Saturday, February 02, 2008


We walked around town looking at the Tết decorations today. Weird things keep happening with the city decorations, and while I observe, I don't understand: the little park on Đồng Khởi Street was nearly forested with Christmas trees until street decorations started going up around December fifteenth or so. Then the park's decorations disappeared. Did they change their civic minds about what clashed with what? But this happens all the time. Over the last few days, a large scaffolding supporting huge balloons was erected on the south lawn of Reunification Palace, all of which is already down today, though Tết isn't until next week. Large gold dragons encircled the green area just north of the palace; those have come down already, too. Maybe because the city center seems to be celebrating martially--the fortieth anniversary of the Tết Offensive of 1968, rather than astrologically--the lunar new year. There are now red sickle-n-star banners lining that park. We wandered to the opposite side of the Palace today, however, where zodiac Tết is in full swing: lanterns hung above samples of orchids and flowering bonsai trees and local butterflies and tropical birds--all richly colorful under the deepening blue twilight. An amazing display of food sculpture: tigers and dragons and this year's obligatory rat all fashioned from piles of raw pineapples, squash, beans, and the rambling et cetera of Vietnam's cornucopia, à la Giuseppe Arcimboldo.* Full-on night fell while we were still in the park, lit eerily by the green floods spotlighting plant displays and aurally by the traditional haunted and polytonal Vietnamese operas. It took me a while to look up, but then I saw the bats: translucent, silent, and about as big as my hand, wheeling and darting by the dozens, hundreds, inches over our heads. Stud. [Cavin]

Friday, February 01, 2008


Another first for me tonight: the Tết office party. What does a Tết office party look like? There were four large banquet tables, eight-tops, with blue tablecloths and fishbowl centerpieces with floating candles. There were three buffet stations for salads, entrees, and desserts. There were about two hundred people, all but thirty-two of which were wandering around holding their ceramic dinnerware in one hand while eating with the other. People in costume. When I arrived, ABBA's egregious Happy New Year1 was playing on the system, and as the evening went on it continued to play. Sometimes with other songs between repeats, sometimes without. All told, I cannot guess how many times I heard that song over the four-hour party. Hundreds, maybe? Once the buffet line died down a bit, the crowd was entertained by the evening's fairly unrelenting event scheduling. There were lion dances, traditional dances, martial arts dances, and a comedy skit. Many of these were really entertaining, if maybe a little relaxed since most performers were Sunshine's coworkers in disguise. One highlight was the boxing match between outgoing Year of the Pig and incoming Year of the Rat, and after what I've learned about the twelve-year zodiac cycle being tempered by the addition of five elements into a truly sixty-year cycle,2 I'm not surprised this Tết begins the Year of Earth and Rat, supported by some pretty dirty fighting in the ring. The very best thing about this Tết party was that it was also a costume party: employees were encouraged to come in traditional áo dài3 or other Vietnamese cultural dress from north and central highlands ethnic groups. Sunshine spent last week waiting for her blue and gold áo dài to be tailored while others rented. Then there was a fashion show, but everybody won. [Cavin]

Thursday, January 31, 2008


This is the sequel to yesterday's post, picking up right where I left off: sitting in the coffee shop of Sunshine's office building, contemplating my hair. Soon Sunshine arrived, my hair not noticeably longer, and we hailed a cab home. Our cabbie was a nut: she fussed about taking the fare, she cranked the parking brake whenever we stopped in traffic. At one point, pulled over at the Hindu temple on Trương Định Street so she could buy a mysterious string of bulbs, or maybe herbs, or maybe Tet decorations, I glanced out the passenger-side window and saw the salon I'd been looking for all afternoon. Here it was, number forty-four; I must have walked right past it because it was certainly well within the radius of Tuesday's fruitless search. This is the punch line of yesterday's post, but the sequel continues: the cabbie took us on home safely. Since I now know where the place is, I returned for my haircut today. That block of Trương Định is lined with stylists, by the way, something I'd noticed coming through before. In each, uniformed girls lounge on the fashionable furniture in neorealist boredom. Each salon seems more egregiously twee than the last, culminating at number forty-four. Six girls in polkadot sundresses hopped up: three opened the glass door for me, I was guided to my armchair by Four, an iced coffee, cloudy with condensed milk, set in front of me by Five. Six draped me with towels and rubbed my shoulders. It took a few minutes to make the stylist understand I didn't want very little cut, but very little hair. I walked out with what I wanted eight minutes later. Price: two-fifty, cheaper over the next nineteen months than replacing my defunct clippers. Stud update in comments. [Cavin]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


