I Always Find Something to Complain About

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.

A Girl Could Get Used to This

I had bragged to friends and acquaintances that I would be spending most of my sabbatical at a rich uncle’s mansion in Long Khanh attended by household servants. I wasn’t exaggerating about the mansion part; any dwelling with a marble fountain in the living room qualifies as a mansion. The decor is not what I would have chosen but it’s lavish in its own, uniquely VN, style. The sheer scope and grandeur of it is stunning. It’s 4 stories high and has 9 massive bedrooms, 11 bathrooms (that we know of), a karaoke room, a rooftop deck, an elevator and a tikki hut with fish pond. When I say massive, I mean MASSIVE. I thought our bedroom at home was spacious but the rooms in my uncle’s mansion absolutely dwarf any room in our 4,200 square foot house in Las Vegas. There’s an atrium running through the center of the house that allows you to look down into the marble fountain from every level.

As for household servants, technically they’re my uncle’s daughters and daughters-in-law, which in VN are the equivalent of servants. I’m also not exaggerating when I say that some of the finest meals I’ve eaten in VN, or ever, have been at my uncle’s home. My cousins are phenomenal cooks; I would put them on par with chefs at some of the finest restaurants I’ve patronized in the U.S. (but only if you love VN cuisine as much as I do).

We had spent a few nights in Long Khanh before embarking on our trip to Da Nang, with the intention of making it our home base for the rest of our stay in VN. Long Khanh is a couple of hours northwest of Saigon and a much more reasonable place to live. There are still mosquitoes and litter everywhere, but the roads and traffic conditions are much better. My very first day in Long Khanh, a manicurist appeared at my uncle’s home and gave me the most meticulous (and at less than a dollar, the absolute cheapest) pedicure I’ve ever had. As she worked on my toes, I snacked on luscious ripe papaya that had been picked from my uncle’s garden that morning and thought to myself, “A girl could get used to this.” After our Da Nang-Quang Ngai-Nha Trang-Phan Thiet “adventures,” we didn’t have the stamina to make it back to Saigon and decided to take the shorter trip back to Long Khanh to rest before our next expedition. The first day upon my return, the same manicurist arrived to give everyone mani-pedis. I had been honored the first time because I thought the manicurist had been summoned especially for me. This time, I realized that she had a standing appointment with the household for weekly in-home manicures, pedicures, and facials. My uncle and his family are a bunch of ballers.

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Faith Restored

Shit like this can only happen in VN. As we slept and woke and got ready for the day and prepared to depart from Phan Thiet, there were behind-the-scenes machinations underway causing things to happen that we never would have imagined. Phone calls were being made, connections were being unearthed, strings were being pulled. Over the decades several generations of Tom’s family have lived in Phan Thiet, which was proving to be a┬áprovincial village consisting of an intricate network of family and friends. The concept of small towns where everyone knows everyone seems like a relic of bygone times, to be found only in books or romantic comedies, but in VN they really exist. Turns out that the granddaughter or grandniece of Tom’s aunt is a travel booking agent for shuttle vans and buses, and not one to be trifled with. She called the scam artists directly and threatened to cut off all of their business if they didn’t return our camera bag. Another granddaughter or grandniece of Tom’s aunt happened to be dating the younger brother of the skinny sidekick and vowed that she would never marry into a such a disgraceful family. The husband of some distant cousin had friends and connections in the police force who were willing to intimidate the scam artists into submission. Over the course of a day and a half, a dozen or so of Tom’s relatives and their connections plotted and conspired and contrived to get our stuff back, and in the end they were successful. The scam artists were eventually shamed and harassed into returning the camera bag to the Viet Kieu. It’s so unbelievable how the events unfolded that it’s comical. I was beyond frustrated with our situation yesterday and overly harsh in my judgment. I continue to get frustrated when VN isn’t like America even though I myself have said they are too different to be compared. Maybe an American travel company would have returned our camera bag without any fuss, but it’s not usually the case that an American community would have banded together to force a wrongdoer to right his wrong. When the camera bag was returned to Tom, he caught a glimpse of the abject poverty in which the skinny sidekick was living with his wife and baby, who was sleeping on the floor of a tiny, squalid room. Maybe the reason he’s a scam artist is because it’s the best living he can eke out for his family. Desperate people are driven to do desperate things, and unfortunately a poor country such as this one is filled with desperate people. It is also filled with fiercely loyal people, people who cherish the bonds of family more than many Americans can imagine, and people who adhere to a different, but perhaps equally compelling, code of ethics. Vietnam is still such a mystifying and bewildering place, but today it endeared itself to me a little bit more.

