Saturday, March 08, 2008


A Public Service Announcement: at two am this morning, most of the USA will set the clock ahead one hour to observe Daylight Saving Time in the second year of its new, longer schedule--in effect robbing a daylight hour from the morning and adding it to the afternoon as the days in the temperate northern hemisphere begin to lengthen toward spring. In a jaw-dropping display of virtuoso egocentricity, we take our banking hours with us, forcing the rest of the world to comply. A lot of international dealing goes on in an hour. This is our head-scratching solution to a "problem" more easily solved by merely asking appropriate businesses to adopt seasonal hours of operation, equally effecting nations south of the equator who must negotiate US summertime changes as local autumn begins. The side effect, since Vietnam doesn't bother lining-up in this way, is that we're one hour closer to home from tomorrow through the second Day of the Dead in November. By eleven thirty this morning we had been transported almost three hours north of Saigon to the Cao Đài Holy See1 in Tây Ninh, a flat and sun-drenched religious compound studded with dorms and temples. The main building is a vast and ornate temple reflecting the syncretistic mash of the religion's tenet: an involved structure of Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and Catholic motif weaved together in colorful fancy beneath an all-seeing god’s-eye pyramid logo (which unfortunately rings unintentionally commercial in the eyes of western tourists). The Cao Đài2 recognize the partial development of god's direct will throughout multiple religions and seek to bring these disparate devotions together into a more developed godly devotion, recognizing such saints as Sun-Yat-Sen and Victor Hugo alongside the more predictable figures of Jesus, Lau Tse, and Confucius. Stud* update in comments. [Cavin]

Friday, March 07, 2008


Sunshine gave an International Women's Day* presentation near the apartment this afternoon, and so was able to come home from work a little early, enabling her to spend a little exclusive family time with her mother. This mother-daughter thing resulted in the pair striking out for the nest of travel agencies crammed into the alleyways of the "Backpacker District" south of the New World Hotel. They were in search of something special to do this weekend. At the time they left the house, their plan was to buy us all tickets to the Mekong River Delta, including an overnight stay in Cần Thơ, a number of short river cruises, and guided romps through the early morning floating markets lining the myriad waterways of the famous effluvial delta. While this sounded like much fun, I was unsure it was a very good plan: it would take up a whole long weekend I'd imagined would be better devoted to further exploration of very own vast Hồ Chí Minh City, something I don't often get to do with guests. Plus, it was already too late, by late today, for us to properly guard against contracting malaria (not that this is a very large concern, considering the way we were planning to travel: by agency car, employing nice hotels, etc. Honestly, it's Dengue Fever that presents the more applicable danger. But I digress). We'll never know how that might have turned out, however, because the only available tours were on the wrong days. What Bet and Sunshine returned home with, a couple hours later, was a one-day trip to the Cao Đài Temple compound a hundred rounded kilometers north of us in the little town of Tây Ninh. Departure time: very early tomorrow morning and returning before dark. Stud* update in comments. [Cavin]

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Today we ate at the beautiful Temple Club Restaurant on Tôn Thất Thiệp Street, which is close enough to Sunshine's office to go for a convenient lunch. The restaurant itself is very fine, offering a pretty familiar menu--the usual Vietnamese culinary suspects--elevated from typical by the sheer quality of preparation. My tomato and fish soup with celery was about the best bowl of soup I've had in town. The price sort-of reflected this, of course. Or perhaps the price just goes along with an expectation fostered by the charming look of the place: a spacious, high-ceilinged loft with brick interiors and exposed wooden beams. We ate on the second floor, where the wooden French Colonial doors are actually shuttered, beveled glass windows allowing waving tree shadows in from the street. Across this street, the colorful and intricate Hindu vimanam of Sri Thendayutthapani Temple can be seen peeking over its high orange wall. I assumed this proximity was the reason for the restaurant’s name, the ceramic elephants-and-tapestry décor does nothing to discourage this mistake, but apparently the Temple Club is located in the three-story remains of an old Chinese temple, which Frommers helpfully pins to "circa" the turn of the twentieth century before letting the matter rest. So we had a nice, if maybe slightly hurried, lunch here today before Sunshine had to return for important meetings with bigwigs all afternoon long. The experience was only slightly marred by the terribly proper waiter, who spilled my lime colored soda all over Sunshine's lima bean colored jacket. He was mortified, of course, and trembled whenever he set anything else on the table throughout the rest of the meal. But his timing was great: we were able to deliver Sunshine a change of clothes before her nail-biting afternoon schedule. [Cavin]

