A Crash Course in Conditional Clauses, a Hanoi Story


The 21st century is up and running and there you are, a 25-year-old male moving to Hanoi, Vietnam on something of a whim. You have come as you were reliably informed by a complete stranger in a beach bar somewhere in Thailand that if you’re from [Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, basically any old English-speaking country], you will easily find work here, even with zero experience.

You don’t even have to schedule an interview to land a part-time job at a cruddy language school with a laughably prestigious appellation: Oxford Language. You only need to stick your head in the front door, even if you’re dressed in shorts, sandals and a sweat drenched t-shirt. Once he gets wind that there’s a foreign man on the premises, the boggled-eyed director of studies, Mr. Minh emerges to ask the all-important-question: where are you from?

Once it’s established you’re from [insert English-speaking country], he immediately ushers you towards his office, explaining along the way that one of his full-time teachers broke his leg in a motorbike crash late last night and has been evacuated to Bangkok for surgery. This means there’s 18 teaching hours a week on a plate for you starting at exactly 5.30pm this evening. You both sit down and immediately glance up at a clock with a Mickey Mouse figure in the middle. Mickey’s gloved hands indicate it’s 4.15pm. “Plenty of time!” says Mr. Minh standing up again. “But you need to hurry!”

He shakes your hand as if this is a gift from whatever gods you care to believe in then leads you back out of his office and onto the street. He beckons a ragged looking individual sitting on a grotty looking scooter held together with black strapping and gaffer tape. “This moto-taxi guy will drive you back to your hotel so you can change,” Mr Minh says as if he’s selected one of his most trustworthy lieutenants to transport you across the city.

You don’t think twice about riding pillion behind a conspicuously red-faced middle-aged man with a days-old hoppy aroma. You don’t even tell him to slow down as he hoons through one optional set of red lights after another. “Drive it like you stole it!” you shout in his right ear, not caring if he understands (he doesn’t), not caring you have no helmet (no one does), and he gives you the thumbs up as if to say, “If we crash and burn, we will crash and burn together.” You love him instantly. Henceforth, he will be your personal moto-taxi man (until you pluck up the courage to rent a scooter and navigate the streets on your own).

He delivers you to your zero-star-hotel on a small street near the Dong Xuan Market where the pungent scent of slaughtered livestock and fermenting shrimp paste never fades. The first and last postcard you ever send from Hanoi will describe the neighbourhood as “medieval” but you mean that in a colourful, evocative, I-fancy-myself-as -a-travel-writer-kind of way. You don’t know this yet, but after you check out and move into a rented ‘villa’ with three other teachers near West Lake, you will never walk down this street again.

When you return to Oxford English in your ‘English Teacher’-costume (read: Chinos, a short-sleeved shirt, an incongruous tie, a sensible pair of unpolished shoes), you meet Mr Minh’s wife, Mrs. Nhung, the accountant-slash-academic resources manager-slash-administrator, who is wearing a maternity dress, almost as if she’s trying to remind herself and others that she’s five months pregnant. All the other teachers are running off to class. You’ve no time to ask anyone for pointers. Mrs. Nhung hands you a photocopied course book and a bootlegged tape then backs away as if you will know what to do from here. You don’t.

You glance at the course book as you stroll to the class on the fourth floor. The lesson seems to focus on various conditional clauses. The murmuring you hear after entering the classroom would suggest the students see you as a trespasser. “Well, good evening,” you say, turning to face 18 highly suspicious faces. “So, if Mr Jonathon didn’t crash his motorbike, he wouldn’t be in a hospital in Bangkok right now and I wouldn’t be here tonight…” This all sounded quite clever in your head, an explanation including the relevant grammar, but no one cracks a smile. It does, however, provoke 30 seconds of solid conversation (all in Vietnamese) as those who didn’t understand ask those who did what you just said. When everyone is up to speed, a teenage girl stares at you like you’re some sort of cutthroat mercenary who drove Mr. Johnathon into a lamppost on purpose so you could hijack his class. “Where is my teacher?” she says as if she’s willing the tears to well up in her eyes.

You scrawl your own name on the board and attempt to start the lesson. Inevitably, you flounder but you just need to give it time. The students will warm to you eventually. You are, after all, just as young, tall, foreign and male as this Mr. Jonathon, attributes which will serve you well in all four of the classes that you have now appropriated. You quickly learn that playing 20-questions with the teacher will always trump sticking to the lesson plan. “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “Are you married?”, “How do you feel about Vietnam?”, “How do you think about Vietnamese women?”, “How high are you?”, “How many cups of beer can you drink?”, “Do you know how to eat meat dog?”