This Trip is a Fucking Disaster

After three nights in Nha Trang we set off to visit Tom’s family in Phan Thiet, a beach town known for its seafood and fish sauce. The nightmare began when we took a taxi to the bus station to catch an 11am bus. As our taxi pulled into the station, and before we even got out of the cab, a stocky middle-aged man and his skinny younger sidekick approached us to try to hustle us into riding in their shuttle van instead of the bus recommended by the hotel receptionist. They claimed that the bus wasn’t leaving until noon but they would be leaving promptly at 11. As it was 10:30 and I wasn’t fond of the idea of waiting in the hot sun for an hour and a half, we agreed to ride in their van so long as it had air conditioning and was going directly to Phan Thiet without too many stops. We weren’t willing to embark on a five hour drive without AC. They assured us that their van had AC and started loading our luggage before we had time to think. Tom was unhappy with the proceedings, which generally happens when he thinks he’s being tricked or pressured into doing something. I accused him of being overly paranoid. We eventually boarded, with the stocky middle-aged man as the driver and his skinny sidekick in the front passenger seat. I noticed all of the van’s windows were open but tried to remain optimistic. We started to wonder why it was taking so long for them to turn on the AC. When my mom finally asked, she got a bunch of muttered, inconsistent excuses: they were waiting to reach the freeway before turning on the AC, there weren’t enough passengers to justify turning on the AC, the cost for riding in an air conditioned vehicle was double what was quoted to us, etc. When Tom insisted that they turn on the AC because our kids were sweating, they admitted it was broken and by then it was too late. Our luggage was tucked behind boxes of other passengers and there was no way we could make an easy escape. We were doomed to ride with the windows open, exposing us to dust, wind, exhaust fumes and hot air for five hours. When it started to rain, I wondered why it was taking so long for them to turn on the windshield wipers, until I saw the driver roll up a wad of newspaper so the sidekick could wipe down the windshield at the next stop. The drivers also had the nerve to smoke, billowing cigarette ash and second hand smoke back toward us, even after we asked them to stop. Tom was furious. We could have sucked it up if it had been just us adults, but it was so unfair to the kids. In hindsight it seems so obvious that they were scam artists but at the time who would have guessed that they were lying to our faces knowing full well that their lies would soon become apparent. Who does that? Tom had a bad feeling about them and was sulking silently in his “I told you so” kind of way, but he has a bad feeling about anyone trying to get business from us and I don’t like the idea of going through life thinking everyone is a liar unless they prove otherwise. In this case though, these guys were definitely liars and swindlers. They patrolled the streets and stopped frequently to look for additional passengers. Their aggressive tactics were repugnant. At one point the skinny sidekick leapt out of the van at a bus stop to fight with another bus driver over two little white-haired ladies. They were literally shoving the poor old ladies back and forth until the skinny sidekick was able to force the old ladies onto our van. With each passing hour, our misery and discomfort increased, as did my searing hatred of our captors, especially the skinny sidekick. He wore a constant smirk that I wanted to slap off his face; he was such a punk. Needless to say, after what essentially felt like a bumpy five hour motorbike ride, we were relieved when our journey finally ended at the doorstep of Tom’s uncle’s home. Tom and I had been debating about whether to reduce the fare because we were so pissed off but decided to end the ordeal and pay them what they asked, which was a measly US$15. We clambered out of the van, and in his excitement to see his family, Tom forgot to grab the camera bag under his seat. It was over an hour before he realized that we had left it behind.

