Saturday, April 19, 2008


It was still gray all day yesterday. There was thunder and wind. It rained intermittently, but lightly. When Sunshine returned from work Thursday, I asked her: "is this the beginning of the new rainy season?" and she answered with a confident "yes." I'm a little skeptical because it hasn't been six months since the last one, though I know it ran late and this one's affected by La Niña. Today, when Sunshine went to work, she asked the Vietnamese office staff. They, too, voiced their confident affirmations. Who'd know better? A-ok then, ten-four; it's the new rainy season. The first-quarter tenant party in our building's lounge was tonight. By seven, I wasn't all that keen on going; but I had to because the lounge staff has been inviting me daily all week long. This party was Hawai'i themed, according to the blurry ink-jet sunset-n-grass-skirt clipart on the invite received under our door last weekend. Luckily, I have several Hawaiian shirts. Even though these parties are quarterly, the last one was four months ago. That one was Christmas themed.* I wore a Hawaiian shirt to that one, too. The leis we were given tonight were made of actual flowers, which I imagine is even cheaper here than the ubiquitous fake lei of tiki parties back home. It got lost in the camouflage of my shirt but smelled nice. The lounge was decorated with colorful balloons and grassy fringes, the standard Filipino band was banging-out overloud surf groove covers, and the buffet was mostly skewered. Outside it looked like rain. There were very few people we knew, so we mostly talked to a house-sitting Fulbright student we'd met once at a Halloween party six months ago (to which I wore a Hawaiian shirt). We drank free sangria. We left early. [Cavin]

Friday, April 18, 2008


We arrived in Hồ Chí Minh City six months ago today. It's difficult to decide whether it's seemed like a long or short six months. It's certainly been exciting. We’ve done plenty. We've traveled to Hong Kong, Macau, and India. I've been to some notable places within Vietnam, including the distant northern capital, and Sunshine's traveled to more of them for work. I've grown very comfortable with the local traffic and constant noise, acclimated to the food and shopping. I've learned a lot. On the flip side, I've endured patches were I've missed home more than usual--whether due to spending my first full holiday season abroad or the sheer boggling weight of the world between me and my former life, I can't really tell. I'm more plugged into this city than I was in Monterrey. It's so easy for me to get to the post office, say, or the grocery store, or about three dozen cafés of varying kitsch. Everything's nearby. So much happens weekly that I cannot imagine it was only days ago that I did whatever, but it’s also quite difficult to imagine that Christmas was several months ago. But what really does happen here? We go out to a lot of restaurants, trying to discover new ones. We are still discovering a lot about Vietnamese cuisine, in general--and culture, and manners. We've seen six months of southeast Asian weather: watched the last rainy season go and the new one burgeon overnight. The first quarter of our stay has already elapsed. In the next half-year we'll bid on our next tour, Sunshine will be tenured within her organization, and I'll visit home (next week, and then again at the end of this year). Over the next six months it will rain nearly every day. [Cavin]

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Recently, I've stooped to bemoaning the rising humidity without a hope of rain. Really, over the last few weeks, the southern Vietnamese climate has almost equaled that of my home state at its worst. Just last Monday I said (among other things*), that while traveling to the US, I'd "also miss the beginning of this year's rainy season, slated for May...". And when I went to bed last night, that was still true: the moon rose above a clear evening with stars and some little cotton puffs of clouds wandering lazily like the plump sheep of heaven. I woke up today to thunder and lightning. I rushed to the balcony to look out over one of the more Armageddon-like days I've seen: the sky was high and gray, and the atmosphere was somehow yellowish and violently still. Isolated rushes of wind were coming, however, blasting into the park trees from the south, a kinetic shock I could follow through the grove until it came out across the street from me as a fan of gumball-sized, rabbit-eared seedpods that fanned out over the block and then slowly helicoptered into the heavy traffic below. Soon enough it was raining brutal, giant drops that seemed to swirl around our building, first visible through one window, then later through another. Then it began to rain in earnest, and did so for about forty minutes. When it was finally done raining it remained gray under an endlessly moving sky, swift and seemingly permanent. Was this the beginning of the rainy season? It just seemed too dramatic, too apples-and-oranges different from yesterday's season. Long after dark, we returned from a nice Indian dinner at Ashoka. The lightning was still at it, zapping eastern Hồ Chí Minh City silently, consistently, flashing streets strewn with seeds. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Happy Hùng Kings day!* Or: happy US tax day, if you prefer. The Hùng Kings' Temple Festival, centered around the Hà Temple in Phú Thọ district, about eighty-five kilometers northwest of Hà Nội, lasts for five days--the ninth through thirteenth day of the third lunar calendar month. Remember: that's counting from Tết, which was mid-February this year. Today, the tenth moon day, is the main day of the festival, celebrating the death anniversary of the first Hùng King, Hùng Vương, credited with founding the Hồng River civilization that, in turn, became the Vietnamese nation. He also inaugurated a dynasty that ruled for something over twenty-five hundred years (2879-258 BC). Wow. But then again, the cited source mentions eighteen generations of Hùng King rule, and it's impossible to square these figures unless one assumes one hundred and forty-five year "generations". It isn't too late to book tickets to Hà Nội for the remaining days of the festival. What you'll see: a thousand-year-old tree, folk singing, bronze drums, and a lot of pungent and gelatinous rice and bean cake desserts wrapped in leaves. I'm not a very big fan of the latter. We spent the day hanging out in the apartment since Sunshine was off work. It never even crossed my mind to see if any Hùng celebrations were scheduled locally; indeed, when we finally stepped out of our home for dinner, we headed down Le Quy Don to eat mighty good but equally inappropriate Thai food. In our defense, the restaurant was hardly empty, maybe I'm not the only one who dislikes Hùng King desserts. On the other hand, we celebrated tax day weeks ago, and might even be able to enjoy this year's ridiculous "stimulus" bonus, which we will, I guess, dutifully inject into Vietnam's thriving economy. [Cavin]

