Vietnamese women in conical hats and peasants' pajamas squatted in the hot afternoon and the oldest women had rounded backs like shrimp. They picked the weeds and left the quack grass so that from a distance the grounds of the industrial park appeared level and neat but up close the grass was coarse and ugly. The park was in an outlying district of the municipality of Ho Chi Minh City. It had been an army base, apparent in the barracks-like lunch canteen and the rusted thirty-caliber still on its tripod and off to one side. The gun was a joke among the park's young professionals, including the American.
“It seems a very strange welcome for the foreign delegations,” he said to the young Vietnamese man as they walked through the park.
“The government wants to remind everyone who is in control,” the Vietnamese, Minh, said.
The two approached the gate where the peeling and overgrown outer wall came around and the paved road and sidewalks of the park ended. Half a dozen security guards loitered in the shade just inside the gate. Their uniforms were new and one had a friendly face while the others looked away as the two passed. Outside the walls in the shade of the great bo tree the two young men sat on short plastic chairs of red and blue.
“How long do you think it will take for her to come over?” the American, Paul, said.
“Too long,” Minh said. “Co oi!” he called.
The woman stood up from behind her coffee cart and was pregnant. She had been sitting in the shade. She came up without speaking.
“Phan ta,” Minh said.
The pregnant woman looked at Paul.
“Phe da,” he said.
She went back to the cart, then came with three more red chairs. She returned to the cart.
“Does she need help?” Paul said pointing to his head.
“I don't care about her,” Minh said looking down.
“You don't sound like a Buddhist monk.”
“I'm not yet.”
Out on the dusty main road the trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, carts, and cyclos passed.
Bao came out of the gate on his Honda. He rode up and dismounted.
“Is your Honda Chinese or Japanese,” Paul asked. Bao laughed and shook his head as he sat down in a red plastic chair.
“I can't afford Japanese,” he said.
“Miss Hoa can,” said Minh. It was an effective joke in English and they smiled and Bao laughed. Cong came out of the gate on his Honda.
“Don't talk to him when he comes here,” Minh said to Bao. Bao put up his hands and made an innocent face. Cong came up and sat down.
“Ong phat,” he smiled at Minh. “Our Buddhist monk.” Bao laughed.
“He is like the Buddha sitting under the bo de tree,” Paul said, and the other two laughed and nodded.
“Do you offer incense and fruit at the pagoda for the company?” Bao asked with a broad smile. Minh remained unaffected. They teased him for being upright and a virgin. He neither smoked nor drank, and worked very hard. The pregnant woman came over with the bottle of orange Fanta and a glass of ice.
“Jesus Christ, do you think she could bring the table over first?” Paul said. Bao laughed again. Minh took the bottle and glass from her.
“Ban,” he said with annoyance and without looking at her. She went away. He shook his head. “I don't know about her,” he said. She came back with a small maroon plastic table.
“Thank you,” Paul smiled up at her. She looked at him and walked away. “Has she even taken your orders yet?” he asked Bao and Cong.
“Not yet,” Cong smiled.
"You ask her politely,” Paul told him.
“Cong is always polite,” Bao tried.
“Don't talk to him and don't talk about him,” Minh said to Bao. He had an impressive command of English. Bao put up his hands again and made the face.
The pregnant woman came over with Paul's iced coffee. Cong suggested to her in Vietnamese that he would like to drink the same. Paul nodded and winked at him.
“She didn't take your order, Bao,” Paul offered.
“To your wife or girlfriend?” said Cong.
He didn’t go. They sat and waited for the pregnant woman to come with Cong’s iced coffee. She took a long time making it.
“I pray every night for our company,” Cong offered.
“My god," Bao said in Vietnamese. “And I pray every night for progress, development, the Party and State." He was on the payroll of one of the English language periodicals.
Sang came out of the gate on his motorbike and drove over. He sat down without speaking in the last red plastic chair.
“What did the officials say?” Paul asked him.
“The administration would like to change the name.”
“Change it to what?”
“Maybe to 'Software Park.’”
Bao made a disgusting noise and stood up. The others didn't look at him. He said goodbye and they repeated it. He put on his helmet and light jacket in the heat and drove away in the dust.
“Why would they call it a software city if they're going to build a medical center?" Paul asked.
“They don't agree on that yet,” Sang said.
“It would be nice,” Cong said. Paul shook his head.
“You disagree that a medical center would be good?” Minh asked. Paul leaned over and looked at him and pretended that the other two were not sitting nearby.
“Do you think that anyone in your family could afford to come to the medical center?” he said.
“Of course not,” Minh assented.
“Dung roi,” Paul concluded. He looked at Cong and Sang.
“Do you think that any of you, anyone who works in the God damn park, those security guards or the women with backs like shrimp, could afford to go to the medical center?” They looked at him. ““How about the crazy woman when she has her baby?”
“So,” said Minh, “you don't agree that it is a good investment?”
Paul sat back. He drank from his coffee. “People will come and it will make money,” he said. “But not the people. You know who will come, and you know why they have the money. That is development but not progress.”
The bar of the gate opened and a sedan with shaded windows left the industrial park. A man and woman sat in the back seat. The young men in the shade remained unseen.
