Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, 13
At 9:00am, Lan and I finished breakfast and left the dining room on the 2nd floor of Hotel Vissai to go to the Golden Smile Health Shop. It was on Ký Hoà Street, about 30 minutes away. The previous night a new patient, from Australia, had arrived. The woman, Mary, who lived in Canberra, had a tumor in her uterus.
“Mary will arrive at my mom’s clinic at 10:00,” Lan said as we rode down in the elevator. “She phoned me two weeks ago and flew in yesterday.” Lan handled all communications with foreigners for her mother.
We exited the lobby and waited in the acrid, polluted air of Ho Chi Minh City. Binh brought his taxi to a halt before us. He smiled, revealing a gap in his top gum where a tooth used to reside only a day before. An herb doctor couldn’t help; he needed a dentist. It was Friday.
The first rain clouds appeared on the horizon as the taxi wove in and out of traffic on Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, the main road between Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and its center, District 1. By now, the daily weather was familiar to me. In the late afternoon, the rain would start.
We moved in the direction of District 5. Binh turned right on Công Ty Cp Bằng Hữu Quốc Tế – Cửa Hàng Số Street and then merged onto Trần Huy Liệu Street.
As he drove, Binh watched Lan and me in the back seat. He was interested in the story about the new patient whom Lan’s mother would treat.
“She’s 42 years old,” Lan said. “Recently married. Divorced from her first husband. A public relations specialist.”
Lan looked out the window and waved to a woman on a motorbike. “Mary doesn’t want to have surgery, although her old doctors recommended it,” Lan continued. “She wants a child with her new husband, not a hysterectomy.”
Binh brought us to a stop in an alley between Lương Nhữ Học and Triệu Quang Phục Streets. The area was a popular destination for both locals and outsiders looking for natural or herbal cures.
Golden Smile Health Shop
Inside the Golden Smile Health Shop, Lan and I encountered the same girl who had greeted us two days before. She was 13 or 14 years old and wore a white T-shirt, blue shorts, and flip-flops. She was the assistant to Lan’s mother.
The girl passed through a door at the back of the shop, and Lan and I followed her into a long, narrow yard. Before us, a garden revealed an impressive collection of plants, not only sprouting from the ground but also growing in pots hanging from posts driven into the soil. The girl pruned a leaf off of a tall vine with white and pink flowers, a pink-striped trumpet lily.
“There are many plants we can use to treat diseases,” a woman behind me commented. I turned and saw Lan’s mother. Her English was easy to understand.
The teen-age girl focused her attention on a Vietnamese coriander sprout.
Lan’s mother now spoke to me in Vietnamese. “Western medicine only can help so much,” Lan translated. “I know it is the same in your country.” Lan and her mother liked to speak to me, almost simultaneously, in two different languages.
The teen-age girl, who had gone into the shop, came back out and said a few words in Vietnamese to Lan and her mother. “Mary is here,” Lan said, turning to me. “Stay with Tran.”
Lan and her mother went inside.
“Do you want a glass of water?” Tran asked. “Some coconut milk?”
The temperature and humidity were rising quickly. Tran led me from plant to plant in the yard, describing each one and its uses, including the tần dày lá, or plectranthus amboinicus, for respiratory tract disorders; the sả hoa hồng, or palmarosa, for skin maladies; and the rau má, or centella asiatica, for blood circulation.
Back in the shop, Mary, who had short, brown hair and wore a blue polo shirt, khaki shorts, and high-heeled sandals, was drinking a green liquid from a tall glass. She looked closer to 25 than 45 years old.
“My goal is to reduce the size of the tumor so that I can carry a child,” she said to me. “What do you think? Am I crazy?” A jeep pulled up outside. “Sorry, I have to go,” she said. “That’s my ride.”
Tran whipped up some noodles with a few vegetables and pieces of beef on a makeshift grill in the back. I ate. I had to show up in District 1 and collect the statistics on bi-lingual students which Karen had obtained from SEAMEO.
Lan looked at me. Her mother, frowning, looked as well. So I asked Lan, who had the day off from her managerial duties at Hotel Vissai, if she could meet me for dinner at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel at 7:00. Karen already had told me that Duy planned to take her there at 7:00pm. Lan agreed to meet me at 7:30. Her mother looked pleased.
At noon, dark clouds gathered overhead as Binh brought his taxi to a stop in an alley off Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street. I got out.
