Saturday, March 01, 2008


Last night, after wandering around town for most of the day, also after a much-needed jetlag-inspired nap, Bet and I met Sunshine for a concert. Well, it wasn't really a concert. It was more like an introductory course in traditional Việt musicology run by internationally recognized master Dr. Trần Văn Khê, a professor at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris and honorary member of UNESCO's International Music Council. Dr. Khê was teaching today's lesson behind the yellow walls of the US Consulate, about ten minutes walk from my house. On the way to the event I noticed Bet had a painful looking blister on her foot. There's a medical office at the consulate, so I stopped in to pick up a couple of alcohol wipes and a band-aid. Now that's service. Back in our folding chairs, before the show began, we dressed Bet's toe and discovered the band-aids were little American flags. I think the US Consulate deserves a rimshot. The musical lecture was fabulous. Four musicians set in front of the audience. Dr. Khê spoke as the other three demonstrated an array of traditional instruments, soloing with each (a single-stringed slide harp-type thing with a note bending arm, a banjo-like strung gourd, a rounded and chaotically fretted cross between a zither and the neck of a sitar, etc.). Eventually, after demonstrating melodies written to evoke happiness and sorrow, the trio played their haunting, oddly-flat, eighth-note music together in an improvisation reminding me that much eastern music seems slightly out-of-synch to me: ghosts talking over one another. But then Dr. Khê brought out a drum and, after some short explanation, he proceeded to tie all the different sounds together with percussion in a way that, for that moment only, actually finally made some cosmic sense to me. [Cavin]

Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day

Happy Leap Day! I saw more of today than I usually do, actually getting up early this morning after successfully reorganizing my schedule to be a better host. Sunshine, of course, went to work this morning; and after an espresso in our building's lounge, Bet and I went out to walk up and down the street getting her a little used to Hồ Chí Minh City: the layout of District One, the look of the place, the crazy traffic. While we didn't get around to a lot of tourist things today, it was very much a tourist experience for me. I was able to drop back into a frame of mind where I recognized the city as I saw it four long months ago--while at the same time registering just how comfortable I've become crossing busy streets and how much I've learned about Vietnam in that time. Whiling away the blisteringly sunny morning, much warmer than the evenings this time of year, I pointed out notable landmarks (consulates, parks, restaurants, streets), shouting myself hoarse over the background. After eleven we stopped for some coffee at Sunshine's office building, and at lunchtime the three us did the one touristy thing we did all day long: grab a quick bowl of lunch in the crowded Bến Thành branch of Phở 2000. We ate upstairs, in a green tiled room overlooking the traffic circle, and shared our large round table with three Chinese parts dealers. Travelers seemed to make up most of the clientele up there. Pictures of Bill Clinton posing with the restaurant staff lined the glazed walls. My bowl of vegetarian soup cost about half the price of the latte I drank earlier. It was quite good. Our visitor kicked off her culinary travels with the traditional Phở. [Cavin]

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Sunshine's mother arrived at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport shortly before ten thirty this evening. She'd been airborne since about ten pm last night (my time zone), and her route brought her from Kentucky through O'Hare and Hong Kong. Because of last minute re-routing, her great arc from Chicago took her over the pole and much of Russia. She said she could see Siberia, for example. I'm not sure why this was a change of plans--looking at my globe I cannot see any shorter way to go. I'm somewhat annoyed with myself for turning down the option to fly through O'Hare when I visit the US in late April. I've never seen the pole before. I'll be flying to Hong Kong, Los Angeles, DC, and on to North Carolina. I'll go over Hawaii, yawn, just like everybody else. Tonight I went to the airport. I like picking people up. For one thing, I love going there when I'm not getting tense about flying. I love watching new arrivals pause when the damp heat smacks them in the face (though it didn't seem overly wet or hot tonight). I like milling around with the crowd of people waiting for the plane to land: the welcoming families, office workers with paper signs, cabbies trying to collar unsuspecting backpackers with "good deals" on an otherwise metered ride. Most of these drivers are great, but sometimes temptation gets a little out of hand at the airport. Maybe they, too, are giddy not to be flying. Tonight, our return driver tried asking for twice the price of a trip downtown, telling us his meter was broken. While tapping it, however, he accidentally turned the machine on. We all had a good laugh about it while he got us to our apartment very cheaply. [Cavin]

