duy had told Karen that he wanted to introduce her to his friend before the show.
As Karen and I ascended the steps, Duy emerged from behind one of two large pillars, each molded into the shape of a half naked woman. He wore an expensive dark green, tailored suit and a blue bow tie. “You’re looking lovely,” Duy said to Karen, guiding her through the doors. “Let’s go back stage and meet my friend.” He nodded at me.
Duy and Karen walked past a small restaurant. I followed them.
At the end of a short corridor, a guard stood in front of a door. Duy addressed a few words in Vietnamese to the guard, who opened the door and closed it behind us.
Inside a large room, men and women in elaborate costumes gathered restlessly. Several singers were practicing in soft voices. At one end of the room, a woman in her early 50s was sitting before a table while a much younger man applied her makeup.
The makeup artist disappeared as we approached. “You are a lucky man,” the opera singer said to Duy as she grasped Karen’s hand and looked into her face. She spoke English with an Italian accent. The woman said to Karen, “Duy has the biggest heart of anyone I know.”
Duy didn’t react. His face was expressionless.
The opera singer let go of Karen’s hand. “And who is this?” said the opera singer, turning toward me.
Suddenly, Duy smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder. “This is my friend from California,” he said.
“È la prima volta che vedo una bellezza così inimmaginabile,” I said to the opera singer.
The opera singer blushed. Duy smiled again. Karen said, “He used to live in Rome.”