The Ba Na Cable Car Tickets Incident: How Bitterness and Resentment Can Poison a Vacation

Despite the ominous title of the blog post, we’ve been having a great time in Da Nang. We ascended the gorgeous forested hills of Ba Na in cable cars pulled by the longest cable in the world, according to my cousin’s wife (she also claimed that Da Nang’s beaches are the most beautiful in the world so I’m not sure how accurate her reviews are). We visited historic temples and the imperial palace of Hue, which is within driving distance of Da Nang and the homeland of Vietnam’s royal dynasties. The beach in Da Nang was indeed very nice and we look forward to going again. Even though we’ve been enjoying fun and interesting activities, there has been and continues to be a persistent thorn in my side. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, sometimes it grows to such a magnitude that I’m driven to complete distraction. The impetus of this entire trip was the cunning and not-so-subtle manipulation of my aunt, my father’s younger sister. Let’s call her Aunt #6. During our first week in Saigon, we visited my Dad’s siblings (he’s the eldest of 9) and in accordance with custom, we gifted US$100 to each couple as a courtesy. We were chatting with Aunt #6 when she suddenly exclaimed that she and her husband were planning a trip to Da Nang to see the fireworks competition organized in honor of the independence day holiday on April 30th (characterized by Vietnamese Americans as the fall of Saigon). She went on to suggest that we join them, because her husband has family in Da Nang who has a car and can show us around. Because we had intended to visit Da Nang at some point, we thought it was a fine proposal. The first hint of trouble was when we gave Aunt #6 enough cash to pay for 5 plane tickets (for Tom and me, our kids and my mom). She said we owed plane fare for her and her husband — even though, supposedly, they already had been planning to go to Da Nang before they invited us. Ok, whatever.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, as we’re about to depart for the airport, Aunt #6 informs us that her son, his wife and their son Bong (Aunt #6’s grandson) will be joining us, so that her son can drive us around. At first I think this is great, because my cousin is my age and our generation is much more sheepish about freeloading off of relatives. (Unfortunately, some Vietnamese natives view their American relatives as goldmines to be exploited for money and favors. I understand that this is just the way things are but still find it distasteful.) Our first day in Da Nang, Aunt #6’s family shows up with a rental car, claiming it’s much more convenient to drive ourselves around. Ok, even though you originally lured us with the promise of a local guide and free transportation, whatever. Aunt #6’s family proceeds to let us pay for all meals and expenses (including the rental car), and their feeble attempts at paying are poor performances indeed. Tom is the slowest draw of all time; if he were challenged to a duel he would be instantly shot and killed. On the rare occasion that my uncle makes a pretense of reaching for his wallet, he does it so slowly as to be almost comical. I’ve never seen my cousin reach for his wallet for anything other than change for the toll, and that’s probably only because he was driving. Usually the entire family just sits back and watches Tom grab the check, no matter how small or large. They won’t even contribute gas money. Sometimes someone will take the check to make sure it’s correct and then hand it back to Tom. I was fairly cheerfully resigned to these proceedings and had written them off as the cost of traveling in Vietnam, which is ridiculously cheap and which we can so much better afford than my dad’s side of the family. Until the Ba Na Cable Car Tickets Incident.

The cable car tickets were about US$20 each, which is an enormous sum in Vietnamese currency. The cost of five tickets is quite literally a decent month’s worth of wages in Vietnam. Covering Aunt #6’s entire family basically doubles all of our expenses. Notwithstanding the fact that they invited us, not the other way around, and my cousin’s family decided to tag along without any warning to or input from us. Tom paid for the tickets, two of which at a discounted rate for Da Nang locals, the plan being that my aunt and uncle would use borrowed IDs to get in as locals. When we got to the entrance, the locals’ tickets and fake IDs were suddenly thrust into my and Tom’s hands and my aunt and uncle motioned for us to get in line for the entry reserved for locals while they and the rest of the family entered with the full fare tickets. I took one look at the ID and my heart started pounding. I was supposed to pretend that I was a middle-aged, overweight native of Da Nang, and I am obviously none of those things. It’s like someone who’s barely proficient in American English trying to fool a native of a specific region in England by faking a British accent. I can’t even fake a Saigon accent and I was born there. I happened to remember the date of birth on the ID when I glanced at it so I was able to respond when questioned by the fairly intimidating ticket agent. Maybe he noticed that I was mortified to say I was born in 1969 because he looked skeptical and asked a follow-up question that was beyond my powers of comprehension. In the end we were scolded and instructed to buy full fare tickets. All this to save roughly US$10. It was the most humiliating experience of recent memory and I was seething as we rode the cable cars. I replayed the events in my mind over and over again and could not for the life of me figure out what the hell my aunt and uncle were thinking. Did they panic when they saw the official-looking ticket collectors? I concluded that they chickened out at the last minute and didn’t want to get caught trying to use fake IDs. They rewarded our generosity by throwing us under the bus. I was PISSED. Tom kept trying to use his Buddha mindfulness soothing techniques on me by telling me to let it go because it’s in the past and not a big deal and just try to enjoy the present but I wasn’t having any of it. True to my sex, I have a long memory for personal slights and grievances and I can hold a grudge like you wouldn’t believe. I might smile and make friendly conversation and you may even think that I still like you, but if you have wronged me you are shit-listed FOREVER. Luckily I was still able to admire the scenery even in my indignation, but the Ba Na Cable Car Tickets Incident definitely detracted from the overall experience and cast a dark shadow over my relationships with extended family members and the dynamics of those relationships.

