Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 11
District 5. I hadn’t been there before. Other parts of Ho Chi Minh City had become familiar to me during the previous month. But in a city of 10 million people sprawling across miles of wetlands, I still had a lot to see.
At 9:30am, Lan took me to a strip of herb shops between Lương Nhữ Học and Triệu Quang Phục Streets. She parked her motorbike in front of a store specializing in lavender oil, and we went down an alley.
“You can finish educating yourself about traditional medicine after I finish giving an overview,” Lan said. I wasn’t sure yet, though, how far I wanted to go.
The night before Lan had given me a concoction for a lingering cough, but I had refused to take it. She wouldn’t tell me what it was.
Today, Lan and I were visiting herb shops well known in Ho Chi Minh City. Her father, now deceased, had been a practitioner of traditional medicine. “My mom continues his profession,” she said.
“Here,” Lan said, opening a red door in the center of a small white storefront. I saw a sign with two words, Happy Herb.
An old man with a white goatee wearing a long black coat, made of silk, stood behind a glass case and beside a floor-to-ceiling cabinet. He spoke to Lan in Vietnamese. They looked at me. They were developing their diagnosis.
The man turned, opened one of the drawers of the big cabinet, and took out a small bundle in brown paper. He opened the brown paper and displayed a fine, gray powder.
Lan removed a small bottle of water from her bag, took off its cap, and poured half of the powder into the bottle. She replaced the cap and shook the bottle.
“Drink all of it,” Lan said, putting the bottle in my hand.
When I drank it, I felt the muscles in my chest relaxing.
Lan said to me, “Good. Now let’s go. I have to be at work in 30 minutes.”
Triệu Quang Phục Street
Lan put on her helmet. I put on mine. We went back outside.
Lan looked at me. “You just drank a mixture of herbs and roots, including licorice and ginger. We’ll discuss it more later.”
Lan got on her motorbike. “I was married once,” she said. “My husband didn’t believe in traditional medicine.” She paused. “But Western or modern medicine couldn’t save him. He had cancer.”
Lan paused again. “Have you ever been married?”
I was putting on my mask. I glanced at Lan, nodded, and spoke through my mask, “My ex-wife is a nurse.” I got on the motorbike behind her.
“Are you going to marry again?” Lan asked. She adjusted her mask, then turned her key in the ignition.
“Maybe,” I said. I fastened my own mask over my nose and mouth and felt my iPhone vibrate.
It was a message from Karen, who wanted me to meet her for an early lunch before my meeting with Duy at 1:00. I knew the place she proposed, Thai Express. It was across the street from the government school, SEAMEO, where she taught English.
I wondered if Karen had the information about Vietnamese public schools for me. I was paying her to conduct research and supplement my visits to the schools in person. “Can you drop me off in District 1?” I said to Lan.
When Lan came to a stop in front of Vincom B Shopping Center at 70 Lê Thánh Tôn Street in District 1, I told her I would meet her again that evening. We had to review the herbal medicine I was taking. I had many questions. I entered the mall and looked for Thai Express.
“Maybe you were right,” Karen said, looking a little worried, when I sat down. “I think that Duy does have a crush on me.”
Karen sat in a booth at the front of the restaurant. “I want to make it clear to Duy that I have professional relationships with students,” Karen added. “I don’t know what you should say to him this afternoon,” she continued, “but he needs to understand that I’m not interested in romance. I had a problem with a man recently.” She frowned.
A message appeared on the screen of my iPhone resting next to my plate of chicken with potatoes in red curry. It was Duy. He wanted to know where to send his driver to pick me up.
Karen watched me as she finished the phat thai with shrimp on her plate. “I like my new job at Hyundai-Vinamotor,” she said. “All of the students, including Duy, are highly motivated.” She paused. “They understand that speaking English means more money for them.” She took a sip of water. “Also teaching them means more money for me.”
“It’s common sense, isn’t it?” I said. “Children and adolescents don’t earn much money.”
Karen looked at me. “I suppose,” she said, removing a folder from her bag, “if you want to look at things that way. Here is the data you requested. You’ll see statistics for Vietnamese institutions seeking English-language accreditation.”
Thu Duc District
Outside the Vincom B shopping center, Karen started down Lê Thánh Tôn Street in the direction of the SEAMEO school. She stopped abruptly. “Don’t forget,” she said, turning toward me. “We’re meeting Emily and her boyfriend for dinner tonight at 7:00.”
An orange Hyundai sedan approached and came to a halt next to us. The driver waved at Karen and gestured to me. It was Duy’s driver.
The man was about 40 years old and had long, flowing hair, dyed blonde.
