Friday, March 28, 2008


In the news: apparently there's some trouble with the importation of legal hamsters to Vietnam, especially considering the wily truck of Thai black-marketeers. The best solution? Hamsters found to be undocumented will be immediately burned in bulk.1 On the other hand, government officials concerned about unlicensed trade in possibly avian flu-infected chickens are proposing to merely pay more attention in hopes the situation, you know, goes away.2 Have you heard of the following scam? Someone approaches with a suitcase full of cash-sized black paper claiming it's a fortune concealed from customs officials. He then asks to borrow money to purchase the chemicals necessary to restore the "blackened money" to legal tender. What could possibly go wrong?3 And here's a terrifying effect I'd never considered: can the construction site beside my building cause its collapse? Construction came to a halt on one eleven-story District One project Thursday when a five-square-meter chunk of earth sank across the street. Two hundred seventy people from the adjacent apartment block have been evacuated to nearby hotels, as more depressions in the area are still being discovered.4 The launch of Vietnam's first orbital satellite has been delayed yet again, according to the news.5 We should expect to see it blasted into space by a French aerospace company sometime around mid-April. While the article doesn't say what sort of thing the satellite will be up to up there, its funding by the telecommunications sector is a big clue. Lastly, I'll leave you with recent news about Ho Chi Minh City's favorite subject, traffic. It's noteworthy for its whimsical tone, evident in the inclusion the following quote:
"What the @#%&?!" said a foreigner unlucky enough to get stuck in a jam on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in District 1...6
Now that's what I call bilingual. [Cavin]

Thursday, March 27, 2008


I got up at nine am. At ten thirty-one, just one minute late, the building's fire alarm sounded. This was and wasn't surprising: I'd been warned about this very drill,* but at ten past a maintenance crew had set a couple of ladders up outside my door and pulled all the PA equipment out of the ceiling to lay it out on a tarp. I almost went back to bed. But then at ten thirty-one there was a shrill blast of siren interspersed with the taped English-language announcement to stay calm and leave the building, all transmitted by speakers hanging at head height from colored wires. I was ready to go; I had my key, money, and emergency reading material. I'd carefully avoided gathering any precious items, as per instructions; I wanted to get this right. I'd memorized the route to the stairwell across from my door, and managed to efficiently dodge the ladders newly obstructing my way. I walked, in an orderly fashion, downstairs. I had no idea how to exit the building since my stairwell doesn't actually go to the lobby. I was the only soul on the whole long walk. Fourteen floors is a long way down. At every floor along the way, maintenance crews with ladders were working on the speakers, but the noise persisted. At the bottom, the stairway opened into the parking area behind the building, and I walked out onto the sidewalk. There were about thirty building staff members there, taking turns setting--and then extinguishing--a fire in a large metal pan. It was quite festive. There were roughly seven other tenants huddled impatiently by themselves, moody and distant. So I hung out with the happily fire-bugging staffers for half an hour before finally being allowed back into the building. [Cavin]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Sunshine spent Monday night on a business trip to Cần Thơ1 (remember this: that's "th" as in Thailand, and the "ơ" from the national noodle soup dish ph, pronounced more like "uh" than "oh". So: "Can tuh"), the largest city in the Mekong Delta and considered Việt Nam's western capital. It's located on the southern bank of the Hau River, the largest branch of the Mekong, and is approximately one-sixth the size of the city we live in. There are plenty of reasons to visit the city:2 floating river markets, excellent nước mắm, and a distinctly more village-like, agrarian feel than we can really perceive in downtown Saigon (or so I have been led to imagine from reading about it). I imagine that one can see wide open areas from Cần Thơ, can wander around in some rural humidity. It is possible to charter boats from there: up the river to Phnom Phen, or Vientiane. Possibly all the way into central China. Cần Thơ is about four hours southwest of Hồ Chí Minh City, and Sunshine was transported there by car Monday morning. She came back yesterday. I spent Monday evening alone, enduring an aberrant six hours of odd bachelorhood between the time she would normally return from work and when she most usually goes to sleep. My plan was to get a lot of work done posting photographs in that six hours--a period that seemed a lot longer anticipated than it does in retrospect--but as it often is with odd bachelorhood, I spend more time watching TV and reading H. Rider Haggard that putting nose to photo grindstone. So where I was planning to announce that I had new links to show you, all I can actually announce today is that I wasted some time. [Cavin]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Friday night we enjoyed ho-hum Thai food down a little alley in the Đồng Khởi area. That trip was relevant to today's Update because we also discovered the physical location of an excellent Indian restaurant we'd previously only patronized by delivery. Almost every restaurant here delivers; those that don't are accessible by delivery service: a third party places the order and then brings it to our address. This third party publishes a comprehensive menu book, handy for choosing restaurants even when we're planning on dining out. I like this Indian place because it features southern dishes oddly missing from what I've come to regard as the standard diaspora menu. I prefer dining out to delivery. Even here, where deliveries frequently arrive in under twenty minutes, the food is still much further removed from optimal serving conditions: older, cooler, compartmentalized into Tupperware squares. I was happy to find this physical place; and with great anticipation decided to eat there Sunday night. It's a real looker too: a large, spartan, custard-colored room behind an unremarkable door off a nearly anonymous stone stairway. They didn't seem particularly busy, but the harried waiter didn't hear half of Sunshine's order and so dismissed her request for the other half: without the channa masala, why would we need the rice? What food did come arrived haphazardly. My dinner dosa came long before it's sambar condiment. Between, I got my appetizers. Sunshine ate half my stuff while waiting for food it took us forever to ascertain was never going to come. At some point this dawned on me: it's really impossible to tell how busy a deliver restaurant is. Sure, only four tables were filled, but how many customers were waiting out their twenty minutes at home? That's what we'll probably do next time, too. [Cavin]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Monday

