Don’t get me wrong, staying at my uncle’s mansion definitely has its perks. It’s luxurious by any and every conceivable VN standard, and pretty awesome by many if not most U.S. standards. I only cause unnecessary heartache for myself by making these comparisons but I can’t help it.
One issue is the lack of air conditioning. My aunt’s apartment in Saigon had an air conditioner in the bedroom so we could at least sleep in comfort (if you can call a urine-smelling queen size mattress pad for a family of four comfortable). My uncle’s bona fide mansion does not have AC anywhere. Partly, I’m sure, because the ceilings are so high and the rooms are so enormous that AC would be impractical, but mainly because it’s unnecessary by VN standards. Long Khanh is, on average, at least ten degrees cooler than Saigon and the nights are relatively cool. Locals find it perfectly comfortable. Viet Kieu like us find it tolerable part of the time, but most of the time it’s still too hot to be comfortable. (I’m a wuss when it comes to cold, but not heat. I’d set my office thermostat at 80 if I could get away with it. When the temperature drops below 70 degrees in Las Vegas you’ll find me in flannel pajamas under a down comforter.) Nights in Long Khanh are reasonably cool but we don’t dare sleep with the windows open because we’re traumatized by our mosquito battle wounds.
Mosquitoes are the bane of our existence, even with bug repellent, which I don’t like to have to spray on our kids all the time. The marble fountain with fish must have seemed like a cool idea when they were designing the house but it’s turned out to be a breeding pool for mosquitoes. Also, the house’s gigantic windows are often opened to air out and cool down the interior, but no screens were installed. It’s like an insect sanctuary in here.
Another issue is the bathroom. We have issues with VN bathrooms in general. The bathing/shower area typically isn’t partitioned from the rest of the bathroom, which means that anytime anyone bathes or washes their feet, the entire bathroom floor gets wet, so anyone needing to use the toilet or sink afterwards has to walk over a wet floor. This doesn’t sound like a big deal and in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t (I’m pretty much used to it at this point), but as an American, the sensation of getting your feet wet when you’re not bathing is weird and not enjoyable. Materials and fixtures in VN are of such shoddy quality that even though my uncle’s mansion is just a couple of years old, the bathroom faucets are already rusted and leaky. The plumbing wasn’t installed properly so water leaks onto the floors whenever we use the sinks, another reason why bathroom floors are always damp and gross.
Power and water outages are not uncommon. It’s particularly inconvenient when you’re in the middle of bathing yourself and your kids and everyone is covered in suds when the water shuts off for 20 minutes. Laundry doesn’t seem to get really clean in wimpy VN washing machines and ends up smelling like the surroundings in which it was line-dried, so you’re usually wearing not-quite-clean, musty, linty clothes.
The kitchen doesn’t have an oven or dishwasher. I don’t bake so the lack of an oven isn’t a complaint, it’s just a curious observation. The family uses a countertop appliance when they need to broil or grill something and baked goods are purchased fresh from the nearby open air market. Another curious observation is that there are only two burners on the stove, so if a lot of food needs to be cooked, which always seems to be the case, additional countertop hotplates or burners need to be plugged in. The lack of a dishwasher impacts my life a little more. At home I might not care as much because between my husband and mom, I could go for months without washing a dish (yes I am spoiled). In VN it would be bad manners if I didn’t wash dishes or at least try to wash dishes after every meal and it would be unseemly for Tom to wash dishes because he has a penis. Not sure why that should matter but it does. It shouldn’t be surprising that my uncle’s mansion doesn’t have a dishwasher when restaurants in VN don’t have automated dishwashers. I’ve caught glimpses of women squatting on restaurant kitchen floors washing never-ending piles of dishes. It seems so inefficient. Recently my uncle threw a dinner party for a couple dozen of his friends, and in an effort to be helpful, I hunched over the sink (I’m a giant among VN women, so the sink is really low) for what felt like hours washing endless stacks of rice bowls, serving bowls, dipping bowls, and utensils. I can’t even imagine what it was like to clean up after the 500 guest event that my uncle hosted last year! The only thing I can say in favor of manually washing a billion dishes is that you’re never washing them alone. Someone always steps in to rinse and stack or relieve anyone who’s been washing too long. It’s also an opportunity to bond and chat with your fellow washer, and the act of huddling together over this age-old chore evokes a sense of female camaraderie.
The perks — delicious home-cooked VN food at every meal, scheduling your day around eating, reading, and naps, getting to live in a mansion, among others — definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but leave it to me to find something to complain about.