Saturday, April 26, 2008


A few weeks back1 I mentioned the "black cash" scam. A local woman had been suckered out of some high dollar amount by a man claiming to have inked over a suitcase full of money in an effort to sneak it into the country past customs agents. What he really had, of course, were cleverly cut pieces of black paper--plus a couple of c-notes up his sleeve for the big moment when he pretended to use special magic potions to de-ink innocent paper back into real money. Voila. As usual in a con like this, he needed an advance of some thousands of dollars to purchase more of the chemical necessary to wash the rest. "Look," he says, "you can hang onto this whole suitcase if you don't trust me." The loan was to be paid-off (with interest) from the suitcase after his savings had been reconstituted. In reality, the con artist would be on a plane home by the time the sucker finally came over wise. But not this time.2 Back on April seventh, a similar con was run against one Trần Tuấn Vũ by a Nigerian man calling himself Adam. Mr. Vu contacted police when he was supposed to be gathering sixty thousand dollars for Adam's chemicals. Adam was arrested later that afternoon. Last night, just after my haircut, I met Sunshine for an evening jazz retrospective at the tony Sax-N-Art club on Lê Lợi Street across from Saigon Center. The show was a joint venture between the club owner, Trần Mạnh Tuấn, the Overseas Vietnamese Students Society and the US Consulate General. The Deputy Principal Officer of the latter gave a casual presentation covering the historical bullets, the martinis were probably the best in town, and I had hair trimmings itching my whole body. [Cavin]

Friday, April 25, 2008


Today's title is Dog Cholera. Trips right off the tongue, no? It's related to a news article I'll leave cliffhanging until the bottom of the post. First, a change of subject completely: the last time I got a haircut was two months ago, when It took days to find number forty-four Trương Định Street.1,2 Once I did, I was treated to a back massage by a crew of bored women in yellow disco-hop uniforms, a pretty cloudy coffee, and a three-minute buzzing with the standard number four clipper attachment. Today I returned to number forty-four, and was handed a tiny menu including all the coffee drinks and services the salon provides. I had to tell the bored disco woman three times that all I wanted was a haircut, but received a delightful facial bathing with a cool towelette anyway. Soon, the barber returned from somewhere else, donned his haircutting holster, and got to work. I was outside again in three minutes flat. Okay. In both the local animal- and food-related news simultaneously: health officials have begun speculating that the increasing number of acute diarrhea cases, linked to cholera, maybe being spread by the use of human waste in fertilizing and also the practice of eating dogs. Now, when I heard this supposition months ago, I was skeptical: Vietnamese eat dog meat irregularly but historically, while this possible cholera outbreak started in October. To me, it sounded very much like pundits were choosing a culprit that would excite the storytelling impulses of epidemiologists while also satisfying the safety concerns of a high-dollar tourist industry that wasn't planning on eating any dogs anyway. Reading one highly qualified article,3 I've refined my skepticism: now it sounds like the world has chosen cholera to demonize a practice that has evolved into taboo. [Cavin]

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I've been meaning to point this out: over the last week I've been working on photos I took while we were traveling in Hong Kong last Thanksgiving (a trip that was conceived as a slightly belated celebration of our first wedding anniversary). In the last few days, I've uploaded something like seventy pictures. Mostly these are from the streets of Central District, Hong Kong island, and the streets around the neighborhood where we stayed in Kowloon, Mong Kok. If the map was made of nice straight lines and perfect symmetrical shapes, Hong Kong would look like a fat exclamation point, the dot at the bottom being the island itself. The linear stroke is Kowloon, part of the Hong Kong autonomous zone, and the flat northern border of the stroke is the international boundary line where the People's Republic of China begins, north of Hong Kong's New Territories. The stroke would be bisected lengthwise by Nathan Road and the red Metro line that travels along beneath it. The bottom portion of this bisection is referred to as the Golden Mile, The northernmost point on the dot, where the Metro terminates, is Called Causeway Bay. These are the two hoity-toity shopping districts in the two-part city, and where many of the photos uploaded to date were taken. Others were taken in the nearby autonomous zone of Macau, which was settled, like Hong Kong, by European colonists before being recently returned to China with the stipulation that they would remain autonomous for decades. Macau has long been a European-type gambling city, a Monte Carlo of the East, but has lately been colonized yet again by the burgeoning empire of Las Vegas, as US casinos discover amazing profits, low overhead, and certain operational freedoms in Asia. The photos can be found here. [Cavin]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I often spend part of my afternoon in the building's lounge. I don't want to wander too far afield during the hour housekeeping cleans our apartment. Sometimes I go outside; but I'm often working on my computer: one easy elevator ride is better than packing everything up and carting it across town. Additionally, since Monday, it has threatened rain every moment (though actual moments of rain were few and far between), so my heavy lounging excuse seems all the more watertight. Yesterday's trip to the lounge was more surreal than most. Entering, I noticed that maintenance was fussing over the corner where I usually sit. I always sit over where I can see the park traffic through the windows. There, the little round table is an appropriate height for the swanky lima bean loveseats. I wasn't disgruntled about sitting elsewhere for one day, but the act of altering my normal course brought the situation to my notice: oh, they were cleaning my seat. I kept watch throughout the next hour. They cleaned my chair without pause. They scrubbed the undersides of the cushions, the seat back, the very arms of the thing--backbreaking arduous hand-labor. One of the lounge attendants (my favorite: he says "my leisure" instead of "my pleasure" whenever I've thanked him) asked me if the noise was bothering me. When I said no, the steam vacuum machine was turned on, and they gave the dirty loveseat a sonic once-over with that. Eventually this was too loud, so I left. The reason I'm reminded about this: today, very much the same scene played-out over the cleanliness of the chair I'd had to use yesterday. Is it me? I haven't seen them work on any of the other eight loveseats or seventeen chairs--just my two. Sheesh. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