While yesterday's asteroid was missing the other side of the world, I was in search of a barber over here in Asia. I've been having trouble getting my hair cut in this country. Some fact of storage, maintenance, or incorrect wattage conversion disabled my clippers. Ever since I first plugged them in here, they've buzzed with a violent grinding clatter too alarming to hold in my hand, much less near my head. I've had these clippers since the eighties, by the way; I might hold a funeral. So I've been on the lookout for a barber. This is what Saigon does have: fancy dye-n-perm salons with uniformed go-go girls and dental recliners with moon helmets attached; or an overturned bucket on the damp sidewalk along yellowing wall where a man has patched into the tangle of city wiring to provide electricity for his own equally scary clippers. The happy medium isn't apparent. In situations like this, I seek advice. One of our neighbors helped: "I think it's here" he said, pointing out an area of the map where his fingerprint covered six intersections and two city blocks. I walked those blocks yesterday, finding nothing but those space salons. They include massages. Then I tried tracking down one of the bucket guys, with no luck. Frustrated, I went to the Rex Hotel where they have a house tailor, fer cryin' out loud, but was advised their barber was closed for renovations. They suggested I go to the building down the street where Sunshine works. What? Sure enough, there was a stylist on the first floor there. He wanted fifteen bucks for a haircut, and I’m too cheap after four months in Vietnam for that kind of swindling. So I gave up and had a drink while my hair grew. [Cavin]

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


A few hours ago a large, oblong object, romantically christened Asteroid 2007 TU24, hurdled, somewhat closer than our own moon, above the local night side of Earth, three thirty-three am on the east coast of the US, plainly visible to those who knew where to point lenses of a certain power. This was a near miss.* Breathless armchair disaster ecologists speculated all manner of Earthly trauma. Breathless scientists got excited about what TU24 would reveal to us about outer solar system objects. At least they eventually did, after months of fine-tuning their expectations of the thing’s trajectory: since discovery, TU24 hasn't changed course, but our mathematicians needed to occasionally revise the distance by which it was predicted to miss us. This leads to questions: why couldn't we extrapolate the danger correctly, quantify the route precisely, from the moment we discovered the rock was out there? And wow, did we really only first notice this thing hurtling at us on October eleventh 2007? Dark objects in space are hard to see, and the farther out they are the smaller their signature in the vastness of space. How much damage would TU24 have done had it struck Earth? We don't really know that either, of course: we know how large it is by dimensions but not mass (and we'd rather have a 600 meter long bag of Styrofoam packing peanuts hit us in the Gobi than a similarly sized hunk of glowing uranium land somewhere on the ring of fire, you know?). Obviously, we've been alerted to our need to identify near-Earth objects earlier, track them faster, and then, impossibly for the time being, alter them when necessary. This has been in the common sci-fi phobia for a while. But to date--today's date--our sci-fact record is still dubious. [Cavin]

Monday, January 28, 2008


We returned earlier than expected from the beautiful capital city last night. Initial reservations had us scheduled to depart at six thirty-five in the evening. But then Sunshine caught a little cold, check-out was at noon, and we could only take so much of the admittedly pretty waiting lounge. If healthy, we'd have had roughly three hours to kill before waiting in the taxi stand crowd, before taking the long, expensive ride forty minutes north to Nội Bài Airport, before then waiting with a similar crowd at the national departures windows. But, blah, we'd explored a day-and-a-half already--Sunshine's conference ended Friday mid-afternoon--and though I'm in love with that northern town (where some trees weren't even evergreens), the constant gray autumn temperature wasn't helping Sunshine any. So we hopped in that long, expensive cab ride at one-thirty, but then stood in the ticket agent's line where Sunshine miraculously negotiated a trade for side-by-side seats on a three twenty flight instead. We were rushed through the national departures desks, through concourse security, and onward to lonely gate two. An agent advised us our new flight was delayed. This was expected: I think national flights are systematically delayed. I could see the blue Vietnam Air seven-something-seven parked there already. They have golden lotuses painted on their tailfins. But by three fifty, when we walked the boarding plank, what waited for us was a white Saudi jet with Vietnamese antimacassars and a Turkish cabin crew. My knees were more unfortunately jammed into the next seat than usual, and the plane made a buzzing noise like a toy chainsaw when it launched sportingly into the air. But we finally touched home just ten minutes before we were even supposed to leave, assuming that six thirty-five from Hà Nội ran on time. [Cavin]