Saturday, January 19, 2008


What a nice Saturday. Sunshine didn't have to work, and we enjoyed a long walk through an area of Districts Three and One we'd previously neglected to explore. We were looking for a mobile phone store. This is how I am: when feeling dubious about my ability to just "luck into" the best method of completing certain tasks, I attempt to get the inside scoop. Crazy, I know. We've sporadically sought purchasing advice from successful cell phone users ever since we arrived in Vietnam. Sunshine's phone was provided by her employers but we needed to buy mine ourselves. So we enlisted the advice of other Americans. I would like to say this advice "ranged", but actually it followed a tiresome formula: we were advised to buy unlocked equipment online or in Hong Kong, stuff here is too expensive. Eventually we got more useful data asking locals. One of Sunshine's Vietnamese coworkers gave us the addresses of two reputable places nearby. Our long walk today was an attempt to find the closer of these, supposedly down a Lê Quý Đôn cross street just two blocks from our apartment. We had a building number in the eighties. On the first block we passed buildings numbered in the eighties and one-tens. A few blocks east we found the sixties and twenties. Eventually, we walked all the way to a canal. Along the way, we passed a dozen Mobil phone stores, but none of these were written on our sheet. Did this matter? Some streets have telephone stores on every corner; we've passed hundreds, dozens of times. But having gotten advice, we steered a rigid course: we handed the addresses to a cabbie and were taken to a large phone mall south of Saigon Center where we successfully purchased my new phone. [Cavin]

Friday, January 18, 2008


Last week we hired a woman to come to our apartment, once a week, and cook dinner. She will also be buying the groceries for that dinner, as well as whatever other groceries we want. I glanced off this subject before.* To my mind, the best reason to contract this service is this grocery shopping. It's difficult to shop around here for several reasons that I'll just list: different types of groceries are sold in different types of places, often the best of these are strewn over disparate areas of the map (produce at markets, dry goods at co-ops, herbs and spices in Chinatown, etc.). Frequently, the process by which supply and demand settle on price is language intensive, happening on the fly amid the turmoil of the venue (and proceed, to some extent, based the buyer's aptitude: what should products cost? What should quality look like with regard to exotic local things? Which vendors trade in fresh stuff? Etc.). We aren't helpless; but it's these considerations make restaurants the easier option, where products are listed in menus, predictably priced, and meals can be as cheap (or cheaper) than cooking from groceries in the States, anyway. But tonight we had a home-cooked meal, thanks to our employee Ms. Hương, who, as a side effect of navigating our grocery shopping, cooks some of it each week (on Friday this week because Sunshine had to work late Tuesday). She made us braised rock fish in the clay pot she bought for us, two dozen little spring rolls, and fish sauce--all ready to eat about forty minutes after Sunshine came home from work. The food was simple home fare, quite good, and we were left with bowls of rambutan, dragon fruit, and one cleverly-cut pineapple to eat over the weekend. [Cavin]

Thursday, January 17, 2008


This is an important announcement, eventually. Do you know what dominos do not do when they are falling in apt metaphors? They do not pick up much speed. A string of painstakingly set-up dominos, of uniform value, achieves its terminal velocity fairly immediately. After that, no matter how many tiles then proceed to transfer energy on to a following tile, they do so at pretty much the same rate that second domino influenced the third. It's all about the weight of the dominoes used, of course, rather than wind resistance: the forward motion is calibrated by the resistance of each next tile. The heavier they are, the slower they tip but the faster they fall into the next tile. Each domino falls at the same clip as the second tile hitting the third.* An apt metaphor for this procedure: I finished cleaning the living room Monday, moving the shoe cabinet back into the entryway, hooking up the stereo receiver and speakers. I could then clean the kitchen because I had the extra shelves--and the top--of the shoe cabinet available; I'm using it as a bar. I was also able to move the empty stereo boxes into storage and within the tangle of extra RCA plugs, S Video hookups, and coaxial cables newly returned to my office, I discovered two necessary Cat-5 cables and a short stretch of phone line. Some of my dominos must be made from materials exceedingly lightweight, frankly. Maybe they are escapist entertainments, or perhaps the wind of my voice. Yesterday my tiles aligned until I managed to hook-up the black broadband voice terminal that enables us to use our VONAGE account again. It's the same number as before, the same as on our business cards. If you need it again, contact us. [Cavin]