The bag contained our really nice camera, our digital video camera and our phones, including my new iPhone which I had gotten just a few months ago. As soon as we realized the camera bag was missing, Tom and his cousin jumped on a motorbike to try to track the drivers down at the bus station. It was a lost cause from the start. We didn’t have their names or numbers and didn’t even remember the signage on the van. What were the chances the scam artists could be found? Even if they were found, our only hope of recovering the camera bag would be if they didn’t find it before we did. If they discovered the contents, they were such shady characters that it was practically guaranteed that we would never be able to retrieve our stuff from them. Tom’s family put it this way: these guys, and there are plenty like them in VN, are the kind that would scam anyone and do almost anything for an extra buck. A Viet Kieu (Viet Kieu is the VN term for a person of VN descent who is American-born or so Americanized that they’re obviously a tourist; it can be used pejoratively or as a compliment) who is foolish or careless enough to leave behind valuables has virtually gifted them to the local who is lucky enough to find them. For the scam artists, finding our camera bag is like winning the lottery and there’s no way in hell they’d return it without a hefty ransom, if they were willing to return it at all. Tom’s family confirmed what I instinctively knew. When Tom returned empty-handed, my heart sank because I also knew we would never see our stuff again. The crazy part is, Tom and his cousin had managed to track down the scam artists! A maintenance man at the bus station informed them that independent drivers often didn’t come into the station and instead went straight to their homes. Then a taxi driver randomly started chatting with them and after Tom gave a wildly generic description (a stocky middle-aged man who wore sunglasses tight against his head and drove with a younger skinny sidekick), the taxi driver figured out their identities and led Tom to the stocky middle-aged driver’s home where he was eating dinner with his family. Shit like this can only happen in VN. When they were cornered both scam artists maintained that no bag had been left behind, which was a blatant lie. Tom and his cousin located the van as it was being cleaned and sure enough, the camera bag was nowhere to be seen. Tom tried to persuade and cajole and reason with the assholes, to no avail. He reminded them that they had lied about the van having AC, and we still paid them the full fare. He told them the phones were useless in VN and only contained pictures of our kids. All recordings of our travels were in that camera bag and we knew for certain that they had it because we were the last passengers to be dropped off and Tom never left his seat during the ride. The stocky middle-aged driver continued to deny that they had it but couldn’t bring himself to look Tom in the eye. The taxi driver told Tom to leave so he could negotiate with the scam artists on our behalf. Tom and his cousin were at a loss over what to do so they gave up and went home. Hearing Tom recount what happened was infuriating. It would have been better not to have found the scam artists at all than to find them and have them lie to us yet again. The gall of their assholery was beyond belief. I demanded to know why we weren’t calling the police. According to Tom’s cousin, it would be our word against theirs and by now the bag was probably so well hidden that a police search would be unlikely to uncover it. He was trying to figure out some angle or leverage we could use to force the scam artists to give it up, but we had none. We had no choice but to write off our losses.

I was majorly bummed out throughout dinner and could barely enjoy the delicious seafood hotpot and crispy chicken wings served by Tom’s family. My memories of Phan Thiet would be forever colored by our unfortunate dealings with the scam artists. Why did our paths have to cross and how could we be so stupid as to give them such an advantage over us? The dollar value of the bag’s contents were maybe $1500. I could have resigned myself to losing it under almost any other circumstances. It’s our own fault for leaving it behind and even though the pictures can’t be replaced, the merchandise can. What really bothers me is that these despicable guys are the ones who get to profit from our blunder. I’m mad at Tom for being so careless in his anxiousness to get out of the van, I’m mad at myself for always relying on Tom to take care of everything, I’m mad at Tom’s family for being so defeatist and throwing up their hands so easily in the face of fraud and deceit. Maybe this is just how things are in VN but why do you accept it so passively? Common decency dictates that you return shit that doesn’t belong to you. Maybe I shouldn’t expect common decency in a culture where it’s acceptable to litter in your own backyard. There is trash and grime and filth everywhere. People don’t respect where they live or each other. They squander and pollute natural resources. It’s always too hot. Last night was the second most uncomfortable night that we’ve ever spent in VN because we were sweating as we slept, unable to breath in the sweltering heat. The girl woke me up at 4 in the morning because she had to go potty and I couldn’t fall back asleep after I started thinking about what the scam artists were getting away with. It’s maddening. And I’m sick of these goddamned mosquitoes eating us alive ALL THE TIME. They’re almost as bad as the vultures who prey on people’s misfortunes. I FUCKING HATE VIETNAM AND VIETNAMESE PEOPLE!!! I am officially miserable.

