Friday, April 24, 2009


What I won't miss about Vietnam (volume four): small things. Too-small things, actually. One of the reasons it's difficult for me to cook family-sized meals here is that I'm deeply lazy and also going out to eat is both easier and more exciting. Also, it's difficult to gather together the groceries I'll need, since the produce is across downtown, the fishes are in the market, and the dry goods are in a District Three Co-op. Even if I was dedicated enough to do all this running around, I'd still be buying tiny, one-day portions of each item from teensy shelves at minuscule stores. I stock the dinky larder and pint-sized refrigerator with half-sized things. Milk and juice come in stackable one-liter boxes. Rice and beans in sandwich bags. Cereal boxes are the size of hardback books. This makes it nearly impossible to buy enough groceries for several days at once. I can handle running weekly errands, but hitting three stores every day is too much. Luckily, restaurants are very affordable--but the plague of smallness persists. Not portion sizes, mind. This is a service town--portions are large and come on massive plates or in cavernous bowls. But restaurant tables are all unbelievably small so they can be wedged into the crannies of each tiny dining room. The size of coffee shop tables: the round ones like an extra-large pizza, the square ones a Scrabble board. These come littered with small things which nevertheless steal space from those huge plates and bowls: bamboo placemats, dishes of salt and pepper and chili, toothpicks, flower vases, sugar, fish sauce, chopstick blocks, soup spoon holders, cocktail menus, burning candles. Specialty restaurants have additional things. It took me weeks to realize this country doesn't have napkin dispensers. It came as a relief. [Cavin]

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Recently, I was mentioning how I've put off doing expected tourist things around town; but if I ever do want to get around to doing them, my deadline is fast approaching. With this in mind, I let Sunshine take me to the water puppet show tonight. It was a neat show, and I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud at times. The stage is a small pool bisected by a backdrop. In the semicircle behind this screen, puppeteers manipulate long submerged poles attached to the bottoms of two-foot puppets poking out of the water in the semicircle up front. In this way, water puppetry inverts my admittedly untutored expectation of the form, in which characters dangle from manipulators overreaching a curtain. During the show it occurred to me that water puppetry was a really excellent format for Vietnamese tradition. Obviously it's storytelling from four thousand years of seaside villages, paddy agriculture, and flooding; but also it's the nimble manipulation of fine details handed impeccably down from ancestral times. Not only does it take the crisp and full-bodied athleticism of a martial artist to push and pull the show along, but each of these puppets are hand carved. In a country that prides itself on the crystallized stasis of its creative output, a puppet show is like the jack of all trade shows. And yet I wonder what really has mutated since the eleventh century, as if it would be possible to navigate whatever grapevine Darwinism has escaped the best efforts of those powers dead set against the very idea. I presume the plastic sword the golden turtle god Kim Quy takes from Lê Lợi as he rows around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, for example, was not plastered with reflective metallic holographic stickers back in the old days. [Cavin]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Something I won't miss about Vietnam (volume three) is, yet again, a flipside to the positive article I posted yesterday. I've heard there are service classes in Vietnam, where people are actually taught how to wait on westerners. This is pretty important. There's a gulf of cultural nuance separating Vietnamese clerks from expatriate customers. Without guidance, things can fall quickly apart. I wouldn't hazard an example here. Being squarely expatriated, I have no idea how far the locals bend to interact with me. I imagine we meet rather closer than the middle. Xin cảm ơn, Việt Nam. As odd as life can be here, I cannot imagine how much more difficult it would be without so much effort being paid to making me comfortable. But as well as alleged public service classes have indeed softened bumpy intercultural relations in many respects, there's still a thing or two missing from the syllabus. One: western shoppers don't like the hard sell. I know things are difficult, and many vendors find themselves in direct competition for my money. When I'm glancing down the row of jackfruit vendors, for example, I can understand the impetus to be louder, reach farther, and attract my attention quicker than neighboring salesmen. But this has the opposite from the intended effect. I'm attracted to vendors who don't force my interaction. Two: western customers are uncomfortable making servers wait. It takes a long time to read a fifteen-page menu, even if there are large color pictures. I know it's important for you to be ready the moment I make my selection, but it makes me nervous when you hover behind me. Also, I know it might seem unlikely, but dogging me around your clothing store, muttering routine pitches for every noted item, is only driving me away. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Things I'll miss about Vietnam (volume four): service. I thought of this after rereading yesterday's "backpacker district" update. Probably that pestering of street vendors is the impression I'd have taken away with me back when I strapped all my belongings to my back and traveled for months at a time staying in septic four-to-a-room budget hostels. In that case, "service" might have appeared in an opposite kind of article. As it is, I live here. I travel through other areas staying in well-appointed medium- to slightly high-end accommodation, and eat in restaurants where people don't usually try to sell me drugs at my table. So my impression of Vietnam is one of wonderful service. Compared with the USA--where bored transient labor eyeballs any customer desultorily from the counter, where actively offensive representatives perpetrate heroic one-upmanship of inept unhelpfulness after keeping consumers on hold for hours, where big conglomerates bully paying customers into spending extra money to be targeted for invasive research practices and then go to court protesting complaints--there's little chance I'd bitch about any service falling short of battery. But in reality I'm faced daily with people who feel like it's their job to entice me to spend my money at their establishments. Hoteliers who check me in from the comfort of an overstuffed hotel lobby chair, putting a drink in my hand. Attendants who smilingly serve in-flight meals on merely forty-minute rides. It's a bittersweet revelation. I'm forced to remember that, in reality, I'm doing them a favor, keeping them in business with my customer interaction. I'm reminded that they have jobs because they are able to please customers. This would only be sweet, except that I'm returning home in two months, where I'll be expected to pay for the privilege of ingratitude again. [Cavin]

Monday, April 20, 2009


During our stay in the Vietnamese megalopolis of Hồ Chí Minh City, I've done almost nothing of a tourist nature. Two days ago marked the nineteenth month of my stay here, and time is getting short. But I've only been to two zoos, a water park, one pagoda, and an art gallery. In all that time, I haven't quite managed to visit the much ballyhooed history museum (located at the zoo), the supposedly fine City Museum, the harrowing War Remnants museum a block behind or the Reunification Palace across the street from our apartment--or any other thing that Lonely Planet lists to do in this city. Am I lazy? Or is this analogous to finding it difficult to select a book once I've arrived in a library? With everything available at all times, it's easy to these things next week, you know. This week is always booked. About a kilometer southwest of my house, there is an area Downtown, around Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, which is commonly referred to as the "backpacker district." This is either because of the high population of bars and hotels and luggage stores there, or perhaps vice-versa. I don't pretend to any causality. But either way, it is this part of Saigon that many travelers see foremost, and the impression they get of town. This is funny since, whenever I go there, I am surprised how the whole area bears little resemblance to the rest of Hồ Chí Minh City. Usually I'm there visiting art shows in closet-sized art galleries. But this weekend We met some friends at a little pan-global eatery that happens to include some pretty good, if not altogether accurate Mexican food. While we were eating, roving vendors pestered us to buy gum, travel guides, luggage, marijuana. Tableside service! [Cavin]