Saturday, March 22, 2008

Baron Saturday

Sunshine had to punch back in for some urbane something-or-other during dinner hours last night, so I decided to eat at my favorite no-frills Việt cuisine joint--which also happens to be three blocks away--either called Bún Việt or Deli Saigon, depending which begeckoed sign one happens to believe. It's been months since my last dinner there. Several factors have contributed to my long abstinence, not the least important of which is that Sunshine prefers another Việt cuisine restaurant only two blocks away down the very same street. I only make it to Deli-whatever-Việt when she's working through dinner. Recently,* I bragged about being comfortably predictable there, but yesterday I was subject to the following uncomfortably mysterious exchange, as two waiters smilingly blocked my entrance:
"Hello," they welcomed, as I tried to dodge on around them, "to eat?"
I said yes, but they were still successfully blocking the tables, so I asked: "Are you open?"
"Yes," they said. "Umm..." they added, sort-of embarrassed, eyeing one another for support. "You are reservations," they asked. Or maybe told.
"No, I haven't," I said.
"We have more upstairs," the waiters told me, hopefully.
"Oh," I said. "Um," I added.
"You are only one" they either asserted or asked.
To which I said "yes. I mean, what?"
Then they let me sit wherever I wanted to. Were they worried I was meeting another party? There wasn't another soul in evidence. Was I being warned my table was only temporarily available? But my food was wonderful, and my service unhurried. I was yet again treated with that advanced care offered to the Saigon beginner: a translator for my ordering, a fork for my food, and waiters who stood just around the corner to watch my progress with the chopsticks I'd requested instead. [Cavin]

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

TGI(G)F! I've been seeing a lot of Sunshine's coworkers recently. We had a nice dinner with one yesterday evening, in a fancy and previously-unknown place behind the Caravel Hotel. It is called Qinq. I have no idea what type of restaurant this is, by the way. French-slash-Asian, perhaps? Expat fusion? It wasn't kinky enough to be experimental, but it was certainly informed by all sorts of culinary traditions. I had shredded salmon, spiced to taste like kimchee, on a blackened cracker, and the more predictable sea bass. I also got to sample Sunshine's coconut prawn with chili marmalade. Everything was somewhat more interesting than compelling, and the place itself was another ambient little shoebox in the upscale touristopia between Đồng Khởi and Nguyễn Huệ Streets. We sat outside in the four-seat portico in swanky modern patio furniture. Every four minutes a passing kid would ask me if I wanted my shoes shined. This was even more annoying for Sunshine, sitting with her back to the street: she kept thinking random passersby were calling her by name. Tonight, we attended some karaoke fundraiser at Sunshine's home office. Being a fundraiser, the hot dogs, barbecued prawns, and beer were all for sale. This is a mistake. A cover charge makes more sense at a karaoke function: the victim pays up front, before the intolerable torture begins; ergo, self-medication prolongs the event as people attempt to balance the good and the bad. Getting your money's worth is just a ratio, after all. Paying as we went along was just guaranteed to consistently question our endurance. To be fair, the karaoke was compelling enough that I'll still be humming Eternal Flame days from now. I don't know how long the party persevered; I think I was the first one to leave it. [Cavin]

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Every night, after Sunshine's bedtime, I lock-up, turn out the lights, and settle-in for some quiet hours of whatever. Turning the deadbolt last night, I discovered a note had been slipped under the door. This happens: most mail comes during the day; but monthly bills or the new HBO guide will come overnight under the door. Other things that typically arrive overnight are building-wide announcements about upcoming events. This was one of those. Thursday, it said, there will be a fire drill at ten am. It encouraged me to first review the fire safety instructions in our apartment's user manual before then taking part in Thursday's evacuation protocol. I reviewed the safety instructions, as asked: I was cautioned to leave the building in the case of fire. Be sure, it said, not to use the elevator or waste time gathering precious items. I'm frequently nervous about my ability to wake at nine am, as is necessary to be showered and ready to capably walk, in an orderly fashion, down public stairways. As you can tell by the title, today is Thursday. I forced myself awake at nine--after five hours of sleep--took a rapid shower and dressed in time for my emergency evacuation at ten. It's a shame that I only get forewarnings slipped under the door twelve hours in advance of situations I cannot gain anything by avoiding. Were this to be a real fire, I'd have gathered up my precious items last night. But I felt compelled to wait out this test, still halfway asleep, thinking arch thoughts like these. More than half asleep, maybe: ninety more minutes passed without notice (or alarm). Eventually, I checked the slip of note I'd read in darkness last night to discover the drill will actually be next Thursday. [Cavin]

