Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 9
It was 9:30am on Friday.
We stood next to the motorbike. Lan removed the key from the ignition and took off her helmet. She re-arranged her hair.
We entered the Big C Supermarket on Hoàng Văn Thụ Street, which had turned out to be only three blocks from Hotel Vissai. I stopped near a customer service desk. Stretching out before me were aisle after aisle of familiar foods and many people with heavily-ladened shopping carts.
“Just like home?” Lan asked.
“Not that different,” I said.
“Large, Western-style supermarkets are new to Vietnam,” she replied.
Two nights before I had told Lan that I wanted to go to a supermarket and see what kinds of foods it stocked. She said she would take me.
We entered the produce section.
“Did you eat the bananas and mangoes I gave you the other night?” Lan asked.
“Yes,” I replied, picking up a jackfruit. “But I haven’t tried this thing yet.”
She picked up the jackfruit. “It seems okay,” she said. “But I can’t say for sure.” She paused. “In Vietnam we have a serious problem with tampering. Small shop owners inject their fruit with chemicals, using a syringe, either to ripen it or preserve it.”
Lan put down the jackfruit. “You have to be careful,” she said. “The key is to confront the owners and quiz them. Usually, they’ll tell you which fruits have been picked early and which have not. Or, you just can buy all of your fruits in a supermarket.”
“Maybe you won’t ever shop too much,” Lan said, moving away. “Now let’s find you some soap.” She looked at me. “Didn’t you say you wanted to wash your underwear in your room?” She started to laugh.
Com Tam Cali
At 10:45am, 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 started a message to colleagues in California when, suddenly, 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 11:45am, 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 only 5 minutes, but the heat made the walk unpleasant.
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, all of them occupied.
I saw Karen at a table. Next to her, I saw Pham Nhat Duy, the general manager of Hyundai-Vinamotor, who stood up when he saw me. I heard him say, “I look forward to many opportunities to practice English with you.” I tried not to smile. I doubted that he wanted to improve his English grammar or his English vocabulary.
Suddenly, Duy said 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. “His office is close to this restaurant. It was the reason I suggested you meet me here.”
Amused, I sat down in a chair. “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? How does it sound?”
I started laughing. “It sounds bad. You haven’t done any work yet. So, technically, it wouldn’t be an advance on your wages, would it? It would be a gift. I will loan you $100.” She put up her hands.
Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street
After Karen left the restaurant to walk the short distance up Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street to Centre Point Office Park, I pondered her question about money while I finished my pork and tomatoes. I couldn’t finish the rice. I called Binh to pick me up.
Driving down Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, Binh practiced his English by telling me the names of the motorcycles on the road in front us. I didn’t listen. I day-dreamed and felt a little depressed for no reason I could identify. The dark clouds I had seen on the horizon earlier were closer than they had been.
It was a very hot day and getting hotter.
“You have a Vietnamese girlfriend?” Binh asked suddenly.
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.
I realized something was strange. Today, Howard had asked me to meet him at the Sailing Tower, a luxury complex in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, but on the previous day he had told me that his apartment search for Emile and Emile’s fiancée, Natasha, was over. Often Howard didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Emile seemed confused as well.
Binh turned onto Pasteur Street and stopped, and I got out.
I passed through the glass doors into the lobby of the Sailing Tower, but I didn’t see Howard anywhere. The lobby was deserted. My digital watch showed 2:02pm.
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. I was eavesdropping again. The first man had a Vietnamese accent; the second, a Russian accent.
Then I heard a third voice.
I got up, approached the door quietly, and peered through the 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. “It isn’t,” Andrei said, “I know it isn’t. 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? When you have the key, you and your friends can meet whenever you want. No one will interfere. I will send people you like.”
I retreated a few steps, turned around, and walked toward the glass doors at the front of the lobby.
Through the thick glass, I saw Howard approaching. The expression on his face caught my eye. I could tell he was worried.
“I had to get some fresh air,” Howard said once he was inside. “I drank a cup of coffee at a café around the corner, and I hate coffee.”
He frowned. 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 before Natasha’s arrival this week-end.” He paused. “Well, as Emile, Andrei, and I were about to view the first apartment upstairs, another person, a Vietnamese man, got out of the elevator and joined us. I knew something was wrong.”
Howard paused again. “It turned out. We weren’t looking for an apartment for Natasha,” he said. “We were looking for an apartment for this man. Andrei and Emile were buying him off. He was a Vietnamese official. They were expecting me to help them.”
Bud’s Ice Cream Shop
Howard crossed the lobby. I watched him disappear into the room where Emile and Andrei were. 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 blocks. The breeze caressed my cheek. When I reached Lê Duẩn Street, I turned left and walked for another several minutes. Rain drops landed on my shoulders as I entered the ice cream shop.
After ordering a chocolate shake, I found a booth, removed my iPad from my bag, and started on another report. From California, my colleagues were harassing me. They had more questions every day.
I had finished both my milkshake 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 the Caravelle Hotel, next to the Opera House.”
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, were now sheltering the city from the sun.
“My brother has invited you to visit him in our village outside Ben Tre City,” Elana said, looking at me.
“He invited me, too,” Karen said.
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 for Duy and the other managers reporting to him,” she replied. “The classes themselves will be in the evenings.” She paused. “The first class will be on Monday.”
“Did you ask Duy for an advance?”
“No,” Karen said. “After you laughed at my idea, I changed my mind. Instead I’ll ask Khanh for a loan. Khanh’s father is rich, in case you haven’t noticed. Do you want to go and meet Sara and Khanh at the Caravelle Hotel? Happy hour at the rooftop bar starts at 4:00pm.” She looked at her watch. “Twenty minutes.”
“All right,” I said. “But I can’t stay long. I have to talk with my colleagues in San Diego.”
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, we turned left again and arrived at the Caravelle Hotel. Just as we entered the lobby, the skies opened up and the rain came down in sheets.
Sitting side by side on a sofa in the lobby, laughing and talking softly, we saw Sara and Khanh. The last time I had seen them they were arguing loudly.
But, as I suspected then, the quarrel would be over soon. Sara, a high energy but nervous woman in her early 60s, and Khanh, a stylish and laid back man, not only shared a house. They were equally bored.
“Aren’t we lucky. No classes today at SEAMEO,” Sara said, hugging Karen and then turning to Khanh. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to the bar at the Caravelle so early in the evening before. I bet we’re the first ones here.”
We took the elevator to the 9th floor. As we were climbing the one set of stairs to the rooftop bar, I heard my iPhone. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll catch up with you.” It was a text message from San Diego which assured me the business manager was depositing more money in my account.
When I entered the bar, called Saigon Saigon, I could see that the indoor section of the bar had only one person in it; the outdoor section was empty because of the rain.
Sara, Khanh, and Karen took a table in the outdoor section under an awning. As I approached their table, I could see 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. “But, this time, it’s more, isn’t it? How much?”
Karen didn’t reply.
Khanh, who was laughing now, leaned back and glanced at me. “How about a bottle of champagne? Money doesn’t matter. It never does.”
I avoided 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 5:15pm, I dashed through the rain and got into his car.
At 6:00pm, Binh dropped me off at Hotel Vissai. The rain had stopped.
At 7:00pm, I exited the hotel 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. “We’re going to the food stall, Ốc Mười. I know 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. We had eaten some snails and had watched the debris in the canal float by. “Five years ago, this area was full of garbage,” Lan said. “It smelled so bad nobody could stand it.” She paused. “Look at it now.”
“Yes,” I said. “The debris is only in the water, not on the banks.”
Lan looked at me. I was angry. When she wanted something, she didn’t give up .