Friday, September 05, 2008


First, anyone interested can find today's Friday Matinee Video (the fifth) over here. I moved it because I'm having trouble making my photo badges work properly. I imagined it might be Flickr's new video feature interfering with the widget, but I was wrong. This movie is about catching a scooter taxi ride with a baby. Second, I'd like to honor the guys from our building's lounge. I've mentioned they're shooting pool lately. For ten months, that little red table in the corner was mostly used as a snack buffet during tenant parties. But lately, whenever I go to the lounge in the afternoons, the guys are playing pool with the parking attendants, the maintenance guys, whoever happens to be around. The convenience store women watch. They laugh when I walk in like they've been caught. They all disperse immediately, leaving the balls where they've come to rest. That's not all. Last week I walked in to find them tossing around an empty white Malibu Rum bottle, practicing Tom Cruise Cocktail moves. They laughed and tried to disperse, but I got them to show me a few tricks: tossing the bottle over a shoulder, catching it on the back of a hand. I don't know the lounge guys' names, embarrassingly. They have nametags, but I ignore them because they're fake. In lieu of memorizing people's western nicknames I've learned nothing. I think of them as the "guy with glasses" and the "guy without glasses". The guy without glasses frequently shows me new card tricks. He's still learning. He turns around when he's doing the sleights, so I can't see. I bring this up because today was the guy without glasses' last day. He's going back to school after being here the whole time I have. I'll miss those tricks. [Cavin]

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I don't talk all that much about the weather anymore. Where I grew up it rained during springs and early summers, was dry late summers and winters. But I remember taking note of lengthy droughts when it should normally have been raining. I grew up with people who complained about droughts. They complained when it rained, too. I never complained about rain. This year's rainy season, in Vietnam, has grown so familiar that it's faded into the background. I rarely get caught in the rain, even though it happens several times each day. Last year, we arrived in Hồ Chí Minh City during the end of an unnaturally lengthy monsoon season, as I understand it. By November, it was raining only once a day, if that. That seemed like a lot, but it wasn't. As I type this, another storm is blowing up outside. It only stopped raining three hours ago. The constant cycle of humidity-bluster-humidity outside is misleadingly convalescent. It's as if the city's fever breaks several times a day; but this patient never heals. If I sound tired of this, I don’t mean to. I love it: whenever I notice the sky darkening in gradient stripes of gray clouds which then blur together into another forty-minute torrent, I stare out the windows or walk outside. But I don’t always notice anymore. It's the reason I don't mention it more often. Rest assured it’s rained nearly every day since May, whether I've mentioned it or not. It's only similar to my previous experiences in the indelibility of its absence. I still clearly remember Thursday, August twenty-eighth. Can you? The sky was deep blue that day, breezeless, puffy white clouds drifted aimlessly. It was so clear I could see the stars that night. It didn't rain all day. [Cavin]

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


This blog is about the preservation of exoticism, something I think about frequently. Sometimes it's fun to sit in a restaurant, for example, having no idea what people around me are saying. Watching people talk in a restaurant is more exotic and mysterious than listening to them. Sometimes it's fun experiencing underdefined phenomena. This is how I justify having never learned any Vietnamese. Last night, just about sundown, we walked across District One to eat a nice dinner at the Refinery. It's named after an old opium refinery building on a muddy alley courtyard off Hai Bà Trưng Street. On the way there, we passed the gates of Reunification Palace, like we almost always do. Last night, the army was blocking heavy traffic along Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and Lê Duẩn Streets, which intersect in cul-de-sac cum bus stop at the Palace gates. Hundreds of scooters lined the sidewalks of the park; regimented flag bearers lined Lê Duẩn Street for blocks, a dormant parade bursting with potential energy. Dinner was nice. I ate a fabulous tagliatelle à la mer, if you'll pardon the fusion, graced by tomato lentil soup rich enough to also dress the pasta. They make splendid manhattans at the Refinery. I had two. Nearby, an English teacher discussed universities with his graduate student. On the walk home, we were absorbed in conversation when the first uniformed sailors passed us heading the other way. They were all grim and middle aged. There were a lot of people in uniform. He traffic coming from the Palace was really heavy, but this time there were no police keeping it off the sidewalks. Threading our way through the vast gridlocked crowd was difficult. The show lights on the Reunification Palace grounds were doused. It took forever to get home. [Cavin]