With the exception of the odd forty-something-year-old man who studied in the former Soviet Union or East Germany, none of the students have been abroad. This entitles you to walk around the class while talking knowingly of the world at large (99.8% of which you haven’t seen yourself). Week in, week out, as you strut around, it does not escape your attention that many of the rather attractive, young women flirt with you. If only they were as forward as the young men…

“Teacher… I love you,” sighs a young floppy-haired chap named Duc, a little dreamily, one evening. “Thank you Duc but I think what you might want to say is, ‘Teacher, I really admire you’ or ‘Teacher, I hold you in high regard…’” He writes this down unquestioningly as if he’s getting his money’s worth from this brief moment of one-on-one tuition. You pat him on the back while eyeing up the ravishing Thuy, who’s been eyeing you up since day one, as if she has questions of her own that need answering. You’re not sure how to go about asking her out so you turn to one of the other teachers, a young but well-pickled Scottish man, who warns you off pursuing students, but not for ethical reasons. “If you’re not careful, you’ll end up married with kids,” he says like he’s seen it all before (he’s been here all of six months). The only problem for him is that in spite of this knowledge, he’s stricken with an incurable dose of “yellie fever.” He tells you this with a rueful shake of the hand before deadpanning, “That’s why I can only sleep with hookers.” Without any encouragement, he offers you a brisk breakdown on the various prices for this particular service around town (and when he finishes, you get the feeling he’s expecting thanks).

Most of the other teachers you hang out with are like you, young and new to Asia. Life in Hanoi turns out to be a little like working at some sort of bizarre, hedonistic summer camp. Teachers mostly live together in clusters of three or four and drink together till three or four (night after night after night after night) and everyone is pretty much having a whale of a time.

Then there’s Philip.

Philip is a middle-aged veteran of the TEFL racket. He lives alone, dines alone and (you suspect) drinks alone. He is vague on the topic of nationality but he has a posh British accent, three passports and says he’s “nowadays, predominantly Australian…” with “some reservations”. From snippets of conversation, you gather he’s lived pretty much everywhere in the developing world but seemingly nowhere for longer than eight months.

He mentions harbouring some regrets about leaving certain places “somewhat abruptly” or “regretfully”—even “tragically”. The other teachers at the school already refer to him as Third Conditional Philip (behind his back). “Ah yes, if only I’d stayed in Ecuador/ El Salvador/ Ethiopia/ Eritrea in 1979…” you and the other teachers take turns saying while out drinking behind shuttered doors in an Old Quarter watering hole at 2am. One night, a theory is formed that Philip has worked his way around the world following the alphabet and now here he is: the letter V.

You’re at that early stage of expat life when openness, inclusivity and participation are the norm—you don’t know it yet but this won’t last—so one evening you invite him to join you and others for after-work beers. He stares back at you with a disconcerting you-wouldn’t-like-me-when-I’m-drinking-look on his face before muttering, “thank you, you are most kind but I need to rest. I haven’t slept properly in…” he trails away as if he can’t even remember how long it’s been… so you’re left to guess: Weeks, months, years?

But then once, you’re in the teacher’s room alone when Philip strides in far more exuberantly than usual. “Ha! Look who it is!” he exclaims at the sight of you. You can smell the whisky off him from metres away. He starts walking towards you a little too purposefully for your liking as if he’s going to embrace you (or worse). Thankfully, he only places a hand on your shoulder while looking over his own, as if someone might be listening in, and whispers: “I once loved a woman …” A bead of sweat is running down his temple. A bead of sweat is running down yours. “A child I’m told…” For the briefest of moments, you fear you’re about to hear some horrific confession about a teenage girl in Colombia/ Cambodia/ Cuba/ Costa Rica/ Croatia but then he drops down on one knee, throws his hands in the air and hollers, very enthusiastically, if not so melodically: “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul!” He stands up and tries to spin you around by the hand, singing along to the tune that is clearly playing vividly in his head, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright!”

Another teacher walks in and there you are, waltzing with Philip as he continues to croon: “I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe/ Where I’m bound, I can’t tell/ But goodbye’s too good a word, gal/ So I’ll just say fare thee well…” You glance at your colleague, shrug your shoulders and join in: “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind/ You could have done better but I don’t mind/ You just wasted my precious time/ Don’t think twice it’s alright!”

