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.
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.