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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.