“I take Karen to and from her class at the Hyundai-Vinamotor offices two nights a week,” the man said as I got into his car. “Duy says she’s a good teacher.” He stopped the car in the middle of an intersection and made a U-turn in front of a policeman. The policeman stared at him. “The factory is in Thu Duc District,” he added. “It will take us about 45 minutes to get there.”
I looked at my driver. He spoke English with an American accent. “Let’s close the windows and turn on the air conditioner,” I said.
“My name is Sam,” he commented. Then he shook my hand. “I hear you’re from San Diego,” he added. “I’m from Gardena,” he continued, referring to a small city in Orange County south of Los Angeles. “My parents escaped Saigon when it fell to the Communists in 1975. I was born in California one year later.”
“I like your blonde hair. Is it natural?” I asked.
He smiled. Suddenly he accelerated through another intersection, causing an old woman pushing a wooden vegetable cart to drop a squash and two tomatoes on the pavement. She shook her fist at him. Even though the windows were rolled up I knew she was yelling at him.
“I saw Saigon for the first time three years ago,” he said. “I didn’t even know the communists had changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City.” He laughed. “But I don’t plan on going back to the States.”
Now slowing down for an old woman pushing a cart piled with watermelons, Sam said, “If it weren’t for Duy, I don’t know what my situation here would be. I work for him every day. Also I live in one of his apartments.”
Sam turned right on a road lined on both sides with industrial complexes. “When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City,” he said, “I had nothing. No job. No money. No friends.” He paused. “For two months, I slept on the floor of my cousin’s apartment. I ate instant noodles every day. I was depressed and lonely.”
We passed through a side gate into a large compound surrounded by high fences. On the wall of one warehouse I saw the words, Hyundai-Tracomeco.
“But the day I helped Duy change a flat tire in front of my cousin’s apartment,” Sam said, “my life changed.” He looked out the driver’s side window. “No one in the U.S. cared about me. My parents had died. They never had learned English. I decided to go to Vietnam. For a while, I thought I had made a big mistake.”
As Sam brought the car to a stop, Duy emerged from a small office attached to a warehouse. He wore an expensive blue, tailored suit and a yellow bow tie.
On foot, Duy and I went to one end of the yard, beyond which the Saigon River flowed. It was more than a mile wide and looked placid, almost like a lake. It was coffee colored.
Ahead of us was a big concrete dock with two large cranes and a large ship tied up with thick hawsers. One of the cranes unloaded a container from the ship.
“We import our parts from Hyundai in Korea. Then we assemble our trucks and buses here,” Duy said. “Let’s go inside and see the assembly line.”
Duy opened a door on one side of a warehouse, and we entered. We ascended a set of iron stairs to a second level, open to the floor below. We passed through a conference room and an office, separated only by metal cabinets.
Duy stopped and gestured downward. On the factory floor, we watched a small army of men operating machines and fitting together parts of trucks. They were attaching fenders and doors to drive trains and engines. I saw flashes of light where men were welding, but, remarkably, I heard no voices. No one talked.
“Tomorrow none of these people and none of these machines will be operating,” Duy said. “The assembly line will stop.” He shrugged. “I received word just now there will be a power outage for 4 hours tomorrow.” He started toward an office. “The government gives us a 24-hour notice for a shutdown.”
Duy entered his office and came back out a few minutes later. He looked tired. “Sam is outside in the car waiting for you,” Duy said. So far he had not mentioned Karen. Maybe I had him figured wrong.
Back in the orange Hyundai sedan, Sam asked me where I wanted to go. “Hotel Vissai,” I said. Then I sent a text message to Howard, who, replying immediately, said that Emile wanted to see the two of us.
“No,” I said to Sam. “Take me to Hotel InterContinental.” To Howard, I added, “I’m on my way.”
When I entered the lobby of Hotel Intercontinental, Howard sat on one end of a couch. On the other end, I saw the boy I had seen in Howard’s company previously. Again, the boy was flipping through the pages of a comic book. Did he live in the hotel by himself?
Howard stood up. “Emile will buy us a drink,” he said, starting in the direction of the bar. “See you later, Reggie,” Howard called out, looking over his shoulder at the boy. Reggie didn’t reply.
Inside the Purple Jade Bar, Howard stopped. “I don’t think Emile will be distracted by Ngoc any more,” he said, referring to Emile’s personal assistant, who was beautiful yet somewhat formal and austere. I knew immediately that Howard was wrong. “I’ve noticed how excited Emile and Natasha are together,” Howard added, as if he could read my mind.
