In 2008 I taught at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City for a semester. It was a vigorous, animated experience for me – I was a young man, only a year into my undergraduate degree. I had never traveled outside of the Anglosphere before and decided to go to Vietnam on a whim. The decision to teach there and my subsequent experiences shaped the rest of my education, my further travels, my career and my twenties in general. In other words, the whim to teach in Saigon literally changed the rest of my life. But where did the whim to teach come from? What determined that, what is ultimately responsible? I have my ideas, but when you climb these ladders it only gets murkier and murkier until you hit nature/nurture and your brain explodes … at least in my experience. I went. That’s enough.
I got off the plane and in a taxi and BAM I was there.
I lived on the top floor of a four-storey building, one of the University’s several campuses and the best located lifestyle-wise. The first three storeys were classrooms and administration rooms and the fourth, which used to be a library, had been converted into a living space and kitchen with two huge bedrooms. I shared a shiny, tiled bedroom with another teacher at the school, a young Welshman named Huw. We each had a double bed, there was a cable TV, two desks, wardrobes and a window into the street below. The street was nothing more than an alley, really, and could barely fit a car. In spite or perhaps because of this it was a happening street, always full of locals and students. There were some real characters, who I hope to get to writing about later.
Directly out the window was the living space of the family who ran the café across the road. They did most of their personal hygiene-related stuff on the balcony right there, always clothed (the women would keep on pyjamas, the men just briefs) meaning that when I looked out the window in the morning I was often confronted by bare flesh. I didn’t care, but it was definitely a bit awkward when I first opened the blinds for some sun and once or twice caught the daughter’s eye, who was about my age, as she washed her hair outside. I’m not a pervert, I swear.
Another window projected out across the rooftops. In my direct block there was no traditional or “Confucian” architecture as such; it was all utilitarian rectangles, blocks of concrete, clear windows. Lots of mould and mildew from the constant rain, lots of green from fast growing plants that had found habitats in weird places on building sides and roofs. Although plants found their niches there was nothing in the way of wildlife – not even a rat or two, which were plentiful elsewhere in the city. I don’t know why.
Because the apartment was originally a library and only recently “converted” there were two cubicle toilets. Great you may think – however, both cubicles were accessed from the shower and bathroom, nullifying their convenience considerably. How often do two roommates need to use the toilet at the same time? Rarely. How often do they need to use the shower and/or bathroom/toilet at the same time? Most mornings! That’s just how it went. We were very fortunate to be housed in such plush accommodation – paid for by the University – so we weren’t complaining.
Everything in our apartment was new. We were its first tenants and were informed to keep everything wrapped in its protective plastic. We slept on great, firm mattresses – wrapped in plastic. Our desks and desk chairs were a nice teak brown – wrapped in plastic. Our wardrobes were – you get the idea. This gave the flat a very shiny appearance, for lack of a better word. It was also a constant reminder of the relative investment the University had put into the accommodation, and that although the flat was daggy and odd to me, it was the institution’s premium option for visiting guests. Many of the other teachers at the University – and certainly most of the students – had never experienced such luxury.
I had only been financially independent for a few years before I moved to Vietnam. I ate a lot of take-out in the first years out of home, renting in Melbourne’s inner-east, but I also cooked a lot, usually pretty average fair: lots of deep-fried chicken wings, pasta, pizza, parmigiana, chips, that sort of thing. From these habits I was used to tipping excess oil down the sink. I had never considered that might be an issue in some kitchens, let alone that it was a faux pas for the environment. So when I tipped hot oil down the sink in our apartment’s kitchen I was not ready for it to burn directly through the plastic piping that was used to remove the sink water from the premises.
Oil, potato waste and water crept across the kitchen floor in a slow-moving, foul-smelling avalanche. I had just fried up chips for guests – some Australian teachers from other schools in Saigon, I hosted a few dinner parties in those days – so it was a bit of a catastrophe. If I remember correctly later that night there was also a power black-out and we had to descend four flights of stairs in stinking, pitch darkness to find the building’s security guard, who lived on the ground floor almost permanently, laying in a hammock and watching soap operas. He sorted it out pretty quickly and I felt like quite the fool.
The security guard’s name was Dien. Although he didn’t speak any English, because of the fact that I saw him every day we developed something of a rapport. Dien had a family and children but they were grown up and he didn’t see them much. Dien had fought in Cambodia in the 1980s and had a low opinion of Khmer people. He never told me about his life during the American War; he would have been alive then, quite young though. I don’t know where his sympathies lay. Dien didn’t drink much, but he did smoke. He was always very good to me, very patient, and he looked after my rented motorcycle carefully when I parked it downstairs.
The ground floor of the building would turn into a motorcycle car park during class hours and my bike could sometimes be buried five or ten motorcycles deep if I was running late – but Dien would push me aside, wade in and shift every single one of those bikes, clearing a path for me. He wouldn’t let me lift a finger; maybe out of kindness or deference, but probably because he feared I would drop one and ruin everything. Although I motorcycled the busy city every day, I always got the sense that Dien didn’t really respect my skill as a rider. He mimed accidents a lot, pressing upon me how busy and dangerous it was to commute by motorcycle.
I think he thought it was a genuine miracle that I got home every day. He was right – some days it was!