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

National Day

Happy Việt Nam National Holiday! It's interesting to slowly learn what different countries around the world celebrate in the name of nationalism.* In Vietnam, nationalism is commemorated on a different anniversary than I'd expected. Not that there aren't nationalist "reunification" celebrations in honor of the Vietnam's eventual integration after the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, but the official Socialist Republic of Việt Nam National Day Celebrates a short-lived step along the way: the proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam on September second, 1945. Odd, huh? Quickly: at the very end of the second World War, Japan overthrew the government of French Indochina. For several months, US and Allied forces worked covertly within Vietnam to harass the Japanese flank while the imperial army was fighting its costly war in the Pacific. When Japan finally surrendered on August 14, 1945, it was agreed by the winners that they would withdraw from Indochina, leaving it intact for its long-time imperial masters. Instead, Japan made it possible for nationalist groups, including the Việt Minh under leader Hồ Chí Minh, to size the public buildings in many major cities, thereby thwarting the returning French. By the twenty-fifth, the colonial president Bảo Ðại was forced to abdicate leadership to Uncle Hồ who, on September second, delivered a rousing speech inaugurating a new sovereign Vietnamese nation that lasted several days. But the Chinese Army arrived to occupy northern Vietnam later in September. Then British troops arrived to occupy the south in November. The Việt Minh, choosing the devils they knew, began negotiating with the French again before the end of the year. It was a strategy that would separate the country but leave a sure Vietnamese foothold in the north, bringing about civil divisions leading to thirty more years of nationalist struggle. [Cavin]

Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day

Happy Labor Day! Because of the holiday, we're having a long weekend. So far it's been pretty nice: we've done almost nothing but watch TV. A couple weeks ago we were hanging out at a local Irish pub with friends. The topic of everyone's vacation plans came up. The Labor Day weekend is even longer than usual because tomorrow is Vietnam's National Day. With four weekend days to fill, most everyone we know in this town had been planning to head somewhere else: Bangkok or Hong Kong or Singapore. The way pub conversations go: I was asked six times where we'd be going this weekend. Sunshine and I had been asking each other the same question for a couple months. We tossed around ideas when we were in Nha Trang six weeks ago, then in Dalat last month. There was even talk of my accompanying Sunshine on her business trip to Ha Noi last week. In the long run, I made the decision that I'd been traveling too much lately. I decided I really wanted to stay at home for once. This was sort of disappointing for Sunshine, who I believe would have preferred to go to Kuala Lampur or Angkor Wat or Shanghai during these four days off. It made for six pretty disappointing pub answers, too. But I feel like I've already been flying so much lately--and I know we'll end up going somewhere distant for my birthday at the end of October--that it just seemed like a good idea to take the long weekend off. We'll have visitors in early October and early December. We'll go back to the states for the Christmas and New Year's Holidays. We always just go go go. Eventually I managed to convince Sunshine we needed a vacation. [Cavin]

Sunday, August 31, 2008


After exploring around the backpacker district yesterday, we ate a showcase vegetarian dinner near the chaotic traffic circle south of Bình Thạnh Market. As I understand it, we were in the building of a popular local catering company which every now and then, for one month only, shows its stuff by opening their vast showroom to the public. The selected cuisine this month was vegetarian versions of traditional pan-Asian dishes. I don't usually like buffets very much, and this was no exception, really; but it really was interesting to see so many different kinds of traditional foods. This buffet was vast, arrayed on frilly tablecloths in two large rooms--a steam tureen and vat and crock pot landscape, all neatly labeled with the Vietnamese names of the myriad dishes. I was particularly impressed with the veggie shrimp dishes, mostly curried soups, with orange soy curls molded into the chitinous reticulation of a natural arthropod. To me, they tasted like firm gluten--some kind of savory Thai circus peanut soup. The fake sushi was also that bad. But many of the dishes were much, much better: tasty ragouts featuring eight different kinds of mushroom, bánh xèo and faux phở bò bars brimming with chili and basil and bean sprout sides; a whole table of tapioca dessert soups, noodles, or bubbles for tea; gallons of freshly squeezed lime juice. I had a really good time and learned a little I didn’t already know about local food. So what if the food we ate was a little sub-par? The very best thing about the whole experience was that the dining hall, at least for the hour we were there, was dominated by a large table of polite but dangerous-looking lilac-robed and bald Buddhist nuns who never looked at me or spoke. [Cavin]