Walking a few steps more, Howard stopped again. “By the way,” he said, “Natasha no longer is interested in the apartments at the Sailing Tower.” He smiled. “Emile convinced her that he would find them a townhouse.” He smiled again. “He meant that I would find one.”
“But you don’t have any confidence in Emile, do you?” I said.
We sat down at a small table. Howard said, “I hope Natasha is reasonable.”
“But you aren’t convinced that Emile can stay out of trouble,” I replied. “He’s trying to be careful now, but he’ll slip up. Right?”
“Oh, God. Don’t say that.”
Purple Jade Bar
The waitress brought a wine list. After scanning the list, Howard selected the most expensive bottle of Pinot Noir. “Three glasses,” he said. The waitress walked away.
“I can’t stay long,” Emile said, suddenly appearing and dropping into a chair across from us. “I have a meeting in 15 minutes,” he added. “But it looks like we will start drilling soon.”
The waitress returned, placed three wine glasses on the table, and removed the cork from the bottle. She poured some wine into the glasses.
Emile picked up the glass in front of him. “I want to thank both of you for all of your help,” he said as Howard and I lifted our glasses. “Now that Natasha is here, I hope you will help her.” He took another sip of wine. “It’s important that my project is a success,” he added. “The one at Nha Trang.”
Howard finished his glass. Emile rose abruptly and left.
Turning to me, Howard said, “Emile is negotiating with the Vietnamese by himself today.” He poured himself another glass of wine. “Andrei had to go to Kiev and then to Moscow. I think Ngoc went to visit her family in Hanoi.”
Howard poured more wine into his glass and yawned. “I’m going upstairs to my room. I need a nap,” he said. “Finish the wine, if you can.” He turned to leave, but then stopped. “I think our job will be easier from now on,” he said, “but I’ve been wrong before.”
After Howard went upstairs, I called Binh, who said he could pick me up in 10 minutes. I drank a little more red wine.
I exited the lobby of Hotel InterContinental and stood under the shade of a small tree. Dark clouds hung low over the city. I looked at my watch. It was almost 4:00.
As I was opening the door to get into Binh’s taxi, I caught a glimpse of two people, a man and a woman, getting into a large, black Mercedes farther up the block. Emile had one arm around Ngoc’s waist.
At 6:15 in the evening, a steady rain fell on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Binh brought his taxi to a stop in front of a narrow, three-story house in an alley off Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street in District 1. It was the house where Karen rented a room.
“How was your tour of Duy’s factory this afternoon?” Karen said to me, after dashing through the rain and sitting on the back seat of the car next to me. She shook water off her umbrella onto the seat and all over me.
“Oh, no,” Karen said. “I’m sorry.”
“I think I was wrong about Duy,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Karen said to me and turned toward Binh, speaking in Vietnamese.
Karen turned back toward me. “Now Binh has the address of the restaurant owned by the aunt of Emily’s boyfriend,” she said. “It’s in Phu Nhuan District.”
“What’s its name?” I asked.
Karen looked impatient. “I don’t know,” she said. “Auntie’s Restaurant?” She laughed. “How were you wrong?”
“Well,” I said, “Duy seems to take his work, and all of the people who work for him, personally.”
Karen stared at me for a few moments. She squinted her eyes. “What did you talk about?” I told her. “What else?” she asked. I was silent. “That’s it?” She was dissatisfied.
Karen stared at me for another few moments, and then looked away.
“I received a text message from Duy a few hours ago,” Karen said. “Since there will be a power outage in Thu Duc District tomorrow, Duy has to shut down his factory during the day. For the evening, he also has cancelled my English class.” She paused. “Then he has invited me to go to the opera with him that night.”
I frowned. The prospect of going to the opera didn’t appeal to me.
“And he invited you,” Karen added.
“Duy is very careful, and he is very clever,” I replied.
Binh brought his taxi to a stop at the corner of Nguyễn Trọng Tuyển and Nguyễn Đình Chính Streets. The rain had stopped. Two couples were sitting at tables in front of a small restaurant. We had arrived at Auntie’s Restaurant.
When Karen and I entered the restaurant a few minutes before 7:00, Emily stood up from a table against the back wall. “Cao couldn’t make it,” she said, referring to her boyfriend, a military officer. “He couldn’t leave the barracks tonight, after all. He couldn’t leave his men there. They were being punished. He told me to invite you to our place this week-end.”
I was in a hurry. After dinner, I told Karen and Emily I had to work and went outside. Binh waited around the corner.
At 8:30, I entered the lobby of Hotel Vissai.
I met Lan near the elevators. “Whatever you gave me this morning has cured my lung problem,” I said. “What time are you off work?”
“Meet me at the pool.”