Saturday, March 15, 2008


I see I took a break yesterday. I have no particular excuse for that. Because of it, you'll have to look back to Thursday for the roots of this Update about new restaurants. I didn't realize my thoughts were to be continued at the time; but earlier tonight we ticked Pomodoro Restaurant off the to-do list, thereby turning the previous Update into an introduction for this one. Tonight's experience was worth writing home about primarily because it wasn't. I've grown comfortable in my expectation that every new place I try around here is going to be great. Perhaps Hồ Chí Minh City is unparalleled for the predictability of its eating establishments in this way. All I know is I've begun to predict good things whenever I step out to eat, leading to grand statements about the number of new places I'm going to force myself into every weekend. Thus, I was totally surprised when I wasn't thrilled about Pomodoro, an Italian place just across that invisible line at Lê Lợi Street where Hai Bà Trưng becomes an expat ghetto. Just past that seedy pool hall with tinted windows where friendly-but-bored masseuses feign interest as long as the drinks keep coming. The restaurant, shaped like a brick oven, is filled with white guys with Asian dates. The friendly wait staff wears orthopedic twenty-four-hour truck stop breakfast uniforms. The food is fair, but simply not worth the cafeteria din. It's probably also not worth the thirty bucks we paid for an LP-sized pizza, one salad, and two bowls of admittedly good soup. I don't know what town you're from, Pomodoro, but my other prediction when stepping out is that I'm able to eat for under ten bucks here in Saigon. The body of the clientele, also from elsewhere, noticed nothing. [Cavin]

Thursday, March 13, 2008


For the last fourteen days I've been getting up between nine and nine thirty every the morning. This is quite a feat, and to achieve it I had to stay up all night once, two weeks ago. Then, just to keep myself tired at night, I've been forcing myself out of bed after six hours almost every day. The drawback is that I now go to bed well before four in the morning. Thus, at some point while I was asleep, Sunshine rose, dressed, and then escorted her mother to the international departures wing of Tân Sơn Nhất Airport, where she waited until Bet was through security and merrily embarked upon her long route home. Apparently, the jetlag is lessened heading west, when the time zones are subtracted from the itinerary. Bet will actually arrive home on the same date she left, even though she will be in the air for a whole day. Also, because of the (pre) spring time change, Bet is only jetlagging eleven hours over the next twenty-four, rather than the twelve she changed arriving. Conversely, she’d been very comfortable coming from the snows of Kentucky mountain winter two weeks ago, and I wonder what it will be like retuning from the dry and acute southern Vietnamese heat we’ve all been enjoying here. After leaving the airport, Sunshine could think of nothing better to do than head to work, where she arrived some three hours early. For my own part, I got out of bed around nine thirty without dressing or being prepared to entertain. I busied myself doing utter nothing for much of the morning before then getting down to my one chore today: searching through my freezer for all of the things that have been hidden there over the last two weeks. [Cavin]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Over the last two weeks we've introduced Sunshine's mom to some of our favorite local restaurants. Back before she arrived we'd made plans to try one new restaurant a week, a plan enacted to combat my tendency to always patronize the same six comfy places. At Deli Saigon, I'm handed the menu pre-opened to the tomato-and-celery noodle soup page. At Luna L'Atunna, the owner asks us how we think the furniture should be arranged. Here is the evidence that we've dropped into a predictable pattern less than five months after arriving. Walking around the block the other day, Bet noted that we could dine in a new restaurant every day and never eat our way out of our own neighborhood. This is true enough; but it's disheartening to imagine the next nineteen months without the yakisoba place I love, Au Parc salads, or my tied-for-favorite two Indian diaspora restaurants. Our other plan will force us into trying about eighty more new restaurants before October oh-nine, bringing our score to something over a hundred local places before shipping home. Not too shabby. This week, we got a head start on our scheme by introducing our tourist to a number of new-to-us restaurants too--my favorite being Monday night's dinner with our friends the plant biologist, the man who studies bats, the espionage enthusiast, and the artist. It was like the beginning of a mystery. Night fell in District Two as we walked to Restaurant 13, located at the dead end of a dark backstreet guttering into the Sài Gòn river. Our table couldn't have rested more than a foot above the dark river water lapping at the railing; passing speedboats nearly slopped us with their wash. Dinner ranged from garlicky bok choy to French fries. The company was excellent. [Cavin]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Sunshine enjoyed a vacation day yesterday, so we were all outside in the tropical sunlight again. We wandered around the zoological and botanical park at Saigon's History Museum, eight blocks down Le Duan Street from Reunification Palace. It's a nearby tourist thing we've never quite managed to do. I was game, even with skin still stinging from Saturday's tourism. I assumed I'd be able to while away the early afternoon sunlight indoors, learning about Vietnamese history. But we paid the fifty cent entrance fee only to discover the museum is closed on Mondays, leaving only the outdoor zoo and assorted desultory amusements of the mostly-abandoned fairgrounds to entertain us. * Many people aren't entertained by inner-city zoos. While I'll admit I'm often shamefully permissive about that sort of thing, we'd visited one just Sunday, and it was admittedly a little bit of a downer. Most animals looked healthy enough, but were displayed behind discouraging chain-link in stifling cement bunkers. Keeping the rabbits in the constrictors' cage shows ingenuity, but can be a little distressing. In an enthusiastic write-up of Sunday’s amusement park, our Lonely Planet Guide ignores this, but for today's zoo it offers the following:

