Saturday, December 01, 2007


Today was a work day for Sunshine. Since she was doing something particularly interesting, I tagged along. As part of a multi-national cultural exchange, Sunshine's employers, along with several local venues, have financed a leg of the Dana Leong Band's1 Southeast Asian tour. The band hails from New York City, the musicians are super nice, and they've been playing in places like Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Tonight they played the Municipal Theater in Sài Gòn District, Ho Chi Minh City. I went for both reasons: one, tonight was the very last day that the theater, commonly called the Saigon Opera House,2 will be open before major renovations; and two, I was interested in how Dana Leong's jazzy love-in hip-hop thing was going to sit with the Vietnamese audience. Of the former: damn, Saigon's opera house is beautiful: a light yellow French Colonial masterpiece of angles and curves and all the ornate doodads that one expects in French stuff. This theater was built as an opera house by the French shortly after colonization, then survived the French war to house part of the Southern Vietnamese government until after the American war when it was turned into a city theater under the unified Socialist Republic government. Since then the building's façade has been restored once, in the nineties. The opera house was due to close yesterday for an extensive internal overhaul put off at the last minute to accommodate Dana Leong. The band was great; the Vietnamese audience got up and danced. I'm not so proficient as to follow the occasional moody aimlessness of jazz; but I loved the hip-hop and was amazed by the deep-seated band proficiency displayed. The sound-check was fascinating: the one-hundred-ten year old stone and plaster chamber being a bit warmer than most rave scenes. [Cavin]

Friday, November 30, 2007


Since about a week before US Thanksgiving, Christmas has been coming to Ho Chi Minh City. Strings of lights have appeared here and there across town, maintenance people squat in front of every hotel untangling wires, a silver tree has grown on the top of a building on the far side of Reunification Palace, just visible from our living room window. As the year creeps toward December, things have picked up speed: there's a plastic North Pole toy factory diorama encapsulating the doorway to Saigon Center, large decorated evergreen forests have appeared in a few public parks, and a canopy of lights now stretch from the lobby of our building to the busy street out front. A sequence of shrunken Santa heads dangle like trophies over our reception desk. A large tree has appeared at the entrance to the building's lounge. Christmas garishness was bigger in Hong Kong already, of course, that being an incredibly tacky and festive city anyway. Many buildings fronting on Victoria Harbor sport light displays running along facades dozens of stories tall: presents, tree ornaments, whatever can be fashioned legibly from light bulb resolution. There was a rotating display of large pink space pandas near Jordan Station, hanging upside down in fishbowl helmets, apparently planning to beam presents down around this time of year. Hong Kong's odd. In Saigon, there are more trees and lights and greenery every day. People sell fake trees on the roadside. While I was appreciating our own fake tree, the guys who tend our lounge asked me where I was going for the holiday. I told them it was too expensive, that we would have to stay in Ho Chi Minh City. "Oh," they were surprised, but reassuring: "Christmas is really nice here." Then they added "but no snow." [Cavin]

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Just a slice of life. I read for an hour over coffee while waiting for Sunshine to get off work today. I was at Saigon Center, a high-rise south of my apartment building. There are three viable coffee places in the building, at three corners of the ground floor. I was in Highland Coffee, northwest corner. Saigon has these like DC has Starbucks; I like these better. I was sitting on the patio--maybe not as nice as it sounds because this patio faces the Lê Lợi Street sidewalk, little barrier between me and n lanes of struggling traffic. Traffic is mostly scooters, of course, but they blow: horns in front, fumes behind. Scooters act like foot traffic, the horns are them talking to one another. A boy with a bucket wanted me to let him shine my boots. They hate the way I've let my shine go. I gave him the no gesture, but he persisted so I ignored him. I read. A boy with no thumbs asked for money and I didn't give him any because my smallest bill was a fifty (thousand), worth over two coffees but not at Saigon Center. I can't articulate this, so I read. Another man came by with a bucket and I read. A man pulled his wife along Lê Lợi on a sled. Sometime later, there was a very little boy dressed in yellow wearing shoes that squeaked like rubber bath ducks. He ran around and he squeaked frequently because of it. In rush hour the traffic is a lot closer than the curb, it's important to know where your children are. It works: this was the most difficult thing to ignore all day. While the kid was playing near me, I was unable to concentrate on my book. [Cavin]