In keeping with the dead tiger theme invading this Update column of late, I can connect a little-seen--and woefully spartan--news item1 from Hercules, California, where two men with Vietnamese names have plead guilty to illegally importing a stuffed tiger into San Francisco's airport from Ho Chi Minh City. This is a federal crime, probably a misdemeanor, and each could be facing jail time. Reading between the article's few lines, this only really smacks of a very big mistake; customs immediately apprehended the traveling taxidermy on its arrival without proper permits. How do you think it was packaged that this wasn't, you know, detected before San Francisco? News items about the coming Olympic torch relay,2 scheduled just one day after I fly home for a month and one day before the Vietnamese national Reunification Day holiday, remain concerned. After promising the hosting People's Republic a drama-free first relay through the city, Vietnamese officials have begun to cop to growing concerns over possible upcoming protests after all. While I'd assumed these protests would be primarily nationalistic in nature--disgruntlement over China's military occupation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands--the Socialist Republic maintains that any protest may bring about action from groups opposed to Vietnam's one-party government system. These two motives, one true to the nationalism inherent in the country's reunification victory holiday and another quite criminally in opposition to the tenets of that particular reunification, seem at odds with one another. But considering the relay's proximity to a holiday in celebration of these interesting topics, I can kinda see the government's concern. At any rate, the government adds, it's important to take this opportunity to show China that Vietnam is a good neighbor, contested authority over a handful of strategic islands in the South China Sea notwithstanding. [Cavin]

Monday, April 21, 2008


Yet another holiday: Happy Birthday to my mother! What we really need at a time like this is celebratory cake. Since I'm so far away, I'll have to tell you a story about that cake instead of actually baking it myself. Or, in this case, two cakes. Recently, for the Hùng Kings' Holiday beginning April fourteenth, the Vietnamese cultural apparatus Saigontourist commissioned two enormous cakes for its festival at Đầm Sen Park.1 This was a great idea, except for the fact that, immediately prior to erecting the display, park officials noticed the two-ton square (chưng) and the single-ton round (dầy) yummy glutinous rice cakes (bánh) were horribly moldy. Usually these are created as an edible display. Fearing the worst, the mold was then tested and discovered to be too dangerous for human consumption. Rather than waste three tons of quivering, petroleum-quality, Vaseline-like confection, also moldy, the officials decided scrape them off, presenting the catering as a sculpture rather than a buffet. They finally threw the massive cakes away only after the festival ended on the eighteenth of the month. Until then rumors abounded: why were these desserts for display purposes only? Many festival attendees became convinced the big things were made from the same inedible construction foam as the support structure inside the cakes. Hey wait. Never mind that I think these things are nearly inedible on the best of days, and never mind that Đầm Sen Park obviously seriously considered serving them at the festival if only the mold had been determined benign, but these cakes are, as a matter of process, erected over DIY building supplies? Sheesh. The resulting inquest has passed the buck along to the park's parent company, who, while whistling, would like to point out how very hot the weather has been lately.2 [Cavin]

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Today's weather report: sunny and extremely clear, with a clean spring-like breeze. This has been the case all weekend. The rains on Thursday and Friday, ostensibly the end of our dry season here in southern Southeast Asia, dragged the smog and humidity out of the sky for a pretty fresh couple of days. I suspect we're in an autumn of sorts, the twilight between the last season and the next. Since it can't gradually rain, it must increasingly do so. Twilight started with a bang, though. Looking over the internet I find that Thursday's storm wasn't only weeks early for our monsoon, but months early for the Pacific typhoon season as well. As a matter of fact, Typhoon Neoguri,1 the year's first tropical depression, is the earliest Pacific typhoon in recorded history. Great start. The depression formed last Sunday, becoming a full-fledged typhoon late Wednesday in the South China Sea. During the next few days it threw all sorts of rain at my country before weakening as it drug aground on the Chinese mainland. Weakening meant very little in this case, however, as Neoguri arrived with an incredible amount of water, drowning first Hainan Island and then Guangdong province in something like ten inches of rain per hour.2 Flights and ferries were grounded in Hong Kong, and these delays continue to disrupt schedules throughout this weekend. In the South China Sea, several multinational fishing boats were capsized in the storm, and many fishermen remain missing, although Vietnam has managed to rescue quite a few of them from waters just off the central coast areas.3 Meanwhile, as the tropical storm Neoguri still moved up the Chinese mainland Friday, the very first dedicated Vietnamese telecommunications satellite, VINASAT-1, blasted into orbit from a platform in French Guiana courtesy Paris-based Arianespace corporation.4 [Cavin]