Bùi Thị Thiên Trang and I have had an odd relationship over the last dozen years. I responded to her posts on Xanga back when it was my preferred spot for writing and interaction. She was a student at the University in HCM majoring in English and was quite good with it. She did, however write with some archaisms and some clich́es that jarred. I took it upon myself to correct solecisms and suggest better ways of saying things. We argued, sometimes vehemently, but she saw where her education was somewhat dated in places and modified her writing and showed me some things, too. Trang supported her education and her parents by tutoring the progeny of the wealthier folks in HCM in English and she worked part time for Cleverlearn, an American English teaching company.
In 2007 I wrote to her that I was coming back to Việt Nam with my daughter, Lilith, who, at 26 was the same age as Trang. She said she wanted to meet me and arranged for us to do that at a restaurant with her parents.
Trang’s father had been an ARVN fighter pilot in the war and looked like a 1950s Hollywood version of fighter pilot, quite a handsome man in a Clark Gable sort of way. Her mother was pleasant but left the conversation to her husband. Trang and Lilith got on well.
Trang had graduated and was working full time for Cleverlearn and was starting to take on the tension of her approach to work. I didn’t see it then but in hindsight I recognized it later. She was totally focused on her work.
In 2011 I went back again and Trang insisted she had to meet me again. She was totally buried in her work at Cleverlearn and making time was difficult. She finally asked me to meet her for lunch when I had returned to HCM at the end of my trip. I took Nguyet with me so that she could meet a successful business woman. Cleverlearn had been failing and the American woman who had the franchise for Việt Nam wanted to close it down. Trang interested some men with assets to buy the franchise with Trang as the nominal CEO. The parent company was reluctant to let her keep the company name but she talked them into it.
When Nguyệt and I met with her she was showing the signs of long term tension. She was spending her annual vacations in the hospital. It was apparent that she was the whole company. She is the sort of person who can’t delegate tasks and was doing everything herself including all the details that should have been given to subordinates. She was headed for burnout and maybe an early heart attack. I was very concerned and I told her she should meditate. She is Buddhist and knows about such things. I said if she was unsure, to go to a pagoda and seek help from the tu sĩ- the master. She protested that she had not time to meditate. I answered that when one has no time for it then it is the time that one absolutely must meditate. She didn’t say anything and I left it at that.
In 2014 we met again. She said again she had no time but to come to the company building and she would try to make time. When I got word to her that I was there she abruptly left the meeting she was presiding at and flew down the stairs to meet me. She said we should go around the corner to a small café there.
Trang looked physically healthy but her eyes still looked harassed. I asked her if she meditated. She said she determined to do that after I had left the last time and had kept up at least half an hour a day since. She took her vacations in Singapore and California. But she felt like she was up against a wall. She wanted to quit and perhaps go back to the University to teach. Her partners, the money men, were telling her that if she quit she would be a failure and would never do anything successfully again. She worried that it was true. I had looked at the map that was on the wall in the Cleverlearn building and had seen that there were now 6 locations around the country instead of the one failing S̀ai Ǵon operation of 7 years before. There were notices on the wall about partnerships with universities in England and the USA. She was already a business success and I told her that. She, in her hands on everything approach had accomplished all that. The backers were passive and did not pay her much at all. She had the salary of a clerk while she built a highly profitable company for her backers. When Nguyệt and I rose to leave she hugged me and said she knew I would come back because she knew she would come up against that wall again and that is when I would appear.
This year I met her for dinner at her house in a nice neighborhood in Thủ Đức where she had prepared a formal dinner for me, Nguyệt and several visiting internet friends from Australia, California, and Taiwan. She has a freestanding house now that she shares with her parents and her younger sister. Her parents actually prepared the dinner. Her father has not changed visibly since 2007. I was gratified at the deserved affluence. She had, indeed, quit Cleverlearn and had gone to work for a Korean English teaching company that recognized her talents and pays her accordingly.They provide her with assistants to take on the repetitive tasks and the details. I guess they don’t want an early burnout for such a valuable asset. There are no walls around Thiên Trang now.
