Saturday, December 22, 2007


Somewhere on the street between last night's Christmas party and home, folded into a gutter of vile wet filth, the City of Ho Chi Minh picked up the King spades, which, along with the Queen, Jack, and Nine gets the House one card closer to an impressive straight (which will beat my pair). Actually, Sunshine picked it up. In other news, that package of ornaments I was expecting arrived in the mail on the last possible day before Christmas. I did not know they sold ornaments without the little hooks necessary for putting them onto the tree. This little frustration is the kind of trigger I need to begin merrily smashing brightly colored and eggshell thin glass baubles, but Sunshine rose to the occasion with aplomb, and string, and by earlier today both our trees were prettily adorned. Both? I have two answers to that: one, along with these ornaments came our new six-foot white plastic tree, this one manufactured with tasteful white string lights already in place. We aren't using those. My second answer is more fun: we actually have three trees, if you count the four-foot tin cactus which has now been striped in fancy green and red garland and dotted with ceramic Mexican suns. This holiday copse is contained within our dining room, and populates the view from the entryway along with several dramatic reflections in the walls of picture windows lining the apartment. A standalone illustration of our distance and other differences: in the last week the bush on our patio has begun to bloom exuberantly. I hasten to point out that we were not overcompensating our homesickness when we bought our first small tree, but we weren't thinking clearly. The steady, baroque growth of both halves of that ratio have exceeded my expectations. [Cavin]

Friday, December 21, 2007


First things first--I'd really like for you to read the eleven page article here. Dear Kathy Dobie, we love you. Thank you for juggling depth, warmth, and a bittersweet conviction that the monstrous ultimately owes us something meaningful, something useful, for otherwise wasting our time and hurting us. I read the linked item over forgotten and cooling coffee in our apartment building's lounge this afternoon. Then it was off to Sunshine's office Christmas party, very nearly located on the green field where the US Embassy used to be back when South Vietnam was a country. Today we had the first rain we've seen in thirty days, odd because we are solidly into our dry season here. This is probably because the Christmas party was supposed to be outside in a field, huh? We ended up in the adjacent covered parking lot. It was a fine party, though: with presents, raffles, and kids swarming the poor man dressed up as Santa--head-to-toe red velvet in the Ho Chi Minh City steam. Something I didn't get around to mentioning yesterday: during my city meandering I found five playing cards laying on the ground, one after the other, at the corner of Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and Lý Tự Trọng Streets. So, added to my pair-flush of diamond Sixes and the King clubs, are the Eight clubs and the Ace spades. The first three cards of the House hand are the Jack spades, the Queen spades, and the Nine clubs. Wow. It looks very much like the City of Ho Chi Minh is shooting for the royal straight. My rules for suited pairs: the hand equals trips (flushed three-of-a-kind equals four-of, etc.), so the House needs three sevens or higher in the hierarchy of hands to beat my pair-flush Sixes. [Cavin]

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I am still slightly drunk. The title for this Update is "How to lose weight, even while eating." Ho Chi Minh City was pretty hot today; and I spent the day walking around outside. By dinnertime, I was spent, sweaty, and wondering if the ever-present smell of Saigon was actually coming from me. I decided to eat at Green Chili, a Viet slash Japanese fusion place a few blocks down our street. Here is what I ordered: mixed vegetables soup (small), eel boiled in steamboat (for one person), and Japanese sake (hot). The sake was the sweet stuff they serve around here, but I'm getting used to it. The soup was wonderful, though redundant, ultimately. It was very hot in the restaurant, but I'd sat myself strategically under a wall-mounted oscillating fan. Here is what a steamboat is: a sombrero-sized stainless hotpot with a wide brim. The brim is where the kitchen balances lotus, basil, and other greens, while chunks of cloven eel float in the hat. The whole thing sits atop a paraffin burner. This was set on fire once the contraption was erected on the table before me. Ironically, the act of lighting a fire on one's table, on a warm night, makes it necessary to turn off the oscillating fan. Fabulous: the boiling eel steam just hovered over me while I gulped down spicy food. Prizefighters should try this: I could feel the pounds trickling down the my back, the backs of my knees, everywhere. I tried to order some ice cold something, anything, but my lack of language skills interfered and I got yet more boiling hot sake. I guess I'm adjusting to the weather here--since this didn't kill me outright--although being twice as drunk as I was expecting probably helped out.* [Cavin]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