You can't tell but I'm seething with resentment and rage in this picture.
You can’t tell but I’m seething with resentment and rage in this picture.

To give a little perspective, members of my mother’s side of the family are constantly falling over themselves to treat us, despite our vehement protestations. My mother’s side is, admittedly, more well-to-do than my father’s side, but by no means rich (except for one uncle — more on that later). Battles over the check have involved my mother’s brother-in-law and nephew physically restraining Tom by pinning his arms to prevent him from reaching for his wallet. That’s how Asians typically fight over the bill. To not make a valiant struggle to pay is poor manners. To consistently sit back and let one person pay every single time is downright rude. The amount of money is not the issue; we can afford it and would happily cover all of Aunt #6’s family’s expenses (like we’ve been doing) if they weren’t so blatantly using us. It’s the principle of it. Aunt #6’s opportunistic scheming is what kills me. At the same time, there is something to be said about her sheer willfulness, her instinct for self-preservation, and her unwavering determination to advance her own interests. People who are selfish get what they want by virtue of their selfishness and willingness to demand things that others would be too embarrassed to ask for. Aunt #6 somehow managed to worm her way into our hotel room to sleep in air-conditioned comfort while her husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandson have been sleeping in the muggy, mosquito-infested home of her husband’s relatives. She’s also spirited, affable, tenacious, a breast cancer survivor. I might almost admire her if I weren’t so irritated by her.

An internal struggle has been raging in my mind for days about whether to draw an arbitrary line in the sand by refusing to pay for Aunt #6’s family’s tickets home. The cost would be roughly US$150. We can suck it up and pay and part ways, never to associate with them again and they’ll be none the wiser, or we can force a confrontation and make everyone uncomfortable and everything awkward just to make a point. Tom has been urging me to do the former to preserve family harmony but I am aching to do the latter because I am a bitter, vengeful person. I’m torn and don’t know what to do.

A Mother’s Bias

It’s incredible how protective and biased a mother can be toward her children, especially when they’re being compared to other children. When my aunt’s grandson (whose nickname is pronounced Bong) was being obnoxiously loud in public, she called him “healthy,” but when my kids were making whimpering noises during a car ride (they like to pretend that they’re babies which is admittedly annoying and unfortunately one of their favorite games), my aunt criticized them for being unruly. That immediately caused me to develop an aversion to Bong, so much so that if he’s sitting next to me in the car, I’ll do my best to maneuver so I don’t come into contact with him. He also bullies my kids when his mom isn’t looking. Is it wrong to want to punch a three-year-old in the mouth? Especially considering the fact that if I’m being honest, Bong is objectively better behaved than my kids, who have been nightmarish since arriving to Vietnam. Bong has yet to throw a tantrum while my kids whine and cry for the most trivial reasons, or none at all. And yet I still find them adorable and blameless, while Bong is insufferable. Don’t believe me? Just look at him.

There is something not right about this kid.
There is something not right about this kid.

Hoi An

Yesterday we visited the charming little village of Hoi An which is about 20 kilometers from Da Nang and positively overrun with tourists. It’s easy to see why tourists like Hoi An; it’s a sanitized, diluted version of Vietnam that’s a lot more palatable to foreign travelers. Although in theory Tom and I turn up our noses at tourist traps in favor of more “authentic” experiences, there is something very comforting about seeing large groups of white people.

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In other fun news, I bought this dress for just under US$4:

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When the vendor lady named her price, I immediately asked Tom for the money but my mother and aunt started gesticulating wildly and tried to bargain her down to US$3. I ignored them and handed the money to the hapless vendor. I’m sure her under-aged children worked tirelessly throughout the night to make countless duplicates so I don’t mind compensating her the extra dollar. Sometimes bargaining solely for the sake of bargaining is just plain stupid.