The Australian and the California lass were typical children of wealth who travel about and do a term or a year at the University in London then wander a bit and pass another term at the Sorbonne or in Madrid. Jenna was taking a few months to work for Trang’s company before heading for London for a term at Oxford. The two Taiwanese were less affluent and worked for what they had. They saved their money sufficiently to travel for a year and would graduate as engineers.
I felt very good. I watched Thiên Trang go from hard working student to CEO and then to some affluence and perhaps I have helped along the way. She thinks so. She said once I always show up when she needs a lifeline. It does seem to be that way. I don’t tell her what she should do to change her situation. I have helped her to see that things are not as they seem, that the walls that confront her are illusion.
I think she is past all that now.
I worked a lot of overtime over the last two years and knew I would have the money to go back to Khánh Hòa back in August of last year. I went online and secured the airline ticket in September to go in March 2016 and then told my boss. He was disconcerted and said well, that was irregular but I reminded him I had done it two years before also. This job of mine is low paid and for me that is an advantage. It provides enough savings that I can go off to Việt Nam for an inordinate amount of time- the company only permits 2 weeks off a year vacation- and still have a job when I get back. The turnover of employees is great because most just stay long enough to get a “real job” that pays more and they are expensive to hire, so if a long time employee who doesn’t call in sick and is always on time takes off and then comes back he still has a job. At my age that is important. I can’t just walk into a place and get hired.
I was cynical about the flight because United Airlines was the cheapest ticket by a large margin and I hate them. United does not even load luggage for a percentage of economy class passengers and the staff is rude and gives the impression that the passengers are just the cross they have to bear in order to get to go to exotic places and wear fancy uniforms. I bought my ticket from UA but none of the flights was UA and the 4 long stages were on All Nippon which, like Asian airlines in general, is excellent and the staff acts like they want you to come back to them and they don’t ship your luggage to Chicago for sale at auction. It turns out that United doesn’t fly to Sài Gòn any more and farms out its fares to ANA. I paid for Motel 6 and got the Hilton.
At TSN, my vicarious family was all waiting at the gate on the street for me and the taxi drivers were nonplussed. Foreigners with backpacks and ragged suitcases don’t have local people waiting for them!
This time I did what I advise as the first thing for old soldiers to do who ask me what to do when they go back to see the country where they were soldiers so long ago. My host, Thông, and I went on a tour. I always wanted to take a look at the Delta region. The pictures I have seen and what I heard from soldiers who had been there was fascinating and made it seem a bit like southern Louisiana.
We joined a domestic tour group, all Vietnamese with a Vietnamese speaking tour guide. The tour took us first to Mỹ Tho then to Trà Vinh thence to Bạc Liêu, Cà Mau, up to Bạch Gia then back to Sóc Trang and Bến Tre where it ended and we returned to Sài Gòn. We saw the fabled floating markets which are now mostly sustained by the tourist trade. I was interested in the watercraft- the little boats and the river freighters.The smaller boats up to even 10 to 12 meter in length all seem to be propelled by a type of long stemmed outboard motor I have not seen before. The freighters when loaded have their decks awash and their open holds are surrounded by high coamings which, along with the upturned tips of the bows, and the cabins are all that protrude above the water. The small boats with the stand-up oars are rare now, replaced by those efficient looking outboard motors. I was really interested in the water traffic, the freighters and the small working boats. My young adult years were spent on the water, mostly on seagoing fishing boats and my father was career navy so watercraft have always been my special interest.
At about nine o’clock while we were going back to the dock the foreign tours appeared on the water. The locals, and I guess I was a local on this tour, are all up and out on the water well before dawn. The foreigners don’t get out until after 8. Back home we all that “burning daylight” i.e. wasting much of a morning.
I loved the small boat tour on the canals with the trees and bamboo arching overhead and hiding parts from view from the air.