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Speaking of losing power,* it happened last night while I waited for dinner. Sunshine was doing something with a contingent of Fulbright Scholars; I was dining alone. I didn't have the cash for sushi-bar hopping, so I headed to my favorite soup joint down the street. I was between ordering and receiving soup when the whole block snapped off with an audible click. My favorite power-out story happened in Wilmington, NC, amid my first Hurricane Emily, a blustery two-star quickie more wind than water once inland. We were tempting fate at the top of a very famous consignment shop: up several oddly steep and cunningly misaligned flights into a windowless clutch of discombobulated attic rooms stuffed to the bat nests with curious oddments. Then, pop, we were stranded in utter blackout. Piles of displayed dishware, clothing and furniture sunk with us into level subterranean darkness so complete it sucked the sound of Emily away with it. How well had I memorized the floor plan? Where were all those depression glass figurines, again? If I broke it, I'd read, I'd have to buy it. What if I broke my arms and legs on the crooked stairways? The darkness never lessens underground; eyes cannot ever adjust to an absence of light. Breaking the mood, an adjacent hurricane surfer deadpanned calmly: "Marco?" Across the room came the answer, with a nervous giggle. Then the lights came back and we all got the hell out of there. Last night was nothing like this. There was no real darkness, no silence. Traffic kept the sidewalk cafés lit. Apparently, my food was being cooked over real fire because it came to the table minutes after the waiter melted a red candle onto the bottom of my waiting rice bowl so I could continue reading. [Cavin]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


All the interesting animal stuff happens in Hà Nội: a few days ago, traffic police pulling over a couple of motorists discovered two drugged, but apparently healthy, full-grown tigers in the back seat of their car. At some point during the process of doing whatever it is the police manual instructs in this situation, the tigers woke up. This is the part of the story I like to picture in my mind. Since none of my reference materials* mention just what this looked like, I have considerable license. At some point later the police tranquilized both tigers before eventually shipping them off to an animal sanctuary. This is not a euphemism, these tigers did not go to a peaceful farm in the sky to play with other happy tigers. Apparently the Vietnamese authorities take the international preservation of endangered species pretty seriously. Who doesn't? The police followed a trail to the happy farm above, a freezer containing the dismembered bodies of four additional tigers plus some rhino and elephant parts. They also seem to have, according to the materials, discovered seven live bears. I like imagining this part of the story, too. Surprise! This is all the work of a dedicated ring of endangered species black marketers hell-bent on supplying the world with the magic ingredients necessary for certain traditional potions, and hasn't come as much of a surprise to anyone besides those traffic cops. What is surprising: the complicity of the Hà Nội zoo, where the tigers lived before being auctioned off to, as the deputy zoo director puts it, "raise funds to enrich the collection of animals..." Of course, the zoo only admits to selling the dead tigers, an international crime in itself. Where the gang of medical pirates got the live ones remains a mystery. [Cavin]

Monday, January 14, 2008


Here's weekend recap. Friday, after excellent Italian food, Sunshine spotted the King diamonds on the Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street sidewalk near where the pet kitten vendors squat during daylight. This completes the hand started last Tuesday.* The House's solid red spread, hearts over diamonds, lose to my pair of Queens. That's five in a row, bro, meaning I'm not only on a righteous winning streak, but I've almost found a deck's worth of cards just sitting in the streets. On Saturday we took down all the Christmas trees and stuff. Normally, I would have left them longer, but the intrusion of holiday decorating has stymied my ability to put the final touches on the moving-in process. I needed to remove the trees and things from around the living room so I could then move the furniture around that room instead. I was growing claustrophobic with unpacked items still lying around everywhere. After undecorating, the apartment started looking a little bigger again. Saturday evening and Sunday, I managed to get most of the remaining unpacking-related chore completed, making it look bigger still. Saigon is doing the opposite: extravagant Christmas decorations are being systematically converted into Tet displays. Potted red trees hung with golden lunar New Year ornaments are cropping-up in area doorways. Santas, polar bears, and wadded cotton snow are being removed from festive grottoes to be replaced with whatever's appropriate next. Saturday afternoon we visited Diamond Shopping Center to adjust the fit of Sunshine's watchband. During the requisite coffee break, we were able to watch the kids practicing at the Youth Center next door. I often watch uniformed students playing soccer on the tiny field there; but today they were practicing in two-kid teams, pacing back and forth on a giant ball while wearing full lion costumes. [Cavin]

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Sometimes there are little electrical blackouts around this city. I see them happen out the windows. I barely notice them in the house, though. I'm surprised they don't happen more often than they do. You might be surprised too, if you were to see the tangled and impromptu surreality of dubious electrical madness scribbled between the feeble-looking short iron towers lining these sidewalks. Picture it like this: it's as if the second floor of all Saigon has been sloppily underlined in black marker by a particularly aggressive inmate. When there's a scooter accident, say, or a fallen construction crane,* or maybe just a gecko at the wrong time and place, a couple blocks might go dark for a while. I'm certain the city twinkles in this way. In our apartment, when the power fades, back-up generators make it hardly noticeable. It's been happening more lately. Sometimes the lights will dim for a second, but power returns almost immediately without any extra complication. Our internet suffers, however. When the power goes out on the provider's end, my internet goes out too. When the power is coming and going on our block, the internet often never manages to connect the five minutes in a row necessary to navigate its series of protocols. So even though I have power, I’m unable to get online. What does this have to do with the long and engrossing book I read this weekend? Well, usually, I have no trouble just waiting a lapsed connection out. But this weekend I was distracted. Whenever I checked on the blinking router lights and saw that I couldn't connect, well, I went back to reading for another five hours. Apparently, these two things never harmoniously aligned, because I was unable to ever even post this Update until today. [Cavin]