Saturday, August 30, 2008


This weekend we have the time to explore without the energy to travel somewhere else. Hồ Chí Minh City kicks ass, but it's easy to put off for other adventures because it's always right outside. Today was one of the rare times we'd set aside for getting out into our city. We explored around the backpacker district some. It's tongue-in-cheek to call this exploration, really. We live at the intersection of Districts One and Three. We spend the vast majority of our time around town roaming these areas. These main downtown districts look pretty distinct: leafy trees, wide open parks, relatively clear sidewalks. The majority of town looks the opposite. Most of Saigon's French Colonial remains are in Districts One and Three. What's funny about using the word "explore" is that we never left our base Districts. First we saw a little art show somewhere near the bridge to District Four. This was post-utopian sci-fi sculpture, in aid of post-cinema photo constructions--all very white plastic. Local art shows I've seen have something in common: a stifling little gallery with under ten pieces. It feels strange to make plans to go to a gallery--get ready, leave the house, hail a cab--only to look at art for seven minutes. Both women behind today's tiny reception desk had leather-covered motorcycle helmets I found very compelling. After the show we wandered around the mazelike alleys of the backpacker district. It's only a tongue-in-cheek "district": travel agents, luggage vendors, bubble tea shops, tourist expectations accumulated around the cheap hostels. But warrens of tangled alleys wend between the main roads, accessing three-chair eastern hemisphere restaurants, barbers, and other, darkly mutable exotic spaces. It may be totally alien compared to where I live, but it's less than a mile from our apartment. [Cavin]

Friday, August 29, 2008


I'm feeling a little better today, thank you very much. This has been a most interesting cold. I'm still suffering some symptoms, but the generalized ick has gone away. I don't know if it's a benefit of exercising, or a characteristic of this particular bug, but the whole ordeal was pretty lightweight. Every single night during the whole thing I ran at least a kilometer and a quarter on the treadmill, most of those nights I lifted weights as well. Every day I woke up depressed that the cold hadn't "gotten bad" yet--I guess I was expressing concern that the hellish malaise that generally clobbers me the third day had yet to materialize. Now I think the whole cold is beginning to go away. I'm in a pretty good mood about this. I don't know if it proves I'm in better shape than I used to be, but it certainly proves that my gym routine has taken root: I never even thought about skipping a day. Tales from the gym: last night something strange happened. Often the lounge guys stick around after locking up to play pool. Once, I even heard balls being racked over my MP3s--three am and they were still here shooting a game in the dark. I've long since shrugged off concerns over the stealth of my midnight exercise. Having the staff hanging around doesn't bother me like it might've two weeks ago. But last night I opened the door to the gym and found a guy just standing there in the dark, doing nothing. Then, another guy ducked around the corner, saw me, and diverted toward the closed swimming pool. Both of these guys furiously ignored me, sprinting off in opposite directions the second my back was turned. I dare not speculate. [Cavin]

Thursday, August 28, 2008


It seems like every time Sunshine leaves town, I get sick. Sunshine left for Hà Nội on Tuesday afternoon; I woke up that morning with a cold. Certainly it's all in my head, but if it's psychosomatic then it sure comes with a lot of ectoplasm. I'm afraid that's going to be the most synthesized metaphor I can produce the way I feel today. Just like yesterday and the day before, this will be a post entirely composed of loose associations and wobbly logic, assuming I even try for those things at all. Bear with me, Goldilocks. Last night I felt too bad to leave the house, but Tuesday I straggled out for the typical sushi gluttony I reserve for nights when Sunshine is off working. I went to the same place I detailed last week in my "Rule of Four" post.1 Last night I only ordered three things, so everything went marvelously. After a second trip to this place convention dictates that I should know the name; but I plead illness. Look, it's right there on Mạc Đĩnh Chi Street, right beside the most severely Denny's looking Korean fusion diner I've ever seen.2 As of my second meal there, however, I am prepared to pronounce the place more expensive and less homey than my very favorite downtown sushi bar, but equal in price and quality to my second favorite (if maybe with a slightly less extensive menu). And they are working on the homey: yesterday the five waitresses pretty much formed a ring around my table where they could instantly respond to my every perceived whim. Well, just as instantly as possible given the rapid questions they were all asking me about the book I was reading, how long I had been in Vietnam, and the like. [Cavin]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I've just read Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton's Democratic Convention speech, delivered a couple hours ago. I don't want to seem as if I am picking on the senator's message; I'm not really trying to rake semantic dirt over it, either. I liked what she had to say in a speech driven by the overriding need to repair a party rift created by a nominations race often characterized by seemingly bitter opposition. I think she spoke with grace, incidentally underlining the paramount curbing the dire economic situation Democrats are stumping to avoid. Okay. But in light of some eyebrow-raising racial allusions the senator and her husband have uttered over the recent campaign trail, I can't help but think that her citation of Harriet Tubman*--in an ostensible illustration of the historic power of can-do working-class vigor in pursuit of a righteous, healthy, and equal America--was a little bit thoughtless. From the speech:

Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice: "If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going." And even in the darkest moments, that is what Americans have done. We have found the faith to keep going.