I was privileged to be able to converse with the woman who paddled our boat because the tour guide insisted on placing the foreigner in the bow right behind her. She was 20 years old and supporting her family, her parents and two siblings with the work. I left her a substantial tip when we debarked.
The zoo and the fancy restaurants were kind of a waste of time though de rigueur for a tour group. I enjoyed the night market in Bến Tre though it, like the floating market, seems mostly oriented to the tourists. Thông and I enjoyed talking to the sellers.
Back in Sài Gòn we spent the night at Thông’s oldest daughter Ly and her husband Giang’s apartment. It is one of a row of nice two room units with a large back yard bordered by a high bank and a tree lined water channel. Access is by a lockable gate that only the residents have keys for. Back home only the affluent can afford to live in gated communities. The keys are different from what I am used to and can’t be copied by any of the key copiers that ply their trade on the streets.
Ly is pregnant with twins. Her sister Nguyệt, my protégé of 13 years has one on board. Both are due in May.
Kim Anh, their mother is in a constant flutter and will be down from Cam Đức along with Ly’s husband Giang’s mother from Vũng Tàu to help out for a couple of months.
I convinced a reluctant Thông to fly with me on Vietjet to Cam Ranh instead of taking the bus. I used to like the buses back when they were regular buses with low back seats. The trip was a social occasion then with everyone talking together and sharing food. Now the intercity buses are almost all sleepers and the passenger is isolated in a cocoon that is quite the wrong shape for my size 12 (30cm) feet and they are kept much too cold. I avoid them now. Thông is afraid of flying. I didn’t like to fly after I left the Air Force and swore I wouldn’t fly again. That changed when I wanted to go back to Việt Nam. The train doesn’t go there. I pointed out Bãi Dài to him as we approached Cam Ranh and he looked but his voice got squeaky.
Back in Căm Đức I resumed my old habit of walking daily in different directions on different streets and out into the countryside. That is my preferred sort of tourism. I walk and I stop to talk whenever someone calls out to me. People are curious about the foreigner, and now I have the status of Cam Đức’s own American and I talk to strangers and to old acquaintances, drink tea or coffee or rice wine with them. I love it.
I passed Easter Week in the Xitô (the French Citeau order) monastery. Two years ago one of the thầy (brothers) gave me a wooden cross on a cord and said I have to wear it always which I mean to do.
With the political system back home deteriorating rapidly and no credible prospect of improvement I am thinking seriously about settling in Cam Đức permanently. Thông and Kim Anh have already picked out my building lot which is, coincidentally, right next to them. I have ten acres in Florida that I can sell for enough to build a house with air conditioning for my wife. I just have to convince her that it is time to go. She is averse to leaving her hometown and is afraid she can’t get the necessary medicines for her diabetes there. She can, I know now, and she would love it once there. She is a retiring-this-year primary school teacher and has tutored Chinese exchange students in English. Were she to come with me to Cam Đức I would make sure the whole town knows of her talents and we would be flooded with requests for tutoring in English. She is not happy with the idea of retirement and wants to continue teaching. Working for the government, that is not possible. She retires when the rules say it is time. She knows the future on this side looks pretty grim. My daughter Lilith, the one who has been to Việt Nam with me, and her husband are solidifying their connections to Peru where they have a way in because their oldest child, now four, was born there and is a citizen. They are learning Spanish and planning to maybe go back down there.
One way or another I will go permanently to Cam Đức. If I don’t make it while alive, I have made arrangements for Lilith to take my ashes there. I mean for them to go into the garden at Hời Ấm Thừa Sai, the convent that used to take in throw away children, disabled kids whose families could not support them so they would be left on the streets of the cities. There are far fewer of those now with the ever rising general prosperity and now the kids there are mostly retarded or autistic with a number of them being day students whose families take them home in the evening. In a roundabout sort of way I was the agent of the convent’s acquisition of support from a group of wealthy widows in Mobile, Alabama, when the place was physically falling apart and the sisters were starting to look for alternatives for the children and contemplating transferring themselves to the convent in Nha Trang. The disposal of the ashes actually depends on Kim Anh and she wants them to go to Xitô where the chủ thầy has already said there is a place. I am healthy, though, and It seems that these alternatives are some years off still.