A door opened ten feet from me on the ground floor of a three-story house. Karen appeared. “Emily arrived a couple of minutes ago,” she said. “I’m going to take her to SEAMEO when I go back for my afternoon class.”
I stepped inside a narrow entryway which led to a small kitchen. The odors of a recently cooked meal were obvious. Too much garlic. “Emily wants an extra teaching job,” Karen said.
I entered the kitchen, followed by Karen. “But do you really need a second or third job?” Karen said to Emily, who sat at a table in the middle of the kitchen.
“Yes,” Emily said. “I can’t take any money from my mother right now.”
Karen stared at Emily. “Cao’s assertion that he will sacrifice his career doesn’t mean he will,” Karen said slowly. “You know that, right?”
“Why would he lie to me?”
Karen realized that she had forgotten the folder with statistics about the bi-lingual students at SEAMEO. As a bonus, she also had found a translation of a study for measuring bi-lingual competence.
But I had to accompany Karen and Emily as they walked the short distance to SEAMEO. None of us spoke as we headed southwest on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street, turned left on Mạc Đĩnh Chi Street, turned right on Nguyễn Du Street, and turned left on Hai Bà Trưng Street. It was not a pleasant stroll.
From Lê Thánh Tôn Street, we entered the courtyard of the school on the SEAMEO campus.
Before the door to the school, Emily stopped and turned to Karen, who came to a halt also. “I appreciate your help in introducing me to administrators here,” Emily said. “But I don’t understand your attitude toward Cao.”
Karen stared off into the distance. I remained silent.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Emily continued, referring to Karen’s relationship with a bank security guard over a year during which he fathered a child with another woman.
Karen looked at Emily. I remained silent.
“Yes, I know that Vietnamese men have a reputation for promiscuity,” Emily stated. “I don’t care. Cao is different.” She paused. “He loves me.”
More dark clouds gathered in the skies above us, blunting the force of the sun’s rays, but the heat and humidity in the courtyard still took their toll.
Karen stared at me, but I still didn’t speak. “What Cao says now and what he says next month could be different,” Karen said. “Still, I hope you’re right.” Karen smiled. “Whether Cao sticks with you or not, you need to be prepared.”
Emily didn’t reply.
“All right,” Karen said. “Let’s see the director.”
Hai Bà Trưng Street
With the new educational data from Karen in my backpack, I walked the short distance from the SEAMEO school to Hotel InterContinental. I stopped under a tree on Hai Bà Trưng Street across from the entrance to the hotel. After a few minutes, a black stretch Mercedes with tinted windows stopped in front of me.
The driver, a Vietnamese man in his 20s, could have been anyone, but, as the window behind him descended, I recognized Howard. “It’s nice in here,” he said, opening the back door. “It’s cool, with the air conditioning on. Get in.”
Howard slid to the opposite end of the seat, and, while closing the door, I sat in the spot he had occupied. Facing me was Phi and, in the far corner across from Howard, was Natasha. No one else was present.
The window next to me went up again, and the big car started to move smoothly and quietly, as if it had a mind of its own.
Howard was right. It was comfortable inside. While the air cooled my face and arms, the soft blue light soothed my nerves.
“Howard thinks he knows Ho Chi Minh City better than I do,” Phi said softly. “How long has he been here?” he said. “A month?”
Natasha glanced at me. A gold chain hung from her neck. “Howard has years of experience in the real-estate market in the States, in the city of Atlanta,” she said, hesitating dramatically and calling attention to her Slavic accent. “But could we find a suitable house in Ho Chi Minh City without Phi? No.” She ran a hand through her hair, self-consciously.
Natasha wanted a villa in the An Phu neighborhood, an exclusive area, located in District 2, but hadn’t bothered to tell anyone what she wanted. She was angry at Emile, her fiancée. I had suggested that she hire Phi, a local real-estate expert.
Howard picked up some papers lying next to him on the seat. “From the listing for the initial property Phi has selected,” he said, “I don’t know why we should even bother viewing this place today.” He pointed to the listing. “It’s written in English.” He looked up at Natasha. “It’s no good.”
Natasha placed a hand on Phi’s arm. “We’re going to the place you selected. Don’t worry,” she said. “You can show it to us.”
Howard looked out the window of the Mercedes. “What street is this?” he said. “Somebody tell me where we are.”
