Living in the apartment on Nguyen Trong Tuyen, high above the University classrooms, was also my first experience with having domestic help. In Australia this is economically unfeasible for middle class workers, thanks to our reasonable wage regulations and lack of a large migrant underclass. There is also a definite streak of the ridiculous associated with hiring a maid in Australia, with exceptions here and there the gist is: You can’t clean your own house? What are you, pathetic?
The maid who took care of our apartment thankfully was attached to the building as a whole, not just the apartment. This meant she was on hand during business hours but only occasionally was she in the actual apartment: most of her workload involved cleaning the classrooms and communal areas. I found her attentions a little weird at first – it was like staying in a hotel … but my house – but after a few discussions we came to a comfortable equilibrium.
I have completely forgotten her name. She wasn’t the last maid I was lucky enough to have and unfortunately their names have all receded into black, totally replaced by their function. I still remember their smiles though, for whatever that’s worth. I assume they were real smiles. I hope they were real smiles.
There were some classic characters on our street and in the school. My two main contacts and peers at the University were the teachers Mr. Que and Mr. Ky. They were both tall, strapping Vietnamese men in their early sixties – over six foot tall, fit and greying gracefully. They took me out for pizza a couple of times and regaled me with war stories. They had both been in ARVN – the Army of the Republic of Vietnam – and had trained in Texas during the American War. They were the driving force behind the University hiring foreign teachers, a significant political breakthrough – I was one of the first two foreign teachers to work there back in 2008.
After the war ended in 1975 Mr. Ky and Mr. Que had found an eventual peace but they definitely retained an overwhelming bitterness about their defeat. They openly insulted Hanoi, the Vietnam Communist Party and North Vietnamese people generally. In their minds they were fighting with the U.S.A. for southern autonomy, for democracy, for human rights, capitalism and prosperity. They loved Denmark in particular (“so quiet! so civilized!”) and would regularly show off their knowledge of Western pop culture.
Mr. Ky had a habit of calling me James Dean. I don’t know why. I had long, curly golden hair at the time – metalhead style – which looked nothing like James Dean, yet Mr Ky would always point at me and go “Hey, you got style! You’re like James Dean! He’s James Dean! Cooooool, like James Dean.” I just went with it after the third or fourth time – it’s all relative right – I certainly did look a lot more like James Dean than, say, all the non-Caucasian teachers. Sure, I’m James Dean reincarnate, teaching Business English in Saigon. Smooth action.
Another teacher who I can’t remember the name of was very friendly at first. We had some good chats. He was another Southern Patriot. Then he started suggesting that he take me and Huw, my Welsh roommate, to a Vietnamese spa. He maintained these were excellent places, the best places to relax after a day’s work teaching. So eventually Huw and I relented and we went along with this teacher to his favourite spa. You know – it was alright. There was no funny business, just a lot of staring. The proceedings were routine: massage, foot rub, spa, sauna, etc.
In the weeks to come however the teacher didn’t display as much enthusiasm for me at the University – which was fine with me. But it did make me wonder what it had all been about. Did he just want to check out what two white monkeys looked like in their swimmers? Was he parading us around for the staff and his peers at his local spa, for status? Did I commit a deadly faux pas during the foot massage and tarnish his reputation, putting a chill on relations? I’ll never know. Just another of many “I’ll never knows”.
One man who lived on the same street as me used to walk up and down the road every evening with his ratty little terrier dog. He was always shirtless and smoked cigarettes slowly. We had passed each other many times on our routines until one day he simply stopped me in the street and said to me in decent English, “do you want to come to my house for dinner?” I was like, “well yeah, sweet.” So I followed him into his house, which turned out to be a single room about six metres squared with a single loft bed. He lived there with his wife and dog, all on top of one another.
“You drink beer?” he asked. I nodded and he sent his wife – who spoke no English – out for food and booze and sat me down on a plastic stool.
Then he started his story. He was another ex-ARVN soldier. Now he drove trucks and got up at 4AM every day for the privilege, which he made a big commotion of. Fair enough; 4AM bites hard. I can’t remember the situation exactly, but he had at least one child who was now an adult living somewhere else in the city. What got me about this neighbour was his photo album, which he pulled down from his dusty shelves and showed me early on in the night. There were pictures from the war, from Saigon in the “olden days”.
Then there were a bunch of pictures of him looking thin, emaciated really, with a pretty pissed off face in a big, dry rice paddock.
“Communist education camp,” he snorted derisively. “I was there for four years.”
It was the same person but the distinctions were shocking. The old codger sitting in front of me had a bit of a gut and a full moustached face – the chap in the photo looked on the brink of death. It wasn’t quite Ethiopian famine or Khmer Rouge-style horror, but it was clear that the “education camp” had not been a picnic.
Eventually his wife returned with food to cook and a couple of plastic bags full of 333 Beer, or “bababa bia” in toneless Vietnamese. It’s a rice lager packaged in cans in Vietnam; they export it to Australia now in fancier bottles. I had already drunk my fair share of the stuff before this get-together so I was happy to get started. We shot the shit while his wife did the cooking – it was awkward, she was obviously slaving away and did not share equal rights in the household – but what could I do? I just made the most appreciative, genuinely thankful gestures that I could to her and smiled a lot.
Four hours later and it was getting towards midnight. We were both drunk off our faces and the beer had run out. In fact, we probably would have kept going “mot, hai, ba, YO!” into sun-up if the beer hadn’t run out, so it was good that it did. The chap’s wife was already asleep above us. I stumbled the hundred metres back to my building and had one of the many peaceful, drunken sleeps I enjoyed in Vietnam. What were we talking about for the remainder of that evening before I left? Stuffed if I can remember.