I was in an accident on my scooter
March 31, Easter. I broke my leg. I did
not think it was broken at the time. I just
knew that I could not operate my knee,
but it was, indeed, broken. My job as a
security guard was put on hold for the
duration but I will still have it when I can
walk unassisted again.
I have been a security guard, mostly a
gate guard at beach resorts since 2005.
My friend in Cam Đức, was the
Vietnamese equivalent of a sharecropper
as it was a hundred years ago in Mississippi .
A couple of years after I started working
at Regency Towers beach resort the
political and work disabilities were lifted by the government from the Catholics in Việt Nam
and large and/or foreign employers were then allowed to hire Catholics.
There is a long beautiful Pacific Ocean beach near Thông’s village in Khánh Hòa that was being
developed to lure foreign tourists. Beach resorts were going up on fifteen to twenty miles of the beach. It
occurred to Thông that maybe those beach resorts needed security guards like the ones in America so he
took himself out to the beach and was hired as a gate guard at a large complex then under construction.
His income more than doubled and money came in regularly instead of being concentrated in a three month
period leaving the rest of the year to catch as catch can odd jobs and a low calorie diet.Thông was not
content to work only his assigned hours and gladly worked on his days off substituting for other guards who
wanted extra days off or were sick.
Thông and I worked the same jobs for the same sort of employers for several years. For the last year I
have been working at a shipyard, still on the gate. Then I broke my leg.
I have been supporting Thông’s daughter Nguyệt in school since she was fourteen in 2003. The accident
induced hiatus from my job put me in a bind because for up to three months I have no income except just five
hundred dollars a month Social Security. I had some savings because I am always putting money by for the
purpose of buying my next airplane ticket to Việt Nam but still sending the money Nguyệt needs would be
Fortunately I had insurance on my scooter. The adjustor came to the house and got out his clipboard and
calculator. His laptop computer was mounted in his car and was Wi-Fi connected to the internet. I said nothing
to him beyond greeting him. I did not point out to him that the front end of the scooter had been modified by a
previous accident and some fiberglass and an ad hoc headlight. It was painted though, and looked good. He
asked me no questions, just looked at the scrapes and breaks and the pieces of the plastic fender. Then he
went to his laptop and looked up the prices of the affected parts. He was amazed at the cost of plastic fairing
parts and did not consider repair of damaged pieces, just replacement parts. When he was finished he wrote
me out a check that was what I had paid for the scooter in the first place. The scooter was not operationally
damaged, only aesthetically. The money was gravy and would keep the support going to Nguyệt while I
recuperate. I would not have to eat up my Việt Nam travel fund after all. Last week the telephone rang in
the middle of the night and I managed to get up on my crutches and get to it in time to answer it. It was
Nguyệt. The connection was bad and she sounded frantic. I could not understand he rin Việtnamese or in
English. I spoke slowly, supposing that the quality of the sound was as bad at her end as it was at mine and
told her to put it in email and I would answer quickly.
She has the laptop I sent her when she started grad school and connects to internet with it but she didn’t
compose the email immediately. She said later she was too distraught at the moment. 6 hours later her note came
to my email. She said her dad had been in an accident on his scooter and had broken his leg. She said the
situation was very bad.
I emailed back and asked her for details.
Over the next two days we traded many emails and phone calls and I found out that the situation was,
indeed, very bad. She sent pictures of him in the infirmary bed with his leg wrapped up in what was only
a splint. He could not get the operation it needs without payment of 18 million đồng first, about $860. I know
he has a couple of hundred dollars in savings but there is no monthly payment plan so I had to promote the
rest. Actually I found nine hundred dollars and sent it by a money transfer company that takes the cash to the
recipient’s door, but it takes three or four days so I emailed Nguyệt with a scan of the check and the particulars
and told her to tell her mother to take it to the gold shop and see if they could promote a loan for a week. I
think the gold shop will do it. The proprietor knows me from the times I have stayed there. Time is important.