Purple Jade Bar
It was 4:00pm. The crowd at Hotel InterContinental’s ground-floor bar, called Purple Jade, occupied all of the tables. A group of foreigners seemed to speak as loudly as possible in English. Natasha, Howard, Phi, and I sat outside the bar next to some middle-aged men from London. They’d been gambling at the casino, the Palazzo Club.
“I told you,” Howard said, looking at Phi, “the master bathroom has to connect to the master bedroom.”
In the An Phu neighborhood, we had walked through a villa with 16 rooms. It rented for $20,000. Natasha had followed Phi through the empty rooms and looked out the windows; she was amused.
“The place was beautiful,” Natasha said. She took a sip from a glass of white wine. “We’ll look at two more.”
Howard took a sip from his glass of red wine. He looked at me. “Don’t feel like you have to compromise,” Howard said to Natasha. “Phi has to come up with exactly what you want.”
“Actually, that’s not true.” Natasha said. She smiled. “I don’t know what I want.” She started to laugh.
Then she stood up from the table abruptly. Her bare thigh brushed my arm as she passed me. “I’m going upstairs to take a shower.”
Under the same tree on Hai Bà Trưng Street across from the entrance to Hotel InterContinental, I waited for Binh to arrive in his taxi and take me back to Hotel Vissai. The rain came down in sheets, but I had a large umbrella.
In the taxi, Binh practiced his English. As he described a recent client, a large Russian man with a gruff manner, my thoughts turned to Karen, who now showed an interest in a relationship with Duy. Or, at least, she acted as if she no longer opposed one.
Binh pulled up in front of Hotel Vissai. I asked him to pick me up in one hour.
After showering, dressing, and sending e-mail messages to the States, I found myself back in the taxi with Binh. It was still raining. Once again, Binh was talking to me in English. Once again, I was thinking about Karen and Duy.
We approached the Rex Hotel on Nguyễn Huệ Street in District 1, at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. It was lit up.
“Are you going to meet the American or the Vietnamese woman?” Binh said.
Under an awning, a cool breeze blew against my cheek. I took a sip of wine and set the glass back down. I sat near the entrance of the bar where I had a clear view of people arriving. It was 6:55. The rain had stopped.
Across the rooftop, a number of small plants and curling vines bloomed. Their flowers infused the air with a slight perfume. The members of the musical group were setting up their equipment while young, dark-skinned Vietnamese waitresses were moving slowly under soft lights.
A couple emerged from the elevator.
At first, I didn’t recognize Karen, who, wearing makeup and high heels, looked 10 years older than normal. Also, she appeared much taller than Duy. But even for a Vietnamese man, Duy was short. The maître d’, wearing a black and orange uniform, led the two of them to a table along the railing at the front of the restaurant. They sat high above the street with a view of the park below.
When the musicians started playing, I turned around to listen and, a minute later, felt Lan beside me, touching my arm.
“Is that wine for me?” she asked.
She knew it wasn’t. I said it wasn’t. She drank it anyway.
The music was loud; the tall singer, with long, black hair, was Filipina, but she sounded American when she grabbed the microphone.
“I know that song. It’s by the Eagles,” I said.
Lan laughed. “Take it easy,” she said.
“Take it easy. The name of the song.”
Ho Chi Minh’s Statue
The four of us sat together. Duy had ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir for Lan and Karen. Also, some shrimp tapas.
“I’ve been wanting to meet you,” Lan said to Karen. She sounded sincere, but I knew she wasn’t. Lan didn’t like Karen even though Lan had never met her and knew virtually nothing about her.
I sat next to the railing on the rooftop. I looked down into the street and into the park and saw the bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh.
“We went to the opera two nights ago,” Karen said. “All of us.”
“My friend was singing in the lead role,” Duy said. “I’ve known her for several years. She is from Hoi An. So am I.”
I couldn’t keep my mind engaged. I tried to focus on something immediate. I stared at Duy, then Karen, and finally Lan. My thoughts turned to their clothes.
Duy wore a bow tie and blue suit while Karen had on a white sheath with some painterly markings on its front. In contrast, I had thrown on some light-weight hiking pants and a long-sleeved shirt from the outfitter REI. Lan wore a short skirt and black blouse.
Then my thoughts turned to the comments which I hoped that Lan would make when Duy and Karen were gone. “Karen wasn’t bad. It’ll be hard to dislike her in the future.”
At least, it had been my plan, my reason for setting up the meeting.