At the time it feels like a fun, frivolous moment but you will soon discover this is the spike of elation before Philip nosedives into the abyss. There had been something inherently wrong with everywhere else in the world he’d lived and Vietnam will be no exception. A couple of days later, he arrives to the school looking very hung-over and dispirited. The black rings around his eyes are disconcerting if not downright ominous. He sits by a desk with a mug of Nescafé laced with five spoonsful of sugar and warns everyone in the room: “You know this is exactly the sort of place that we will arrive to work one day only to discover that the doors have been padlocked from the outside.” He claims that this would most likely happen after the students have paid up for the next semester but before the teachers’ pay day. “No doubt that little shit Minh will have paid off the police to be as unhelpful as possible,” he adds, like this is a textbook move for owners of cowboy schools in developing countries all around the world.

Philip won’t wait to see if his prophecy is fulfilled. He is soon having daily quarrels and/ or blazing rows with pretty much anyone, his landlord, his karaoke-loving neighbour, taxi-drivers, food vendors, shopkeepers, pesky street urchins, the guy who delivers his tandoori chicken sandwich, “Minh the Merciless and that ghastly gestating wife of his…”and last but not least the country bumpkin labourers from the construction site opposite his house, who sit perched like birds on scaffolding or window sills and peer into Philip’s home with Hitchcockian eeriness.

The more Philip lashes out, the faster the city closes in on him. Everyone can see it’s only a matter of time before he snaps. Sure enough, eight months after he arrived, as the oracle foretold, he goes ballistic over an arbitrary detail (the school’s shitty scheduling, a lack of whiteboard markers or the ever-erratic air-con). Sensing a scene, Mr. Minh slips outside to the nearest street side green tea/ cigarette/ chewing gum stall, leaving his wife to deal with the unravelling western man.

Within minutes Philip is storming off into the gloaming with both arms clutching his brief case which is now filled with whatever salary he’s owed (umpteen stacks of musty 50,000 dong notes). There is a brief silence in the teacher’s room until someone from Ireland/ England/ Scotland/ Wales/ America/ Canada/ Australia/ New Zealand mercilessly skewers him in one: “Next stop: somewhere beginning with the letter W.”

Everyone leaves the staffroom still chuckling at this soon-to-be historic line. You walk up the stairs to your classroom on the fourth floor where 18 students await another 90-minute-session of inexpert tuition.

Much to their disappointment, you tell them to open the books and prepare for some sort of long, tedious listening exercise. The students make faces and/ or moan. They want to listen to you but you’re bored of their boring questions by now, so you snap back that if they don’t practice listening to other people, they’ll never learn anything. You press play and a man with a thick Liverpudlian accent starts taking. The students’ heads instantly wilt in bewilderment. You don’t care. You sit on the edge of your desk, ogling Ms. Thuy and the other comely maidens, but soon you find yourself picturing Philip frantically packing his suitcase back in his house. At some stage he will realise that he has to wait until morning to book a ticket to Western Samoa/ Western Sahara. He will inevitably sit down and start drinking and obviously he’s not a man for half-measures and with no job he will have nothing holding him back.

A week from now, you will learn that he is dead. All you will hear from Mr. Minh is that Philip’s body was found at the bottom of the staircase in his rented house with a broken neck. The teachers will all gasp, mutter and speculate. The conspiracy theorists will never to fail to mention the case full of cash, insinuating he had not been home alone and a victim of foul play but no family member will come to Hanoi and demand answers. One of his three embassies will repatriate the body and that will be that.

For a few weeks, Philip will remain the subject of some drunken conversations. One night, you’ll say to some of your fellow teachers, if only someone had insisted he’d come out for a beer, if only someone in any country at any stage in his life, had done enough to be considered a friend. Not that, personally speaking, you’d ever want to get too close to a guy like that. He’d have bored you to tears, if you’d let him, with his stories of how there was something wrong with here, there and everywhere and all the ones that got away (jobs, lovers, secret hideaways).

But soon you will forget all about Third Conditional Philip and get back to living your carefree existence. The months will roll by and turn into years. You will just keep doing the same old things, mainly teaching and boozing, and one night somewhere down the line, you will get talking to a teacher called Johnathon while drinking behind shuttered doors in an Old Quarter watering hole. He will mention a motorbike accident he once had in Hanoi and you’ll say, “Hey, I think I’m the guy who took all of your classes after that!” But for whatever reason, you will decide to leave out how you subsequently ended up marrying one of his former students and that she’s eight months pregnant and how none of that would have happened, if he hadn’t crashed into a lamppost. That would seem like a lot to pin on one guy over a beer at 2am.


(This story first appeared in Litro Magazine: http://www.litro.co.uk )