Our first dining-out experience in Vietnam was Korean. I don't know what the restaurant is called since the sign is also Korean. We'd tried locating both an Indian and then a Vietnamese place--likely candidates from our guidebook--but we'd failed: one restaurant had relocated and the other had simply vanished. We occasionally see the latter mentioned on advertisements and maps, but have canvassed the neighborhood without discovering it. The restaurant we settled on that day was swell. I enjoy Korean food and was impressed by this establishment's quality. The only bad thing about it seemed to be me: I was still uncomfortable about navigating public Vietnamese places. It was all still very new. I remember the dining experience as nervous and awkward. I also remember the magnificent barbequed octopus. Sunshine doesn't love Korean food. Since she also worked late tonight, I decided to eat there again alone. I figured my discomfort should have diminished in tandem with my mounting relaxation in other local restaurants. But no. It's not me; the ending of culture shock begins when not blaming it for other factors. It's that one restaurant. I walked in the door tonight and all the Korean diners just stared at me until they were certain I wasn't going to flee. Then a distant waitress gestured idly, possibly at some lonely table or perhaps the upstairs. Later, I hastily pointed out my food selection as another waitress walked away with my menu. I was unable to choose a drink in the time allowed. She never spoke to me. I felt clumsy with the heavy metal chopsticks. The other customers stared. Eventually I paid up and then I did flee. The food was excellent: raw seafood omelet, often referred to as pancake, with five bowls of astonishingly good kimchi. [Cavin]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Today was day two of unpacking all of our stuff. Some history: when I arrived in México, at the end of April 2005, Sunshine had already been living there almost three months without this shipment having been delivered; it arrived at our house three days after I did. I hardly remember that house without our stuff in it. It was a huge, two-story place we couldn't possibly fill. We did not yet have enough shelf space for all our books. Currently, I have grown satisfied with this apartment unadorned, and there's scarcely room for the one hundred large boxes those seven men delivered yesterday. There is only one long interior wall down the length of this apartment to accommodate all our shelving units. It's the drawback of that penthouse apartment I've always dreamed of: all our exterior walls are breathtaking picture windows, but useless space for other things like pictures and furniture like bookcases. And holy wow did the Mexican moving company do a thorough job: we'd unraveled only four of those bookcases before the kitchen was filled to the top of the fridge with brown paper and cardboard. The whole experience of these two days has been tantamount to those little plastic puzzles* where the solver must slide eight colored squares, one at a time, into a shifting blank space, in the proper sequence to arrange a picture. I moved that last square today and the revelation is a letdown: there are no longer boxes, but personal effects, piled haphazardly in every room; a string of mismatched bookcases leads down the whole apartment, sharing lone interior wall-space with every stick of furniture we own. Oh, and for the record: our handy Mexican box-cutters were actually in the second-to-last box I hacked open with a kitchen knife today. [Cavin]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


We've safely returned from Hong Kong. It was a terrible flight of loud, rude, and bewildering characters all crushed into economy with us; it had an uncommunicative pilot, robotic attendants, and a pork dinner; it ran late and was turbulent. It was a relief to get home, even though Hong Kong was so wonderful. Really, it's possibly the most aggressively globalized place I've ever been: obsessively bilingual, racially diverse, and cutely trendy as all get-out. Hong Kong is very tall and colorfully lit. Like if Manhattan were plopped on top of Vegas and filled with Japanese candy. It's without a doubt one of the very coolest places in the world. I'll gush more later; and if I can stand to attempt it, I'll try to fly back there again someday and spend more than just these woefully inadequate four days. Back to the first sentence again: I got home last night, late; and then just after noon today every single thing we packed to ship from México to Vietnam arrived in our living room. This is the big shipment, our personal effects, and the cardboard-encased objects* filled the whole place. I'm astounded. I was given to understand that, what with a stringent customs policy and estimated freight-speeds standards around the globe, that we might have to wait up to four months before our stuff got here. The day we were told we could schedule delivery to our building was right at the end of our fourth week. The earliest we might have had it delivered was last Monday, one day before we celebrated our first month in town. Of course, that was two days before our anniversary trip to Hong Kong, so we postponed shipment until today: the sleepy, cranky, dehydrated post-vacation hangover moving day of our dreams. [Cavin]