Friday, June 27, 2008


I'm in the middle of making two further observations about Tuesday's extra-curricular Miss Universe event, the Most Charming in Áo Dài competition. One yesterday1 and one today. At one point, waiting for the show to start, I looked up and noticed that there was at least one large bat wheeling around in the spacious area between the proscenium and the balcony. What kind of bat? I don't know. Vietnam is filled with bats, and I was delighted that one or more had made its way into the theater. Welcome to Vietnam, ladies! Apparently what kind of bat lives where, and how to identify them, is more complex than I'm prepared to muck around with right now. Probably it was a horseshoe bat,2 a collection of about ten genera of the Rhinolophidae family composed of some hundred and thirty-odd species including many, if not all, types of medium-sized brown bats with leaf-looking structures on their noses. I only say this because I'm pretty sure horseshoe bats actually do live in the Indomalaya Ecozone, and some certainly come from my town in Vietnam (along with a staggering amount of other kinds, naturally). I know this because they are the zoonotic reservoir of the SARS coronavirus. All of this assumes that their possible re-assignation to a new sub-order of chiroptera will not soon mean that they've all been reassigned somewhere else. Maybe soon they'll all come from Albania. But last Tuesday, the horseshoe bat swirling silently around in the houselights was exciting, beautiful, translucent, and near enough to make me want to duck occasionally. This excitement was nothing compared to the creature's dramatic effect during the pageant: its occasional arcs through the high-powered spots flashed in bat-shaped fireworks over the apron, casting large and wicked shadows on the backdrop screens. Fantastic. [Cavin]

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I'd like to tell two further stories about Tuesday's extra-curricular Miss Universe event, the Most Charming in Áo Dài competition. One today and one tomorrow. We arrived in the auditorium about twenty minutes early and took our seats, which were really excellent (thanks to one of Sunshine's coworkers): third row, dead center. Since the first row of our section was reserved for the judges, there were plenty of notable people milling around the orchestra pit before the show. Sunshine was helping to identify them. At one point a woman in a red velvet áo dài and gold khăn đóng (the traditional áo dài turban, made by wrapping a ribbon dozens of times around to make a reel capping the top of the head1) came down the aisle, earning some hubbub from the assembled photographers. "Is that Miss Việt Nam," I asked, sensing she was maybe someone important. Sunshine pointed out that her áo dài, though nice, was nowhere near the caliber we were expecting to be onstage that night. There was no way she could be a contestant. Who did she end up being when she finally turned around? The current Miss Universe, woefully underdressed for the occasion. I've been carping all along about how this pageant rarely elects black or Asian people. Pageant wonks argue these claims by pointing to the latest ambiguously orange-gray Latina or deeply-tanned Swedish type. Lately, they've brought up the current Miss Universe, last year's Miss Japan, only the third east Asian woman to win the title since the day I was born.* The thing is, while she looks somewhat more Asian than the Swiss Miss girl, she also looks less Japanese than a Cherokee croupier. In Tuesday’s áo dài she could pretty much pass for a Vietnamese usher though, so that's something. [Cavin]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


On Sunday night, Miss Vietnam ranked among the ten finalists of Miss Universe's National Costume Contest in a beautiful, but possibly rather haute, version1 of Vietnam's traditional garment, the áo dài (pronounced ow-yie in the south, and ow-zie in the north, the last syllable rhymes with "pie"). Not to be outdone, each of the other seventy-nine contestants wore one themselves Tuesday night at a charity pageant for Thanh Nien Newspaper.2 The áo dài is a surprisingly malleable pattern for something so traditional. Here you can see what I think of as the standard garment, a long tunic and pants seen frequently on the street and professional settings. Here you can see just how varied they can become. While I can wax curmudgeonly about how wide the theory of áo dài seems to range ("if they change everything about the traditional pattern--the V-shaped closure, the waist-high slit, the floor length, the mandarin collar--why is it still considered the same thing?"), Sunshine points out that these words literally mean "long garment" and so, in that respect, "áo dài" can be as inclusive as the word "dress". Four designers dressed twenty contestants each for the show Tuesday, in outfits ranging from sequined prom night mistakes to shockingly cool Erté deco designs.3 Between sets, gala entertainment seemed calibrated for rather international sensibilities, eschewing traditional eastern folk sounds for whatever is the Việt version of Cantopop and a nostalgic twenties theme.* I really enjoyed my first live Miss Universe event, by the way. Seeing everyone in person was revelatory: I'm a beauty queen naysayer at heart, but these women were far prettier live than they seem on TV. Onstage it was also easier to empathize with their vulnerabilities as a group of near-teenagers jammed thoroughly out of context in front of everyone. [Cavin]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