Happy Catholic bank holiday! We saw a movie yesterday. In a theater. It's the first time we’ve done this since we arrived in Việt Nam. The theater we chose was about fifteen minutes down the road, near Hồ Chí Minh City's Chinatown in District Five. It's at the very top of a modern six-story mall: past department stores, the food court, the bowling alley, and the gym. This place came recommended because it not only presents US movies without dubbing, but also subtitled versions of Vietnamese language films. The only movies I'd not be able to fully enjoy there are third-party imports, as they have to be subtitled in Vietnamese. The theater is newish; it opened in 2006. It's a modern seven- or eight-screen multiplex with a string of concession counters ranging from standard (popcorn and beef jerky), to those run by corporate chains (Highlands Coffee and Heineken Beer). The theater we were in had auditorium-style seating tricked-out with high-backed red chairs rather firmly padded with futuristic-looking modular cushioning reminiscent of defensive sports gear. These seats were assigned. We'd been issued seats way back in L section. Since that was much too far away, we sat in the exact middle of the theater instead. As the seats filled up, we found ourselves in an overpopulated knot of an audience overtly comfortable talking loudly to one another, allowing their technology to beep, etc. This is just an observation. The audience was young and social, and the event was about being young and social more than it was about watching a movie. I'm different culturally, socially, and numerically: at home I'd have been really angry. Here, I only hoped that the act of having to read the movie as it went along might somewhat divert attention back to the screen.* [Cavin]

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday

Happy Easter! The last few days have been technologically frustrating. I keep running all over town trying to find a good internet connection. According to Thanh Niên News (dot com),* hydro electric plants in Việt Nam are looking at their rapidly evaporating reservoirs and predicting rolling blackouts through the county's population centers: increasing demand meets with one-quarter output. I have two distinct reactions to this. One concerns the quixotic nobility of turning away from fossil fuels in a country that must abide half-year seasons without rain. The other is to the cruel archness of enduring a drought after much of central Vietnam set through the latest rainy season beneath record-breaking floods. Floods that, incidentally, disrupted the flow of electricity to the country's population centers. This makes for a year-long list of hardships for the whole country; and coming only at the very end of that list is my own minor hardship: that tenuous power situations disrupt my internet connection. Looking at the cables crisscrossing the city, I have no problem imagining a nearly infinite number of sectors and conduits coming and going from there to there. Which of these bring power to my apartment? Which take power to my ISP? To relay towers and routers and metering companies? Will some cables surging then short others out? Will some areas going black require surrounding areas to fade brown? Any single step can lower or disrupt bandwidth. Then I lose the internet and VONAGE. Sometimes I have to walk to three or four cafes before I find one with service. So, by way of justifying my ongoing inability to remain up-to-date here at the Update Column: until the rainy season begins, there will be rolling blackouts due to the current drought; afterwards, expect electrical problems due to too much rain. [Cavin]