First Day in Da Nang

We took a one hour flight from Saigon to visit the central region of Vietnam, a popular tourist destination because of its cultural and historical significance. My mom raves about how Da Nang is her favorite city because it’s so clean and orderly and there’s never any traffic or homeless people. It’s definitely a lot more tolerable than Saigon; the streets are wide and the air isn’t as congested with pollution. It’s funny how we compliment attributes of Vietnam by comparing them to those in America; “that street is so wide and smooth, just like in America!” or “this hotel is so clean and comfortable, just like in America!” I’m starting to realize that although we can have plenty of pleasant experiences in Vietnam, it’s pointless to make these comparisons because something that is wonderful and amazing by Vietnamese standards simply would not be up to snuff by American standards, or vice versa. They are too different. My Vietnamese relatives express a mixture of horror and pity when they hear about how often we consume leftovers and frozen foods. Meals that would be perfectly acceptable in America are rejected as inedible disasters here. We visited extended relatives in the countryside and had a delectable lunch of duck salad with ginger fish sauce and fresh slices of roast beef with shrimp paste dipping sauce, all eaten with paper thin slices of green papaya, fresh herbs and sesame rice crackers. I thought it was heavenly and would be hard pressed to recreate anything like that back home, but in Vietnam it’s so typical that it’s almost unremarkable. What’s also typical and unremarkable is the relentless attack of flies. We had to swat at them constantly throughout the meal. We also drank warm beer, which we often do when the ice is from a questionable source (for some reason beverages never seem to be refrigerated). So there you have it, a collision of two cultural standards: a gourmet meal accompanied by flies and warm beer, in an impoverished countryside shack.

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Cultural Differences, or Vietnamese People Can Be Overly Rude and Polite at the Same Time

Among Asians it’s not necessarily rude to be blunt and brutally honest. I understand this conceptually but it’s hard to take when I’m repeatedly reminded about how much fatter I am now than I used to be. I get it, thanks for the news flash. The night before, the eldest son of my aunt casually mentioned how tan I was getting. Ordinarily I wouldn’t take offense but it’s meant to be a criticism in Vietnamese culture where porcelain skin is prized above all else. Also, literally translated, the phrase is “your skin is blackened,” which is considered insulting. Next he asked if I was sleep-deprived because he noticed how dark the bags under my eyes were. I guess from now on I’ll need to wear concealer at all times in case any relatives drop by. Lastly he wondered why I spoke Vietnamese so poorly compared to Tom, who was born in the U.S. and who’s barely more fluent than a trained monkey. Enough already, you are officially my least favorite cousin. This is the same cousin who brought dozens of containers of fresh yogurt because he heard I liked them and who was hell bent on paying for an extravagant feast for our family even though the cost might be some ordinary worker’s monthly income. Go figure.

Pros and Cons

I hit a low point earlier in the week when in the midst of already feeling hideously uncomfortable, my period started and diarrhea inexplicably attacked in full force. The limits of my endurance were being tested because at exactly this time there was a water outage in my aunt’s apartment building, which meant no functioning toilets or showers for an indeterminate amount of time (which turned out to be several hours). I wanted to kill myself. I have since recovered some perspective. It is definitely not as comfortable and convenient here as it is at home. Would I just want to hang out at home? What was the point of this sabbatical if not to spend unlimited quantities of time with my kids? I have to learn how to enjoy not billing my time, as crazy as that sounds. There are benefits to being a foodie in Vietnam. The flavors here are more intense and everything is a more delicate, delicious version than its American counterpart. Plus health care is hella cheap and more convenient than in the U.S. We simply showed up at the doctor’s home between visiting hours of 5:30 pm – 8:00 pm (and had to take off our shoes at the door), the doctor took a look at my kids as we described their symptoms, he wrote a few prescriptions that his wife filled out a few meters from him, we paid about US$40 for the visit and medications, and were on our way. Yesterday was the first day that my son didn’t break out in hives, and I’m duly impressed. I had heard horror stories about quack doctors in Vietnam but living outside of the U.S. for a little over a week has already showed me how flawed the American health care system is.

Life is about learning to adapt and adjusting expectations. There are pros and cons to every decision, and I just need to learn how to live with mine.