On Sunday night, Vietnam’s HTV9 aired the Miss Universe Pageant’s National Costume Contest live on national television. As mentioned in the first of this two-part Update1 (the link takes you back to yesterday), this is my favorite ninety seconds of the aired pageant strung over ninety whole minutes. I’ve never had the opportunity to see the whole costume show before--nay, I never even knew it existed. I assumed the speedy parade at the beginning of the Miss Universe Pageant was all there was to it. Man, what I’ve been missing. Sometimes, my interest in these things stems from the infectiousness of Sunshine’s excitement, but not on Sunday night: eighty international beauties gussied up in outfits mostly garish and ridiculous is my kind of masquerade parade. We hurried home after dinner to watch TV. This year’s costume contest wasn’t disappointing. Some highlights (fair warning: candidate names below link to video footage, loading may take a minute): the real show-stopper of the night happened immediately when Miss Albania stepped onstage dressed as a bouffant Hammer vampire (ahem) and skulked about peering over her flapping high-collared cape. Any footage from the first eight contestant shows her continuing to vamp Vladly about in the background, turned backward so the audience can see her gothic two-headed Albanian flag. She had none of the imperious severity of Miss Kosovo. Misses Uruguay and Korea were well-matched opponents, showing equal ineptitude with the weapons they brought onstage (boleadoras and a sword, respectively), and neither would have stood much of a chance against Miss Thailand’s badass martial arts. There’s a whole lot more, of course.* But let’s skip on to the personal: here Miss Sunshine can be seen, fourth photo down, dressed-up as a facilitator and hanging-out in the doorway of some building in Nha Trang. [Cavin]

Monday, June 23, 2008


Ah, it's nearing that time of year again, when candidates the world over compete for the rather uppity title Queen of the Universe. Earth's largest international beauty pageant will be hosted in sunny seaside Nha Trang, Vietnam on July thirteenth. Actually, pageant stuff lasts about a month: contestants started arriving in Hồ Chí Minh City last Tuesday.1 Ironically, that's the very same day Sunshine traveled to sunny seaside Nha Trang2--where the contestants will be heading later this week. Sunshine returned home Saturday. So why a month? Well, there are plenty of necessary photo-ops, of course; producers must shoot all the "local color" coverage to be aired around the commercial breaks. The reason Misses are hanging out in Saigon specifically is that the annual National Costume Contest was held here on Sunday night. This was, as far as I know, the first actual event on the beauty roster. It's my favorite segment of the aired pageant: contestants show-off in hometown finery both ornate to massive. In the internationally broadcast prestige event referred to as the "Final Show", this becomes a two-minute segment just long enough for each Miss to shout out her country's name. This is, as are all events in the Final Show--save the on-air competition between semi-finalists--a distillation of another whole contest event held previously. That's another reason why this pageant takes a month to run its course. Since this event was held yesterday at the Saigon Factory Outlet Mall, contestants were billeted at the New World Hotel just blocks from our apartment.* I'll talk about the show itself tomorrow. Right now, I should point out that, all that screwball-plot irony aside, Sunshine did actually get to help several Misses tour the Navy's hospital ship mission in Nha Trang on her last day there.3 [Cavin]

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Here I am, still dredging up near-recent news items I've been meaning to post. According to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, via Monsters and Critics,1 Quảng Trị province's Economic Police Force pulled over a suspicious-looking northbound truck on Sunday, May eleventh. The province is five hundred-odd kilometers south of Hà Nội. In the truck they found 1,012 kilograms of live monitor lizards in wooden boxes. It's illegal to smuggle wild animals around in Vietnam, apparently--even trucking them from one area to another: these animals were supposedly harvested in mid-Vietnam, and Quảng Trị is located pretty much in the dead center, too. No one seems to know exactly where these lizards were headed, though police speculate they were destined for Chinese restaurants. The monitors will be released; and I like to imagine them loosed en masse to the dismay of nearby villages. I assume that odd economy label on the Quảng Trị police is meant to indicate their niche in anti-black market enforcement, and not that they're discount-sized. I feel skepticism about the very peculiar number of reptilian kilos, though. It figures out to be almost exactly one imperial ton. I'm not saying it can't happen; but as a fact it seems unusually tidy coming from a European news agency. Other recent smugglings into Vietnam include one dismembered tiger carcass,2 ten tiger claws, one tiger fang, two dried bull gallbladders, five rhino horns, six rhino horn pieces,3 tons of low-quality poultry,4 and, allegedly, pot.5 Incidentally, here in Saigon, they’re also prosecuting a man for allegedly smuggling pot back out of the country,5 and there's apparently pretty brisk profits to me made smuggling gas into Cambodia6. Don't get any bright ideas, those of you reading this in the USA--those higher Cambodian gas prices are only about one-half what you're paying. [Cavin]