In his cook's tour, Anthony Bourdain mostly praises Vietnam. As a matter of fact, while the book is about his culinary peregrinations around the entire globe, he dedicates two chapters to Vietnam (though I'm maybe remembering the local leg of his Cambodia entry as being that second chapter). Anyway, the ranting adjectives multiply throughout the book in tribute to the food of my new home. Its commercialism too: Mr. Bourdain expends plenty of words describing cheap tourist trinkets, ersatz war-era Zippo lighter sales,1 and the hubbub of the large market areas. There’s a page where Mr. Bourdain meets a man he assumes has been wounded by napalm, begging for money in the streets. Mr. Bourdain shares his feelings about the experience, but to my memory does not delve into the pitiable unpleasantness, the horror, or even the sideshow circumspection, of describing the burnt man. I haven't reread A Cook's Tour2 since moving to Vietnam, but I clearly remember that he spent his time describing opposite things. I was out and about today: there are more caves and Christmas decorations everywhere I look. The whole of Đồng Khởi Street is currently being festooned. Men squatted on the ground affixing lights to sheets of chicken wire in the park. The street is now overhung with strung bulbs from Reunification Park to the river. I was there during the day, so to me it looked like white electric netting over everything. The trees up and down the street are striped with red and green satin and they are also netted in wires. Restaurants and bars have covered their entries in tinfoil, recreating their Christmas caves, though nowhere inside are the figures one expects to find in the Nativity and outside on the pavement sit men who've been hurt, begging for change. [Cavin]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Sort of a sequel to yesterday's post: after her workday, as part of her language program, Sunshine joined a field trip to Ho Chi Minh City's District Eight where many local catholics live. Today's lesson was to look at Christmas decorations. Caves, she reports, are everywhere. Really big ones, tinfoil- or Jackson Pollock-splattered painter's tarp- or paper-constructed caves. Many displays, Sunshine confirms, include scenes of the nativity erected inside the caves. When asked, language teachers began the familiar story: "when Jesus was born, they were so poor they had to live in a. . ." cave? Is this normal? Just something that I've never managed to learn about the world history of holy diorama? Or is this practice peculiar to Asia; the byproduct of missionary Christianity, mutated to fit into fresh culture? Wikipedia rather blithely (and parenthetically) mentions nativity scenes may be constructed in caves, among other structures,* but I cannot find further reference or illustration of this practice (or the traditional use of Reynolds Wrap in the tableau-making process). Any takers? My current theory bloomed after discovering the term "Christmas grottoes", which research indicates may refer to any kind of holiday display, secular or otherwise. Does this terminology indicate a concept originally having something to do with caves? Or did Asian culture just take the word "grotto" more literally than was ever intended? I'm going with the latter. I'm an optimist, preferring to think of my theory as more half baked than underdone. By the way, I discovered the Six diamonds after a nice Indian dinner last night. This makes not only a pair, but a suited pair--a pair flush--an exciting hand unavailable in regular poker. This new possibility will probably mean I have to strategically reevaluate the standard hierarchy of stud hands. Stay tuned. [Cavin]

Monday, December 17, 2007


Progress toward moving-in slowed this weekend because one household member was sick with what would be called a "summer cold" back home. We also had to skip another Christmas party on Saturday owing to this "cold". Decorating stalled as well, though we are ostensibly waiting for a box of ornaments to arrive in the mail before we make any hasty decisions on what to actually go out and buy. A three-foot tree isn't really all that bare with just the lights we've put on it already, but we can certainly do oh-so-much more. We've also decorated our tin three-foot Mexican cactus, and there are two Chinese-style silk brocade stockings to be hung by that cactus with care. Hồ Chí Minh City's spirit proceeds at a far more dramatic pace, as polar and panda bears, dogs, giraffes, aluminum Jesus caves, and puffy cotton and Styrofoam snow collect in impressive dioramas all over town. Jesus caves? It seems a very popular local representation of the classic crèche involves placing the nativity in a cave instead of a manger. Actually, that may just be my interpretation. Caves are frequently represented by wadding up massive amounts of tinfoil or shiny fabric in an arc and displaying Christmas kitsch inside. Sometimes it's baby, mom, Joe, animals and magi; but frequently it's whatever the creators deem festive. This photo captures multiple background cave structures (behind the snowman). In other news: as if air travel wasn't terrifying enough already, a Vietnamese Airlines flight from Đà Nẵng to Hà Nội was evacuated after boarding last week because it was crawling with scorpions. Actually, flight attendants only captured two of the beasts before allowing the passengers to re-plane. The remaining four were captured by the customers themselves after landing safely.* We fly to Hà Nội in January! [Cavin]

Sunday, December 16, 2007


On the way to Le's Café yesterday, I was dealt the King spades by Lê Quý Đôn Street. That gives me an unsuited King and Six so far,* encouraging enough dangerous optimism to bet. Once we got home after two iced coffees and one soursop shake, we decked the house. It had been one week since we bought our Christmas tree and only two days since our second shipment of books and furniture. Somehow, in that short time, we'd cleared off enough dining room table space to build a Christmas tree there. Asian Christmas tree instructions: 1. Install the stand; 2. Pull the branch off the trunk, and bend the branches down to an angle about 75 degrees; 3. Open the leaves of the branch, and adjust them, so they spread out both right and left, in the way natural leaves grow; 4. Assemble the top part of the tree to the bottom part and there you get the tree. And, easy as that, we had a realistic meter-tall stark white plastic fir tree. Sunshine followed these instructions while I was untangling the little light strings we'd gotten that same day. She pointed out that the diseased-looking bush thing being assembled in the accompanying illustrations was a deliberate maneuver on the part of the manufacturers to increase our appreciation of the ridiculous actual product. In return, I pointed out that the Oriental string lights that we purchased on the Asian street had standard American plugs, an inconvenient mismatch with the predictably Vietnamese outlets in our apartment. Sabotage! We had to use the adapter off the master bedroom television set (which came with the apartment and also has US plugs, don't ask me why), but our tree's twinkling away charmingly now, so it must have all worked out eventually. [Cavin]