Second Thoughts

I might have romanticized Vietnam in my mind a little. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting; I just had some vague notion that I was simultaneously going to find myself and the secret of happiness. I knew there would be inconveniences but I didn’t realize how inconvenient and how frequent they would be. It’s one thing to joke about being sweaty and gross when you’re enjoying beautiful spring weather in the comfort of your own home; to be actually drenched in sweat on a regular basis is not fun. I had also joked about diarrhea before our trip. After clogging my aunt’s wimpy Vietnamese toilets twice within a 12 hour span (a feat of which I am both ashamed and proud), diarrhea is no longer a laughing matter. I feel like such a baby having the complaints that I have. In isolation each inconvenience is admittedly minor, but in the aggregate these minor grievances comprise an ordeal that is almost unbearable. These are some of my first world gripes:

  1. My daughter says “Vietnam is a little yucky.” Boy is that an understatement. It can be downright nasty. It’s not nearly as charming as I had remembered. Random nooks and alleys in Paris paved with cobblestones and overgrown with shrubbery are, without fail, delightful and picturesque. Nooks and alleys in Saigon are littered with trash and its stenches alternate between rotting garbage and choking exhaust fumes.
  2. People here don’t use napkins or paper towels. They just don’t. You either have to be really careful and neat, or use toilet paper. At best, there will be a roll of toilet paper available for use as napkins; at worst there will be nothing at all and you have to remember to bring some with you. And it’s not like you can have an unlimited amount of toilet paper to wipe up after eating like a barbaric American. The etiquette is to tear ONE SQUARE OF TOILET PAPER. I may be exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect, but not much. Seriously, in restaurants you get two squares but in people’s homes you should use as little as possible to be polite. Can you imagine trying to eat an entire meal with only one square of toilet paper? I still can’t manage it, especially with my slovenly American children. We’re forgiven quite a lot because we’re American but the disproportionate amount of waste that we generate is something I try to be conscious of and improve upon.
  3. There are no dryers. Laundry is dried on clotheslines or hangers, resulting in stiff clothes. Not a big deal except that none of the lint gets removed either, so wiping your face with a towel leaves behind a layer of fuzz which rolls up into balls of lint on your skin.
  4. Speaking of towels, they are made for miniature people. What would serve as a hand towel in America is supposed to be a full sized bath towel in Vietnam, even though I can barely wrap it around my body and it doesn’t cover up anything it’s supposed to cover up. For my Amazonian friend Laura Bielinski it would be a washcloth.
  5. Air conditioning is a treat. My aunt’s apartment is considered luxurious because our room has an air conditioner, but it would be considered bad form to leave it on all the time and even if we did, it wouldn’t be feasible to spend all day every day in our room. I’m used to things like central air, thermostats, and climate control banishing the slightest discomfort. Now when I’m hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable there’s very little I can do about it except continue to be hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. It’s nothing like the clean, satisfying sweat that you generate from an intense workout. It’s a sticky sweat that oozes out of your pores and makes you feel disgusting and miserable.
  6. I’m over sleeping with my entire family on a mattress pad that smells faintly of urine. It was fun and cute the first night, maybe even the second, but the novelty has worn off and I dearly miss my king size mattress and Egyptian cotton sheets and freedom from the intrusive limbs of my children. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to deal with sleeping with my kids for an extended period of time. Our one unequivocal parenting success was that we sleep-trained our kids really well. They used to sleep for 10 to 11 hours each night, in their respective beds, alone in their respective rooms, no drama. I feel like all that training is coming undone. One person’s stirring will now wake everyone else. What if they won’t be able to sleep alone anymore? We also get to incubate in each other’s germs all night long. And forget about any husband-wife action. Most nights we’re separated by a kid and the most contact we can manage is reaching our ankles across the expanse so they can touch.
  7. My poor son is allergic to Vietnam. He’s broken out in hives every day that we’ve been here, I’m guessing from sheer discomfort.
  8. It is friggin’ time consuming and not necessarily all that interesting to take care of children all day long. I thought that if I stopped working I would suddenly have 12 spare hours a day to do as I pleased. It’s incredible how demanding these little people can be, and they’re not even uber high-maintenance diaper-clad toddlers anymore. Every few minutes I’m tending to someone going potty, someone getting hurt falling off the hammock, someone dirty who needs washing, someone who’s fighting with their sibling or just plain bored. It feels like half a lifetime is spent just preparing and delivering food into unwilling mouths. How on earth did I think I would have time for leisure reading or Facebook stalking?
  9. I didn’t have any basis for idealizing Vietnamese children, but I imagined they would be sweetly deferential, perhaps offering me tea on a tray with bowed heads. They are just as obnoxious as American children.

I had been in the habit of measuring my productivity in billable hours, and now that I’m taking care of my kids in a foreign and inconvenient setting, it’s hard not to feel like I’m wasting time, sadly. It wouldn’t be so bad if I enjoyed it more, but to be honest, I want to go home.