Monday, April 14, 2008


In two weeks I'll be flying home for the first time since moving to Vietnam. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, the old hometown, the Kentucky farm. As always, it's odd to contemplate an international adventure home--and those creepy twenty-four hours in coach. This will be four flights--plus layovers--equaling a whole day, but then minus the twelve time zones (but adjusted for DST). I'll be in the air forever; a whole day will pass for you. Only about fourteen hours will have elapsed (relapsed?) when I land, late on the same day I began. The other eleven hours are eaten up by the state of artificial time exchanges founded on the roundness of the world; exchanges only I'll perceive. During my stay abroad, I'll miss a number of things here in Hồ Chí Minh City. Most notably: the day after I leave, the much-politicized and increasingly contentious Olympic Torch relay will tour Vietnam's southern capital.1 This should be something to see. There are many people in Vietnam feeling skeptical of Beijing's intentions regarding the relay's local route. Published itineraries are assumed to be fabricated attempts to throw protesters off. In Europe and the US, recent protests have dogged the Olympic custom because of international discontent over Chinese involvement in Tibet; but here in Vietnam, the main contention is China's claims on the Paracel2 and Spratly3 Islands, together claimed by Vietnam, the People's Republic, and Taiwan. It would be interesting to see what happens, but I'll be content hearing about it through the grapevine. I'll also miss the beginning of this year's rainy season, slated for May; reports indicate that it may be even harsher this year than last due to La Niña’s influence.4 I might come home to a very soggy Vietnam after Memorial Day. [Cavin]

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Recently, two disemboweled tiger carcasses were found frozen in a private house south of Hanoi, products resting temporarily along the black market highway to wherever it is someone can sell this sort of thing. What sort of thing? Traditional medicinal bone pastes, the rarer the better. Investigators also found a number of livers and some unidentified skinned feet.1 It seems that very little time elapses between reports from the illegal exotic animal trade. I've noted it here before,2 and the cited article above mentions several recent incidents: the curious incident in Cần Thơ, where a ring of black marketers were arrested for poisoning the local zoo cat and stealing the body back in August oh-seven; and an eye-popping report about two locals discovered riding around in a taxi with the bodies of both a tiger and a bear just last December. I assume that was a moon bear, another name for the Asiatic Black Bear,3 valued around town for the medicinal quality of its bile. I have no link, but I believe I've heard about restaurants which have moon bears chained in their back allies, though I'd also note that one hears all sorts of spurious lore about Asian restaurants. Vietnam, combating illegal animal trade on all fronts, recently unveiled its first bear rescue center,4 located in scenic Tam Đảo, a birdwatcher's haven in northern Vietnam. The center is designed to promote understanding and benevolence toward the creatures, curb the torturous mistreatment associated with the bile industry, and oh yeah, care for rescued specimens, if necessary, for life. According to the article, the center is also dedicated to:
"explain[ing] the background of bear bile use and the availability of synthetic and herbal alternatives to bile.
So there you go. Man-made bear bile. Fill the old cauldron with that. [Cavin]