"We strongly recommend against visiting the poorly-kept animals, which live at the usual (ie marginal) Vietnamese standard."

Wow. Besides being a mite callous in dismissing Vietnamese quality-of-life, I find the kneejerk activism of that passage flatly wrong (and a mixed signal compared with their previous endorsement). Today's zoo is shady, very clean, and the animals--save one old, panting leopard--seemed well adjusted to their nearly spacious situations. Here, the inmates are mostly species indigenous to Southeast Asia, and thus rather more acclimated to the heat than I am. I was particularly impressed by the monkey island and the accessibly shallow crocodile pit. [Cavin]

Monday, March 10, 2008


The only real drawback to our fascinating road trip out of town last Saturday was the pretty, clear, and sparklingly sunny day itself. Puffy clouds floated, birds sang, and the sharp nature of the bright heat was an even break from the murkier heat of the city. Of course, this led to me getting a little bit sunburned while exploring the largely shade-free grounds of the Cầu Dài Holy See; which, in turn, led to the deeply red baking of my whole right-hand side in the oven of the return car ride. I'm just lucky the day clouded completely over a few miles north of Hồ Chí Minh City, or I'd have been under the magnifying lens of those passenger-side windows for another forty minutes--the little push necessary to begin visibly smoking. By that night, I was attractively medium-rare to well done, reading multi-colored in gradients from left to right like the dial on a heater. By last night I had already begun to peel. It is cynical of me to imagine that, because of Saturday's side effects, we ultimately decided to hang around outside again Sunday? After lunch, we embarked on an afternoon-long exploration of Chợ lớn, Saigon's Chinatown, by first visiting the expansive Đầm Sen Water Park * in District Eleven. Actually, we never got farther than exploring the park, a kitschy mash of amusement rides, botanical gardens, and underwhelming zoo displays dotted with fanciful topiary and Chinese-inspired architecture. Of note there are a number of pretty man-made lily ponds where people actually set out rods and fish, a tall Farris Wheel, and short elephant rides. Also, please note, there's shade--I spent my afternoon dodging from the one shadow to another over arched cement bridges and open pits filled with awfully poisonous-looking snakes on display. [Cavin]

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Yesterday's religious outing was certainly interesting. Unawares, I'd sort of begun expecting some isolated wingnut sect, chanting devotions to a florally hung representation of French Catholicism in Victor Hugo's unlikely form, perhaps with a Hindu number of gesturing arms and Taoist aura of flame; seated perhaps serenely atop a tiger atop a turtle. And, to be fair to me, there was a certain amount of that: the dragon-headed horse dancing on the globe being a particularly fetching example of can't-we-all-coexist meaningfulness. But it's evident this is serious business (there's no gift shop) and the devout mostly lump blithe attitudes from the loudly trampling cult tourism; so for me, an outsider who sees no great gulf between the eccentricities of any two religions, it was easy to become maturely baffled instead of bemusedly kooked. The drive there was more exotic, frankly: here, at long last, were bucolic landscapes just forty minutes from the city center. Water buffalo worked marshy fields delineated by narrow stands of super green bamboo and tall thin palm. There was a shocking deep blue sky. Our tiny travel guide talked constantly while we motored along, making me feel inattentive for looking out the windows. His patter ranged from too-basic introductory material (the Vietnamese vowels, for example) into too-personal history (local banana wine solved his kidney stone crisis). Between, his litany focused on rote paragraphs of dates and percentages, carefully leaning away from one or another political agenda, and careful to stay amusingly off-topic ("I was afraid about my English" he quipped, "English pronunciation so bizzarry"). Returning home, with extra time, he convinced us to detour at a lacquer souvenir workshop run entirely by the handicapped. While we were there, it rained like hell for the first time in months, deafening under the warehouse's tin roof. [Cavin]