“They are going home,” said Sang.
“Together?” Cong asked.
“How much does Miss Hoa pay the driver a month?"” asked Paul.
“More than she pays us,” said Cong.
“But not more than she pays Paul,” Minh said to Paul.
Paul held out his hands, palms up. “Her hands are red. She’s got blood on her hands. Her money is bloody.” He turned to Cong. “You’re too young to know, but your father knows what I’m talking about. You ask him." Cong’s father had been an English instructor in Bien Hoa before reunification, and had been jobless since, meaning twenty-five years.
“If you receive bloody money then your hands are red too,” Minh said.
“She's moving to America soon,” said Sang.
“When she goes Mr. Kanazawa will start managing the daily affairs, and you'll find out what a Western manager can do to you. There won't be any coffee at four-thirty in the afternoon. No sleeping for thirty minutes after your one-hour lunch.”
“No bloody money.”
They sat and waited. The glasses on the low plastic table were sweating and the ice had melted, mixing with the last of the contents. The trunk of the bo tree was gray and smooth and the leaves overhead were sparse but enough to produce shade in the day. Most of the trees had been eliminated from the outlying districts as the city developed. Now the districts were hot and polluted and sprawled for many kilometers. The sun was going down and the sky was blue and low.
Nam came out of the gate riding Paul'’s motorbike. He came up and stopped and grinned at Paul. Paul took his dong out of his shirt pocket but Minh refused to let him pay. Nam dismounted and Paul straddled the cycle.
“Cam on,” Paul said.
“You’re welcome,” Nam answered. He was ill educated in both English and Vietnamese.
“Khong co gi,” Paul repeated with a northern accent and Nam smiled at his pronunciation.
“Correct,” he said. “See you again,” he said.
“Hen gap lai," Paul repeated. He put on his helmet and rode off as the sun was setting.
He drove the Ho Chi Minh Highway to August Revolution Street. The streets were packed very tightly and although the traffic was mostly motorbikes and bicycles nearly touching one another it was a very impersonal thing and there was neither conversation nor recognition.
The streets were named for Party members and either under repair or in disrepair. Everywhere the government asserted its presence with men in fatigues and uniforms. Public security forces sat outside of People’s offices or rode in jeeps or on high-powered motorcycles. No one knew for what the truckloads of young men in Cuban camouflage had been conscripted. The young men who were not conscripted slaved in sweatshops for two dollars a day and national development. Many youths rode new and powerful but cheap Chinese-made motorbikes and the older people rode Hondas from before renovation and European cycles from before then. The girls on bicycles rode with straight black hair down their straight backs and they would no longer have to worry about their backs being bent like shrimp. The schoolgirls wore the long-flowing white dresses now made of polyester and no longer of silk. The cyclo drivers rode along with their possessions, a water bottle, hat, or plastic bag as a poncho, and only sometimes did they possess the cyclo itself.
He was on a path along a canal covered with an oily film and stagnating between black banks littered with plastic. He turned into an alley and at the end of the alley he turned into the walled courtyard of a low home. It was dark and the small courtyard was an open-air café of plastic chairs and tables under umbrellas in the dark with only Christmas lights. The boys looked at him but the girls did not get up from their laps.
Inside the house the mama san was on the floor at the foot of the television in an unbecoming position. He set his helmet on the coffee table and sat on the salon. There was a teapot and a teacup on the table but he did not help himself because the tea was always either old and strong or hot and weak. As a girl and young woman the mama san had served the Americans in a shameful capacity, and in the lean times after liberation she had cleaned the feet of Party officials with her tongue.
He took off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. One of the mama san’s twin daughters came in from the kitchen. He got her attention and made a motion over his face with his hand. The daughter went into the kitchen and came back with a towel in a bowl of ice and water. Paul cleaned his hands and face and held the cold towel hard against his eyes.
The twin daughters came in together from the kitchen where the old woman kept them. The second-born daughter was bigger than the first. He watched them as they sat down in front of the television beside their mother and he looked at them while they watched the Vietnamese opera. They were full grown but the mama san kept them off limits.
“How about your daughters?” he said to the old woman in English.
“You devil,” she said in the Vietnamese, pretending to be offended.
“Now who works?” he asked.
The mama san named the girls. Each girl had her good qualities. One kissed very cleanly and was not shy. Another was passionate, and a third receptive to everything. They wore padded bras because all the girls and women were wearing them now and you never knew what you were getting but you knew it was less than advertised. The mama san often complained that you could no longer find good girls, hard-working girls like her daughters or ones that did not act like American girls. Turnover was high and she would hire a new girl from the countryside and after some time the girl would disappoint and return to her hometown or disappear in Ho Chi Minh City. The café girls caused her many problems and headaches and business was poor and everything changing for the worse.
Paul found the girls did their job well, never made problems for him and were always willing even during their three days a month. He took out his dong and produced the equivalent of five dollars, a green bill with the calm and unknowing face of Ho Chi Minh.
James Jay Egan’s fiction has appeared in The Antigonish Review and Westview, and on-line at Scrivener’s Pen, The Circle, and Gowanus; more will appear in upcoming issues of The Kit-Cat Review and Richmond Review. He lives in Vietnam.