Saturday, December 15, 2007


Housekeeping always comes to our apartment around three. It's at this time of day, six days a week, that I go out for coffee. I like the woman who changes the sheets and towels, but I don't really know what to say to her--nor how to say it--so my gift to the serenity of her workday is to clear out and let her do her job. We did just that today, heading down the road to Le's Café. I haven’t spent nearly the time talking about traffic here in this space as I spend thinking about it here in Saigon (Sunshine blogs about it here). But there's traffic news today: the new helmet law is in effect. In Ho Chi Minh City, motor scooters outnumber cars ten-to-one. They cannot be legally equipped with horsepower enough to outrun the local khaki-uniformed transit police who supposedly get to have the very biggest scooters. Before today, those police ticketed citizens for opaque technical violations within the warp and flow of Saigon's vehicular chaos. Now they also ticket anyone caught riding a two-wheeled motor vehicle without wearing a helmet. I was skeptical about today. We've been seeing posters advertising the oncoming deadline as long as we've lived here. One shows a fractured skull, shaved and sutured, looming on a large billboard just at scooter eye level. Some are even more harrowing. I didn't think scare tactics had a hope in hell of changing the habits of a billion busily scooting southeast Asians, though. Nevertheless, on the way to the café we crossed six streets, and at all six intersections every last man, woman, and child--or all of the above--cruising the streets, sidewalks, and crosswalks wore a brand new, shiny, colorful helmet. But as a pedestrian, I'm no safer. [Cavin]

Friday, December 14, 2007


Oh yeah. I meant to mention this yesterday. On my way to the newly Deli Saigon, the house coughed up the first card of my third Saigon Stud poker hand: the torn-but-complete Six diamonds, an inauspicious middle card. Is my winning streak heading south? Luck be a lady this week. Today was the day of the great Christmas Party in the first floor lounge of our apartment building. This was not a work, but a home-related, party. Therefore it was full of strangers--our Japanese and Australian and Vietnamese neighbors--who we were expected to mingle with. Come and meet your neighbors, the sign said, from seven until late. Good food fantastic prizes, it added. This good news was somewhat lessened by our raffle ineligibility. Apparently, we were supposed to keep the gaudy invite. It isn't as if we don't have a lease, but that must be difficult to fit into the oblong box full of names. Too bad: a weeklong vacation getaway to Nha Trang* beach really is a pretty fantastic prize. Less accurate was the sign's description of meeting people, since everyone cliqued immediately into groups composed of those most comfortable screaming at one another over the half karaoke-half Filipino cover band booming under the psycho lights. Nor was the sign all that consistent with my understanding of the word late. This is Saigon. Any night I knock off at four am I can catch a taxi to an illegally open District One bar and drink till sunup (or so I hear). And yet at nine pm on the nose, two hours after the party started, the band packed up and I realized we were already some of the very few people left in the room. Though we could amiably talk among ourselves, if we wanted. [Cavin]

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I woke up when Sunshine called to let me know our movers had been successfully scheduled for this afternoon. I was in the shower when the next call came about forty minutes early. The second came ten minutes later; the third about fifteen after that. I told them each time: I was expecting the movers on schedule, not forty, thirty, or even fifteen minutes early. At five till the doorbell started ringing, and I just let it. My tactic was charmed: box traffic had backed-up as the off-loaders piled our stuff into the common hallway between our Do Not Disturb sign and the blocked elevators. When I finally opened up, guys were standing there waiting with boxes in their hands already. Their shoes were already off. Our stuff sprang into the apartment like a canned snake, elapsed time: six minutes. We received fifty-seven more boxes today, after one hundred before. Nearly two-fifths of the whole job. Today's chore was to get our things out of those boxes so the movers can return on time tomorrow and take away the leftover packaging. Then we'll spend the whole weekend putting our stuff away. Again. I took two breaks from un-boxing today. I drank my coffee in the lounge where they were doing sound checks for a Christmas party and the whole place was swimming in swirlies cast by psychedelic light machines. Later, I ate dinner at my beloved Bún Việt, except now it's Deli Saigon and the great gecko sign has been removed. Leavening my depression was the price tag for two beers, fish soup, grilled squid, and iced coffee: about eight bucks. Unleavening the leavening was the eight more hours of tedious unpacking, as breaking down boxes for tomorrow's deadline is unpleasantly akin to my days of gainful employment. [Cavin]