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Bet likes to keep certain things in the freezer, an object of furniture located directly underneath my refrigerator. It's an object I never, ever use. This is partly because the thing is just too small to hold much. It's constructed as a chest of shallow drawers, restricting its available space while also rendering anything placed there one step further from immediate detection. She likes to hide our bread and other food items, defying prediction, away in there. Today, while making space for the leftovers from last night's Vietnamese buffet, an embarrassment of courses we'd asked Ms. Hương to cook up as a local culinary sampler for our guest, Bet discovered a very old half-can of garbanzo beans. This is a mystery to me, though whether it's related to the actions of our cook or to the previous owners of our second refrigeration unit in four months, I don't know. I hope the latter, since these mystery beans were further out-of-date than I'd comfortably swallow in light of the short time Ms. Hương's been working with us. The only other thing of culinary note today: we met Sunshine at the Rex Hotel after her language classes tonight. The Rex is a nice place to take visitors because it has a pretty, plant-lined fifth-floor rooftop dining area overlooking Le Loi Street just southwest of Saigon's French Colonial Opera House--though we were relegated to a table far enough from the railing to obscure our tourism. The only mystery here: why, with a waiter per table gathered on that rooftop, is the service at the Rex always so dismal? I always love my food--assuming I can catch someone's attention to bring it to me. Next week's culinary mystery: why are all these old lunches hidden in the freezer? Stay tuned. [Cavin]

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


As predicted, I felt much better this morning. After coffee, Bet and I headed out into the city to wander around (Stud* update in comments). I appreciate this method of tourism since it aligns with my own style. Rather than spend furiously scheduled days navigating the pitched itinerary of the beaten track, she roams around developing deeper interests while, incidentally, learning the way around town. This is one advantage to having two weeks and a centrally located camp. We wandered up Lê Duẩn Street from the Palace today, past the US Consulate and the British Council, and turned north from the botanical gardens at the history museum to walk along the canal between Districts One and Bình Thạnh, returning to my neighborhood slightly north of the apartment building. Then we had lunch at Le's coffee shop before striking off down Điện Biên Phủ Street looking for the Xá Lợi Temple, a nineteen fifties yellow brick structure on a leafy side street in District Three. It was difficult to miss, owing to its towering and fluted pagoda spire which can be seen from my dining room window. It was shady and quiet at the temple, almost deserted except for one young girl selling sticks of prayer incense by gesture. I was shy about invading that peaceful space because I'm unfamiliar with Buddhist protocols, so we rounded-out the walk by wandering up to the main street and heading home. Bet wanted to watch Ms. Hương cook tonight, anyway. Looking it up later, we discovered that Xá Lợi Temple is where the remains of Buddhist martyr Thích Quảng Ðức were taken after his world-changing act of self-immolation in defiance of the Ngô Đình Diệm administration in June nineteen sixty-three, the award-winning photographs of which shocked the world, but remain unlinked here. [Cavin]

Monday, March 03, 2008


The fact that I keep having to talk about yesterdays, that I've been a day behind these Updates all weekend, becomes a boon today, since I punked-out and didn't leave the house all day. I suspect I contracted some type of twenty-four hour thing: I was already feeling terrible last night, and woke this morning unwilling to do a damn thing. Now I'm already starting to feel somewhat better again, and predict I'll be out-and-about, like a good host, as early as tomorrow. Luckily, I can begin the next sentence with another "yesterday". Yesterday was almost unacceptably hot and sunny (though this might've affected only me because of getting sick). We took this opportunity to wonder around the shade-free area near the river at the southeastern border District One, and then get a little lost for an hour trying to find the city art museum south of Bến Thành Market. Somehow, we had left our apartment without first knowing exactly what street the place was on. We asked a cabbie parked beside the road and were familiar enough with the area to know he gave us directions to the wrong destination. Later, we even asked some other tourists. They didn't know either. Later still, I began to fantasize about fleeing, about sodas and sitting down. Finally, Sunshine found a shopkeeper familiar with the block, and in this way we were finally directed around the corner to the relatively dour and one-track exhibits* on offer at Hồ Chí Minh City's Fine Arts Museum. Predictably, the moldering three-story yellow colonial building, beautiful in its need of a coat of paint, was the darling of my experience: there was even an old cage elevator, supported by two poles and operated by ropes, sitting unattended in the shaft of the square stairway. [Cavin]

Sunday, March 02, 2008


I again spent yesterday in whatever marginal space exists between my feelings of being an outsider in, and also being a competent resident of, Ho Chi Minh City. Friday, these feelings evolved from situations less complex: I was finally in the role of a competent, advancing my experiences of the city to our visitor, Sunshine's mother. Today's interstitial state was slightly more reflexive: we had a nice dinner with one of Sunshine's language instructors from Virginia, returned for a month-long visit. Also present were members of his family who live here still. Sunshine and I live here, but with less articulation and understanding, and Bet had only been here for two days. We were in a restaurant located near Reunification Palace, an area tourists frequent. Before, at this particular place, it was interesting to note that the staff--and vendors around the doorway—cast us as tourists, treatment seemingly out-of-step with our progression as local residents by that time. Today, those assumptions were muted due to our large, mostly-Vietnamese group. Nevertheless, the four generations of different cultural functionality sitting around that table left me with a lot to think about over my bowl of rock fish soup and one skewered squid. Talking about these cultural things involved a little stilted translation, lining awkward Vietnamese up with awkward English to get some answers to a lot of polite questions about food, history, and these two languages, themselves. Where does inventiveness fall within the cultural curve? The squid was so faultlessly baked onto the wooden skewers I was unable to remove it with my chopsticks. Giving up, I was unable to remove it with my fingers, either. Finally I broke the skewer itself, and ate my portion off the stick. This didn't seem to matter in the scheme of things. [Cavin]