Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 8
It was 9:15am on Wednesday as Thien and I drove up on his motorbike and parked at the edge of the canal.
We peered into the water, pinching our noses. The smell was horrible.
I pulled the mask which Thien had purchased for me a little tighter. Thien pulled his mask tighter as well. Neither of us spoke.
Both masks, designed to filter out even the smallest particles in the heavily polluted air, would protect us when we rode a motorbike through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. But, when we stood next to the canal, no mask was good enough.
At Binh Tho Canal in 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. He gunned the engine, and we took off .
Centre Point Office Park
At 9:50am, 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 also she 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 information.”
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 with a smile.
“The general manager will be with you shortly,” she said. Her English was hard to understand, as if she barely understood any English at all.
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 anxiously.
“No, a friend,” Karen replied. “He returns to California soon.”
“Ah, I see,” Duy responded, not looking at me a second time. He seemed to relax. 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 11:30am.
“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 concerning 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 12:15pm.
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 the voices from several days before.
“Natasha arrives in two to three 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.”
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, in reality, a secretary, but a computer statistician who was running tests on new data for Emile. He was evaluating a series of prospective drill sites. Emile had not been able to synthesize the data on his own.
“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. That’s the critical goal. But Natasha won’t understand, and she won’t be forgiving. I know you have been taking Ngoc out at night, and you have have been giving her jewelry. It’s obvious. Ngoc doesn’t have the money to buy gold rings. Natasha, when she arrives, will figure it out, and Natasha sometimes has a very bad temper. She gets it from her mother. You can’t depend on me to protect you. You will have to handle Natasha yourself.”
Emile didn’t respond. I realized both men had finished talking. They had walked away from the door and now were in other rooms.
A few seconds later, Howard emerged from a second door in the suite of rooms and saw me in the hallway. I was reading a note on my iPhone from a colleague in San Diego. She was questioning me about the data I had sent to her.
“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. I had ordered fettuccine alfredo. Also some water.
“You realize the Ukrainians are in Vietnam to help government officials launder money from their own oil operations?” Howard asked.
Howard glanced up at me from his IPhone and accepted a glass of wine from the waiter, “Well, they have everything planned out. They already are paying off officials in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from the cash they have brought into the country secretly. They also have to start paying the Vietnamese in larger amounts.”
I didn’t say anything. I was surprised by what Howard knew.
“Emile and Andrei are anxious to start drilling this week. They have been selling contracts for the oil. Now they have to start delivering it,” Howard said. He held his wine glass in one hand. He still looked at his iPhone.
I stayed silent.
Howard raised the wine glass to his lips and took a large swallow. He placed the glass back on the table and looked across the lobby. “Emile and Ngoc spend too much time together,” he said, without any warning. Then he changed the topic. “I appreciate your help with the condo for Emile and Natasha,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything more we can do.” He paused.
I realized that Howard was attempting to make sense of his situation, but could not figure out which topic to address first.
Howard looked back across the lobby. “I haven’t met Natasha, but tomorrow I will,” he said, looking me directly in the eyes and then looking away. He took another swallow of wine. “Possibly, she will search for an apartment 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. “This thing could blow up,” he said. “Emile could get fired.”
I realized Howard was referring not only to Emile’s oil gambles but also to his romantic entanglements.
Howard picked up his wine glass and drained its contents. He looked at me for several seconds again. “I don’t know what more I can do for Emile,” he said. He paused. “I think my time in Ho Chi Minh City is up.”
University of Economics
After Howard went back upstairs to Emile’s suite, I remained at the table for another 15 minutes. I ordered a glass of wine of my own. I charged it to Emile’s account.
Then I returned to Hotel Vissai, riding with Binh.
I was completing another message to my office in San Diego in my room at the hotel when I received a text message from Karen who said she and Elana would be finished in 1 hour and would meet me on the street next to the main entrance of the University of Economics. Also Karen asked if I wanted to see her friend, Sara, later that evening. I wondered what Sara wanted to talk about. The clock radio next to my bed showed 3:30pm.
When Binh dropped me off in front of the University of Economics at 59C Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street in District 3 at 4:00pm, I told him to wait. As I stepped out of the car, Karen and Elana stepped out of the shadows. A third person accompanied 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 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 seemed to argue. Karen joined in the argument.
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 the family back in Vietnam.”
Karen looked at me. “Yes. But 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 their 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 two plates of sliced cheese, some fruits, and some smoked salmon. “Please go on up to the terrace,” Phi said. “I’ll be 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. Khanh sat on a wooden chair. Each had a glass of 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? 2 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 really listens to me.”
Sara was going out of her way to hurt Khanh, whom, she knew, would be annoyed.
I took a long drink from my glass. Despite what Sara said, she needed Khanh more than anyone. I realized their exchange, however stormy now, would blow over. Sara wasn’t telling the truth.
Khanh got up, opened the door, and disappeared down the stairs.
It was after 10:30pm when I arrived at the swimming pool at Hotel Vissai.
As I submerged 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 of fruit 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 go to a supermarket 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 pleasant,” she interjected. “For example, next to the Kênh Nhiêu Lộc – Thị Nghè Canal, there is no trash and there is a food stall, called Oc Muoi, serving snails.” She paused. “I could take you there tomorrow.”
“I don’t think so.”