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A recap for the home audience: just two days ago I was talking about yesterday. I was in a hurry to finish with all this moving stuff we've been doing. Our shipment from México arrived the day after we returned from our Hong Kong Thanksgiving, and since then Sunshine has worked something like every night and weekend. The necessary labors of putting together our house have proceeded slowly, but I was on the brink of being finished. Certainly a goal in any event, but in this case a greater concern primarily because at some point our stuff from DC will dock in Ho Chi Minh City, and we'll have to go through the whole process one more time (but without the terrible flight and all that overtime). Shipments need to be twice in a row; our apartment is too small to do them two at a time. I likened my target relaxation period to the eye of the hurricane and I planned on maybe doing a little holiday shopping during that time. Enjoying my weekend. Or, you know, just going outside. That period--the eye--that was yesterday. Before yesterday, there were piles of books and DVDs in the corners, the kitchen was strewn with glassware, and the dining room table piled high with homey trinkets. My closet, not roomy, was stuffed floor to wooden bar with folded clothing. Some point late into Monday night I entered the eye. Yesterday was a dream--I live in Saigon! I walked outside in sunlight. I read mail. I visited Bún Việt, ate fish soup. I picked up the phone today and it was Sunshine tentatively telling me the second shipment had arrived and could be loaded into the apartment as early as tomorrow afternoon: the eye wall. That was fast. [Cavin]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


There is a lounge in my apartment building. There's a pool table and a number of comfortable sofas. There's a full-service bar. There's wireless internet, something it never even dawned on me to investigate during those weeks I walked six blocks down the street for wifi. Two very nice young Vietnamese nationals tend the bar. I frequently enjoy coffee in the lounge during the hour housekeeping is in our apartment. I was helped by the younger of the two lounge tenders today. He's labeled "Trainee" by a chrome nametag. As I was leaving, he asked me a question; but I still do not know what it was. I will forego attempting to phonetically interpret his somewhat halting English here. I heard the words "do you think" and here and there some other words that might have been "in the future," "are you?" and "work." He asked me several times, very friendly. I asked him to clarify different things, one at a time, my mind racing to solve this puzzle. I am usually pretty good at this. After several minutes, I asked him to write down what it was he wanted to know. Sometimes writing is easier that talking. So as an aid, he scrawled a document on the back of a credit receipt: the Letters I and T above the word "Electric", grouped within a bracket labeled "Job"; over to the side hovered "Future". He said "do you think, ah..." and he groped for words. I hate this. I'm embarrassed that our disconnect seems to criticize his English ability, a proficiency with no practical purpose in Vietnam besides making me more comfortable in his bar. I am looking forward to that trainee badge coming off and learning his real name. Or more likely an English version of it. [Cavin]*

Monday, December 10, 2007


I said we'd turned a corner in the unpacking and moving-in process last Tuesday.1 Today, I'd like to amend that. I spent my day rushing to finish everything. By today, all the books have been logged into our Library Thing,2 they've all been sorted and shelved. I have checked-off all the movies, arranged all the furniture, etc. It's all done. Except this is only the first half, of course; what might be aptly compared to the eye of the storm, or the creamy vanilla center. A problem with complex stories is there isn't enough room to relate them--actually, the reverse: I keep these entries short to spare the world. In this case, it's the litany of depressing explanation surrounding the following facts I'm sparing you: we drove home from México; we spent ten months between posts; our air shipment was too heavy; our car was tightly packed; Sunshine's employers ship freight post-to-post; I expected to have my bachelor stuff shipped as a benefit of marriage. In a perfect world our stay in the US would have been one season, our air shipment would have covered it, our freight would have gone from México to Vietnam, and my stuff would have come out of mom's garage. As it is: we needed four seasons' worth of effects, we paid four bucks per pound extra airmail and put a thousand pounds in the car. Ten months of purchasing later, Sunshine's employers refused us extra freight shipping and I used my marriage benefit for the DC things. My old stuff is still in boxes in a NC garage, and we're still waiting for the second half of everything else to arrive in our apartment. So the faster I get these last things done, the more creamy eye before starting over again. [Cavin]

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Yesterday we took a taxi from a coffee place called Star to a District Three church selling Christmas trees. Star is near our house. The workers there wear blue uniforms: the guys in flower- or butterfly-print Hawaiian shirts, and the gals in sassy little stewardess costumes. This is totally normal, by the way. I only had one iced coffee before leaving. It was crowded and loud. Vietnam was playing Laos on TV. The Christmas trees where in a paved parking area behind a catholic church, lined up in temporary sheds surrounding the church's permanent store. Everything from rosaries and prayer cash to six-foot wooden Jesus and Marys are for sale in the permanent store. The stalls outside offer lighted and motorized Christmas pinwheels, strings of flashing whatever, and some pretty gimcrack synthetic trees. It's obviously odd to browse Christmas trees in the tropical dry season, but Sunshine pegged what was most strange: wandering the rows of a Christmas lot without smelling the pine. On Wednesday, Sunshine and I had priced trees in District One: an aluminum colored four-footer was running an eye-popping two hundred US dollars. Yowza. I don't even want to know how much the fiber optic trees were. Yesterday in District Three, however, a slightly more modest tree (three feet, Vegas white) ran us something like six bucks. The light up Santa heads and pastel stars, the green garland, and the taxis back and forth added another eight or so. Every now and then, in traffic, a group of high-speed scooters would flash by waving the Vietnam flag, a street signal to passersby that Vietnam had scored another goal. We would have never discovered this hidden fake tree lot, tucked behind its unassuming church, if we had not been directed there by one of Sunshine's coworkers. [Cavin]