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Last night I stayed up all night in a hare-brained scheme to, one) learn to wake up in the morning while we are entertaining our guest over the next two weeks; and two) eke out a little more time to get work done around the house. "One" didn't work out so well, since I spent most of today nodding off if I sat too still for more than a few minutes in a row. But this scheme has had a tremendous impact on the subject of "two". I can now say, at long last, that there's no project remaining around our house besides living here. Since I had a whole morning to fidget away today--mornings are not normal for me on most days--I arranged to have building maintenance come up to the apartment and hang all of our pictures. Letting maintenance in is an incredible phenomenon, as I have mentioned before. Two guys showed up to hang my stuff, and three showed up to drop canvas all over the dining room table and floor before then disassembling that room's air conditioner down to the rivets holding it to the wall. This is just as well because the unit was actually broken and peeing all over the floor right in front of our bookcase. Of course, amidst all of these parts and ladders and framed pictures and shoeless legs is Vui, the poor woman who most usually comes to clean our rooms. Today she came with her monthly inspector, too: a house keeping supervisor with a checklist for overseeing the job she's doing. Along with me, that was quite a crowd to keep me awake today. In the end it was worth it, and the place looks better--and more ours, somehow--than it ever has before. [Cavin]

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I'm working hard to put the finishing touches on my backlog of photographs. I am painfully aware that I haven't yet managed to illustrate much of my stay in Southeast Asia, and the tower of interesting things I would rather be working on gets higher every day. At the end of this week, Sunshine's mother will be visiting from Kentucky, and I'll have the opportunity to wander Hồ Chí Minh City as a tourist again: seeing some of the things we've been saving for just such an opportunity. This will probably involve taking even more photographs. In April, I'll be visiting home after six months abroad while so far no one has seen more than the slimmest evidence I've even been here. So I've spent these last days on photo-finishing. The very last of my forensic baby doll portraits from Sunshine's family farm--taken last spring--are finally posted here. These are the creepiest of the lot, in my own opinion. In lieu of actually having my own experiences to share (yet), allow me to point out some very beautiful web-based short films I happened across online. This ten-movie series is brought to you by filmmaker Daniel Robin, collected as part of the Neighborhood Films1 project website. These two-minute movies illustrate the sounds and sights of Bình Thạnh District,2 located along the Sài Gòn River just northeast of central Hồ Chí Minh City's District One. They provide a very thorough glimpse into street life--including coffee, soup, pool, kids, traffic, chicken, and street corner card players--with a real flair for the ambient je ne sais quoi of wandering down the Saigonese road. Four Stars. Note: a vendor kills and guts a fish in the second installment, so avoid that one if that sort of thing bothers you. [Cavin]

Monday, February 25, 2008


For the last few days it's been raining in the night. I keep forgetting to look out the windows around eleven o'clock. Later, when I wander by a window, the roads are shiny and the traffic is wearing plastic raingear. One of my favorite moments, scarce now that the rainy season is over, comes just when the rain begins to fall. All the scooters pull to the sidewalks and drivers rummage around in the storage area under the seat for their thin plastic poncho. These are usually clear, and tinted pink, purple, yellow, or et cetera. Later, the drivers all hop back onto their rides and gun on down the road and the moment is gone. But for that interval at the blustery onset, there's a silent attenuation of the chaotic flow as traffic parts and stops. Afterward, for the duration of the rain, the road is haunted with an Easter variety of rolling pastel ghosts. But the rainy season has been over since November and sometimes a month moves by without even a short drizzle. I'd really like to get outside during one of these recent nightly rains. If not, I'll content myself with the spring-like luster these last few days: breezy and clearly sunny, the twittering birds and bright green plants daily giving way to the clearest nights I've seen in Vietnam. Occasionally I've been able to see the moon at night here, but it mostly rises behind Hồ Chí Minh City's pervasive haze, murkily lightening one discrete dot of the sky. Tonight I can even see stars here and there, and the moon rose so stunningly over the Caravel Hotel it stole my attention from the very special Christmas episode of 21 Jumpstreet (where it is revealed that Harry is really a South Vietnamese refugee). [Cavin]

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Day-to-day living in Saigon rarely takes me beyond the two areas I live between, the central downtown Districts One and Three. I've been to Chợ lớn, the city's historic Chinatown in District Five, just across the street from District Ten to the southwest of One. I've also been to the airport, which takes me through Eleven up into Tân Bình District, so decentralized that it's saddled with a name instead of a number. (District One is supposedly the only part of the city still officially referred to as Sài Gòn, though Sunshine points out this fact is highly trafficked in guidebook trivia sections while remaining difficult to corroborate around town.) I don't know exactly how the districts were named, but the numbers are not contiguous, as you can see, and the names are not sane: Tân Bình District at the airport is one district away from Bình Tân to the west and somewhat closer to Bình Thạnh in the east (which has nothing to do with Bến Thành Market, a popular District One tourist destination). Today we took the twenty minute taxi over the bridge and through Bình Thạnh into District Two, separated from One by the Sài Gòn River (which I'm certain still uses that name). We'd been invited to dinner at the home of a Fulbright biologist and a man who makes excellent tortillas. After dinner, we took a stroll around the neighborhood (see Saigon Stud* update in the comments), where I was shocked by how very different the environment can be just walking distance from our apartment: steamy but beautiful, quiet, swampy and lush with low tropical vegetation. Corrugated houses leaned against four-story mansions; power lines propped-up by a bamboo ladder on the corner. A small town neighbor to our own confusing and bustling metropolis. [Cavin]