The sooner the bone is properly set the more likely a good outcome.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Kim Anh, Thông’s wife called at midnight. It is the first time she has called that I have understood what
she said. She normally talks too fast and the connection is always bad. Last night she spoke slowly and
enunciated each word. She said that Thông’s leg had been operated on. She had taken my email detailing
the $900 I had sent to the doctor and that said that the money was coming. It was done immediately. It
will be two days before the money actually gets there.
Tôi còn cầu nguyện cảm ơn Chúa.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
And an update:
Thông got his leg fixed and now I find out his cheekbone is broken, too, but that is covered by the money
I sent. That might be tougher than the leg. When I broke my upper jaw back in ’72 I had to have my jaws
wired shut for three months and could only “eat” through a straw. Everything had to be pureed. The string
beans were a bit much, the strings got stuck in my teeth in a tangled mass. I hope he doesn’t have to go
through anything like that. Whatever happens Kim Anh will take very good care of him. He also has
fourth degree burns- that’s to the bone- on his leg and a hand. I will see how that came out when I go back there.
I have had to insist to Nguyệt that she not feel she has to put grad school on hold while she returns
home to help take care of Dad. As an unmarried daughter in a traditional society it is difficult for her not to
do that. I think I convinced her that she can help her father more by finishing her education and using that
MBA to lever herself into the middle class (for a start). She is working now part time for an export/import
company that deals mostly with companies in Taiwan.
Đi du lịch ở lại Nha Trang
After visiting Nguyệt’s house in Sài Gòn just before getting on the airplane to come back to Florida and being appalled at the minimality of the place, the squalor as it were, I determined that it had to be improved. I told her to go find another place, that I would figure out how to pay for it if she could get a better apartment. That would make things pretty tight for me back home and it is added to the support I promised for her little brother to go to trade school but it had to be done.
I reordered some of my own expenses to increase what I send to Nguyệt and my daughter is helping , too. Nguyệt is is beginning “additional education” or, as we would call it, grad school, in the fall. I promised to see her through to graduation from the University and am happy to add grad school to that. I will have two kids with college degrees, even if one of them is not actually related to me.
Thương wants to be a motorcycle mechanic but I told him no. While there are many millions of scooters in Việt Nam, they are yesterday’s job market. He is a young fellow and the future is not in two wheelers. Their abundance must decline and automobiles must increase and there are more motorcycle mechanics on one street in Sài Gòn than there are in Georgia. That same prospect led me to propose A/C and Refrigeration training because there is more money in that and the market is only beginning to open. Right now there is far more equipment than there is repair capacity but now I think he made the better choice. For now. Auto Mech costs a third of A/C and does not take so long. So if he does well with it and shows some aptitude for things mechanical, then when he graduates from that I will push hard to go back for A/C. I want him to be prosperous. Thương and Nguyệt have already assured me, unbidden that they will take care of Ông Mỹ in his old age. I like that.
So Nguyệt and Thương and Lý and Khanh and Nham have a new place. They found it and moved within a week of my saying I would support it. They could do that because Lý and Nguyệt both save money. I had told Nguyệt she should long ago. She did not “take my advice,” so much as it legitimized for her a propensity to stash đồng for that ngày mưa. She could do it without worrying that If I knew she had a stash I would think I was sending too much. It was part of the reason for the scroungy mouse hole they were living in. But I told them I would be sending more for them to get a new pad so they got a new pad, and for less than I had suggested.
Nguyệt sent me pictures. They are kind of blurry and too much pictures of Lý and Nguyệt in front of the things I wanted to see but they show me that it is a nice place.
The house has windows(plural) and the bathroom wall is tiled so there is a shower and there is a door. There are cabinets and a sink with water. There is a staircase with a hand rail.
That’s Nguyệt in yellow and Lý in pink.
By the way, Lý needs a husband. She is educated, industrious, sweet and 24.