In form, I think including this plays as overly speechy and a little trite. But I cannot help but also be concerned that the lingering analogy is that of a strong woman helping runaway blacks to achieve their goals. I am certain that the senator didn't intend to compare herself with Ms. Tubman during her rousing speech in support of her recent opponent, but maybe even chancing this mistaken impression (and commentary like this post here) was a little bit daft. [Cavin]

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Sunshine left town near the end of her regular workday, yesterday. Now she’s in Hà Nội for something or another. I was invited along, but I've been traveling nearly every two weeks since returning from the states at the end of May. Plus, it's hot in Hà Nội this time of year. Yesterday I met her after work and we ate a bon voyage dinner at Au Parc. On the way to meet her, I encountered a guy acting inappropriately. I make these little judgments frequently, to my shame. But I often see tourists in tiny shorts or old men macking on young Việt girls; it becomes second nature. This guy was different, more like a subway loony than a thoughtless twentysomething backpacker or dirty geezer. He was dressed in the pressed uniform of the imperial orientalist--khaki trousers and professorial tweed jacket, shoulder strap, pith helmet--and he minced down the street with a self-conscious gait characteristic of someone looking to divert the same attention his costume was drawing. If this was Hollywood, and nineteen thirty-eight, he might have had a stable of fez-wearing coolies carrying his steamer truck behind him. I can't imagine how he could stand the heat here. Not dressed like that. But he also wore a serene little smile through the tropical sheen of his plumb and swollen face. Obviously, my attention was already on this guy before I noticed what he was doing: as scooters passed him on the sidewalk, he'd make like he was swatting them--or barring their passage--with his rolled red umbrella. Everyone veering by was smiling, but I wonder if subway loonies know the Vietnamese smile nervously when they're embarrassed? Come to think of it, those shorts-wearing backpackers and macking geezers might not know about this, either. [Cavin]

Monday, August 25, 2008


Yesterday there was a chili cook-off at another apartment building nearby. The last chili events I'd been invited to were in northern México. That sentence might make a reader think I was about to come over all haughty about chili, but this is not the case. Honestly, I have little regard for American chili--since I'm a vegetarian--and didn't even attend the cook-off in Monterrey. American chili? Texan really. The cooks at those Mexican competitions were predominantly from the other side of the Rio, and the Lonestar style predominated: spicy cubes of tender steak in vaguely differentiated gravy, cooked for days, qualified by a quantity of alarms. Surely none of these pots had ever seen a vegetable; frequently, they had to be trashed after the chili acids had eaten through their bottoms. Texans seem to think this is great, but it doesn't align with traditional notions of chili according to me and Mexican grandmothers. "Chili" literally indicates a sauce made of peppers, the heat incidental to the flavor. The meals are chili with meat or chili with beans. I make it from peppers and fruits, minerals and leaves. I use it with beans. Of course, my product is the diametric opposite of Texan chili: vegetation without meat. Most chili dishes judged yesterday in Vietnam were from a place somewhere between these two poles. There was, however, one totally veggie dish I enjoyed. It was made from beans and tomatoes and corn. There was also one Texas-style pot of rich gravy, chunky with hunks of meat so large that it came off as more of a steak barbecue than a chili, really. Of course, Tex might be onto something satisfying after all: that Lonestar entry swept the competition, a resounding victory for latter-day chili traditionalists on two hemispheres. [Cavin]

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Saturday we attended another farewell party for a friend who's leaving next week. We had a nice dinner at an Italian place in District One, La Hostaria (black ink pasta, prawns the size of my fist), before wandering over to a little Irish pub called Sheridan's, located conveniently next door. Inside Sheridan's, it was dark and packed with a heavily western crowd. We were adding at least another dozen-plus westerners ourselves. A very loud two-person karaoke band was also smooshed in there. As I walked past, part of the single-file conga line of our party crowd, those in front of me were already heading back out. They'd explored around and found no room to sit. A helpful waitress made her way to the head of the line and started leading it behind the bar. I was still dutifully following the snake into the recesses of a place I thought I'd be walking right back out of again. That's just the way we were all parading around the place; there was certainly no room to turn around and walk back out without first following the whole winding route. Eventually I noticed we weren't leaving at all, but heading to the back, to the bathrooms. For a moment this was pretty surreal: "well, we’ve got room to sit in here." But of course the stairs to the next floor were back there too, and there was plenty of room for our parade up there. I liked it. It was the sort of brightly-lit clapboard dive all too rare on Hồ Chí Minh City's expatriate landscape--full of water damaged surfaces, sports television, and dart boards. We had a great night, and I even managed to get a small potted Zebrina pendula out of the guy who was moving away. Score. [Cavin]