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Nothing very large happened yesterday, so here's some smaller, previously homeless, thoughts accrued recently: first, the home-cooked meal we have every Tuesday was noticeably scaled back for just the two of us after those impressive banquets we asked Ms. Hương to design while Sunshine's mother was visiting. Last night she made shrimp dumplings and black bean soup that were mighty excellent. There were no leftovers of these things today. Second, at the Hồ Chí Minh City Book Fare, there were a lot of surgical epidermal cosmetology textbooks, and the spinner rack-full of Oxford University Press Classics Library all came packaged with an audio CD of the text. This strikes me as an incredibly potent language learning tool, and started me thinking about the mystifying lack of advanced language instruction available at home. It's difficult to find Spanish language materials for even intermediate-level study there; and that's in the US, where a significant population actually speaks Spanish. Just forget learning Urdu. Learning English in Vietnam might not be easier, but it's far more supported with good illustrated dictionaries, advanced-level texts, and plenty of engineering and technical manuals readily available. Third, since our lounge was closed at three yesterday afternoon, evidently for a balloon party, I headed to the nearest youth coffee shop, the MGM Studio Café. It's another of the places I've begun thinking of as "coffee discos" in light of their spacey seventies uniforms, throngs of trendy tweeners, and blasting pop. Today's music consisted of a lot of Jewel-style mid-nineties grrl-poet tunes remixed for a house party. Don't cringe; this beats the pants off the Filipino Country Roads on down the street at Windows Café, More than Words at my dearly beloved Le’s, or the Christmas Muzak still being bewilderingly piped into my apartment building's own balloon-filled lounge. [Cavin]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The St. Patrick's Day office party was yesterday afternoon. The sun set while we stood around drinking the traditional beers: Tiger, a Singaporean lager brewed locally, and the confusingly named Amber Stout. By "traditional" I mean that we have these two beers at every office party, not that they share any relationship with those occasions on which we have them. Here's a boring tale of prosaic tediousness: I was to meet Sunshine at four fifteen. After four already, I ran out the door and waited for the damn elevator only to discover I'd forgotten my phone, which was ringing back in the apartment. It was Sunshine asking if I was there yet. The elevator finally arrived while I was inside retrieving my phone, so I had to press the button again. Ten minutes later, halfway to the party by foot, I realized I'd forgotten the badge I needed to get into it; so I had to walk back to the damn house past all of the sidewalk vendors and moto-taxi pushers I'd just denied. They waved happily. Back upstairs, I located my badge and began waiting on the elevator. Again. Only to be called back into the apartment by Vuy, the housekeeper, who needed me to sign some paperwork. The elevator arrived while I was inside. Again. So I waited again, again. If we weren't fourteen floors up I'd have used the stairs, but that actually takes longer than waiting once. When the elevator finally arrived this time, it was full of ladders and maintenance men. So I stood there, smiling, waiting for the doors to shut, before I could finally press the down button one more time. By now it was already four thirty, but I made it to the street eventually. And, eventually, to the beer. [Cavin]

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I'm wearing green pants, thanks. In front of me there's a Vietnamese atlas of the world. We bought it yesterday at the Hồ Chí Minh City book fair. Sunshine is brilliant. She wanted to pick up a foreign-language world atlas because they contain many useful words handily organized by geography. Language students can certainly find all the same words in a dictionary, organized alphabetically, but that requires parsing second-language definitions illustrating what's obvious when browsing graphically; or navigating across hundreds of pages to discover relationships a map makes immediately clear. When it comes to the sort of conversations a traveler predictably has, this ease of reference is useful, and the vocabulary is indispensable. For Sunshine, an atlas is very useful. It's also entertaining for me: the map of North America on page thirty-one offers only two Ca rô li na Bắc (North Carolina) cities: Grin xbơ rơ and Sác lô (Greensboro and probably Charlotte, possibly pronounced "SHOK-luh"). The US-only political map, divvied into color-coded states, adds the NC capital Rô li, as well as the mysterious In linh tơn down the coast. Wilmington? Yesterday's atlas purchase helped empty my wallet. This is important because I was carrying all our money. Instead of going to the bank on a Sunday, we decided to scrape all our accumulated change together for dinner. Like poor backpack travelers. We collected about two hundred seventy thousand Đồng: over seventeen bucks. Our usual bill at Miss Kim's comes to wavy-equals one hundred sixty thousand after tipping, so we walked there feeling secure--only to discover a brand new menu with enticing new specials and higher prices across the board. We were still able to eat under the poverty line, but it was far more depressing to have to do so. [Cavin]

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Today's theme is confusion. We live in a building with a front desk. When we moved in, I had many opportunities to interact with the helpful staff. I asked questions, reported problems, checked inventories, etc. During that time, I developed situational favorites: the parted-hair-guy was excellent with computers. The woman-with-glasses was tirelessly helpful, if less bilingual than sometimes necessary. The woman-without-glasses was the all-round most professional smilingly friendly staffer available. I was confused without even knowing it--right up until we returned from the city book fair, today. I'd been a little confused about this fair, too, but I'd been aware of that. Was this a traditional, centrally located event; or was it happening on bookstore displays across the city? Turns out the former: it was centralized in a park roughly five blocks over and up from our building. Today was sun-blasted, neatly dry with blistering heat, but we trekked over there anyway since today was also the last day of the event. We had a good time. In the middle of purchasing, I noticed my house key was missing from my wallet. No problem: we just borrowed the "lockout" key from the desk when we returned to our lobby. While Sunshine asked the very competent woman-without-glasses for that key, another very competent woman-without-glasses stepped into the lobby from the office. What? Twins? No, upon second look, they don't look that much alike. Still, I've certainly been conflating these two women-without-glasses for months. That one is definitely the staffer I took to be my favorite when she does this... but no, wait, this one is recognizably the favorite when she does that. They are each like puzzling pieces of the one all-helpful persona I've created in my head (even while pondering how she manages working all three shifts). [Cavin]