Friday, April 10, 2009


The flip-side of yesterday's Update: what I won't miss about Vietnam (volume one). It turns out not to be the temperature so much as the tilt. Yesterday I talked about how I've fallen in anticipated love with the rotating system of rainy and hot seasons. Before coming to Vietnam, I assumed rain would be my reward for toughing though a climate that never really cools. And it's true. I used to hate any day above x degrees--and almost every day here is that. I knew, going into this thing, that I'd desperately miss winters. But it turned out I missed seasons, instead. I managed to acclimate to the temperature fairly quickly and mostly forgot all about it. But the missing seasonal changes and attendant backward phenomena grated more as the months wore on. It was subtle, but it rankled anyway. Here it rains for months on end, but it does not usually rain when it should be spring back home. The month with the greatest combined humidity and heat is October, but the hottest month of the year is April. Everything begins to bloom at Christmas, continuing on through Tết in January or February. Some nasty and debilitating thing is always coming off the exotic flora here, rain or shine: several types of whirling pods--some the size and weight of golf balls--or something less evident which nevertheless makes my head and lungs close like a fist. But these things are nothing compared with the irritation I feel estranged from my own beloved spot on the tilt of the world. I cannot abide days that change by barely half a daylight hour over the course of a year, or twilights that pass in four minutes as a perpendicular sun flits around the corner of the equator. [Cavin]

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Things I'm going to miss about Vietnam (volume two). Rain. I sort of knew going into this that I'd like living in a country with a real rainy season. It has not disappointed. The weather is pretty predictable during the half-year monsoon, but I haven't grown tired of it yet. We arrived at the very end of the rains in 2007, so my first real understanding of the phenomenon is based on what happened from April to November in oh-eight: four or five thirty-minute showers each day. During the onset of each shower, the humidity is bumped down into the reasonable range by gusts of wind and cloudy darkness. After each shower the humidity rises with the sunlight, like boiling everything, until all of that recaptured moisture weighs down the atmosphere enough for it to fall again. When this happens right at nightfall, evening temperatures can hit the seventies and remain all night. It may be hot, but the showers are worth looking forward to. This ongoing routine, this definition of rain as a kaleidoscopic pattern covering months, rather than an isolated event, is an adjustment I've really loved making. And, interestingly, because hopefully, it is one I will retain after I am gone. Even the opposite season has its charms. Especially December and January, when evenings are breezy and often in the low seventies and days are sunny but dry. This year's rains began in fits and starts, earlier than last year. I don't know which is normal. There's plenty to like about the onset of the monsoon too, characterized as it is by big grandiose storms more reminiscent, but also more sustained, to the spring storms I am used to from home. These transitions can be unpredictable, with violently breathtaking hours of sustained science fiction lightning. [Cavin]

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Extra! Extra! Man Bites Dog! This is no neat switcheroo. The title is usually employed analogously to demark a journalistic trend of headlining breathless and unlikely scoops in lieu of more mature news coverage. That's exactly what I'm doing, too. In Vietnam, especially in the north, men frequently cook and then bite dogs. Animals are considered animals, and while dogs are frequently pets they are just as frequently meat. The fact that this is inconceivable in my culture can be equally mystifying to people here. Can this old saw of journalism mean anything, then, where stories of men biting dogs are as utterly routine as their opposite? Here's an article, published in March by the Public Library of Science, that I just couldn't wait to breathlessly report for its bizarre qualities. In two separate cases, Vietnamese men were admitted into Hanoi medical facilities presenting with similar symptoms: hydro- and aerophobia, intermittent spasms and agitation without attendant elevated blood pressure or temperature. In both cases they were diagnosed with progressive classic encephalitic rabies. Both died within the week. In each case, the cause of infection seems to have been their butchering and consumption of rabies-endemic species: in one case a dog, the other a cat. It's hard to believe any living virus could survive getting cooked--indeed, in neither case did family members at the same table get sick. Each victim even paid some uneducated attention to rabies prevention--had a dog bitten a man in some attention-getting story?--one man actually pulled the teeth out of the dog's head before butchering it. But each man eventually removed and cooked the animal's raw and virulent brain for some traditional dish. The full article can be found here, unillustrated, or downloaded in .pdf format1 including a photo of cooked dogs. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Eventually I would like to write a little bit more about Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (I'll eventually link that here.) I found it to be an exceptional place. It seems small after HCMC. It's mildly crumbling, with vividly repurposed deco colonial architecture populated by every kind of person I can imagine. I was unprepared. I really thought KL would be much the same as Singapore, with handy post-British city planning, with overbearing cleanliness and stricture, with endless shopping malls--a sanitized melting pot. But this was much different: the Chinese and Indian populations of the Malay Peninsula seem far more integrated there. Also people who looked like they were maybe from the Middle East, the South Pacific, Mongolia, Mars. (Also people who looked like they were from varying necks of the economic woods, too.) The mix was more than merely spatial--ethnic neighborhoods blending into one another more aggressively, and perhaps sloppier, than in Singapore--but extended neatly into the features of the people themselves. Many Malaysians seem so delightfully multiethnic that unquilting them becomes immediately Quixotic. The long Indonesian history and predominately Islamic culture lends a unique and beautified air to the cultural stew. Music and food traditions hail from everywhere: the south Asian jungle, the Hindu Kush, the wide swath of the Eurasian Steppes, deserts both Persian and Mediterranean. The environment was delirious, the streets dirty, the markets congested. The head-scarves of professional women were part of official police or government or fast food uniforms (official McDonald's head-scarves. I had no idea). Off duty clothing was lively and colorful. I was surprised how much I liked this capital city, and how much I want to return for the rest of Malaysia someday. Then, I'll remember how much I really want to have a camera along with me. [Cavin]

Monday, April 06, 2009


Happy Hung Kings Day!* This year is only the third annual official observance of this newly-created national holiday. Since this meant we had a three-day weekend, we packed off to Kuala Lumpur and didn't have to return home until earlier this evening. That flight was a highlight of our weekend, maybe one of the most amazing things we've done during our stay here. We'd gotten off the ground forty minutes late due to a pounding storm which broke right as we were taxiing. And broke with the works: bright strobe lightning, porthole-rattling thunder, and blinding churns of opaque rain. "Heh heh," said the captain of that Malaysia Airlines seven-something-seven, even as I could feel wind actually shaking the parked aircraft, "we'll be sitting right here till this thing blows over." I sat there alright, refusing to look out the windows, but I could sense the storm hadn't more than slightly lessened when he'd crackled onto the intercom again and advised us we were taking off right now as he did just that. But it was somehow calming to shoot gracefully into the air after that, with nary a buffet or chop as we floated right through those flashing black clouds. Pretty impressive, Captain Malaysia. This calming effect became part of a confluence of events allowing me to do something I can't usually do: look out the windows. Also we were on the right side of the plane. Also, after all that, Captain Malaysia decided to cruise into town underneath the southern delta region's extensive cloud cover, affording some twenty minutes of dramatically-lit Mekong countryside crawling along beneath us just two to three thousand feet down, every boat and radio antenna and paddy and canal and conical hat clearly defined against one of the Earth's most iconic surfaces. Recommended. [Cavin]