Kids Ruin Everything

We went on a boat tour yesterday that kind of devolved into a VN style booze cruise. I say VN style because when VN people don’t have bathing suits they just jump into the ocean fully clothed. And even though I’m a lightweight I’m pretty sure I can outdrink most VN people.

Today we had a lovely day at the beach in Nha Trang. Tom’s cheapness reared its head because he wanted to pile the four of us onto one beach chair instead of renting two, even though they were less than US$2 each. I quickly rid him of that notion. We then had dinner at an upscale cafe because it had air conditioning.

Both days were fine, but sadly they probably would have been more enjoyable without our kids. Our kids make pleasant and fun experiences barely tolerable. I miss them when they’re not around but when they are around they’re such pains in the asses. They don’t like to eat or walk. They whine and fight constantly. Tom summed it up very succinctly and insightfully when he said that we spend so much effort trying to make them happy, and they’re never happy.

Grossness

I’m almost a month into my sabbatical which means 1/12th of it is already over! Amazing how time flies when you’re struggling to make it through each day. What have I learned? I’m a lot more squeamish than I used to be, or maybe I gave myself too much credit for being adventurous when I’m really a crotchety old homebody. I don’t remember being so grossed out 13 years ago but now I’m grossed out all the time, and our accommodations are generally much better than they were 13 years ago. Maybe traveling with two young children causes me to be squeamish on their behalf. I am, however, starting to overlook things that I would never let slide at home. My kids have been exposed to things that never in a million years would I have exposed them to under ordinary circumstances. They’ve slept on some of the filthiest bedding I’ve ever seen and eaten things that probably shouldn’t be eaten. Food preparation is sketchy business here and I feel like the “fingers crossed” policy that we’ve adopted is like playing Russian roulette with our health. We’ve already suffered some non-fatal casualties. I don’t know if it’s because I became a corporate attorney or married a neat freak or what but it turns out that I’m a bit of an OCD germaphobe which is causing some serious anxiety. I think I’m handling things pretty well considering what I’m dealing with. For example, the bathroom sink drain of our “hotel” in Nha Trang (more like a hostel) is merely a pipe that empties out onto the bathroom floor, which also happens to be where we shower. Therefore any byproducts from brushing our teeth or washing our faces just spill onto the floor!

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How ghetto is this bathroom?

I can’t really complain because you get what you pay for and this hotel room is US$8 per night. Even though there are holes in the sheets and mildew in the tile grout, it’s clean by VN standards, and at least there’s air conditioning and hot water.

Most bathrooms have regular toilets but once in awhile, especially if we’re out in the countryside or at a hole-in-the-wall eatery (VN takes the concept of hole-in-the-wall to a whole new level), we’ll encounter one of those old-school basins in the ground that you have to squat over.

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Because they’re invariably located next to the kitchen where food is prepared, massive roaches like to hang out there. The sight of a four inch roach scuttling out of a bathroom used to send me into hysterics but during a recent encounter at a relative’s home, I simply conceded under my breath, “Ok Mr. Roach, it’s all yours, I’m just going to hold my pee.” In conclusion, OCD germaphobes should never visit Vietnam. EVER.

Cheapness

I tease Tom about his cheapness but usually I just find it amusing, and frugality is a quality I admire. Cheapness also runs in my blood because my mom takes cheapness to new levels of ridiculousness. Traveling is Vietnam is crazy cheap, but my mom doesn’t think in terms of US dollars, she thinks in terms of VN dollars to a VN person. We took an overnight train from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang, an 8 hour ride. Rather than getting beds for less than US$25 apiece, she opted for reclining chairs for half the price, about US$12 each. She saved extra money by not getting seats for our kids, a very ill-conceived plan that resulted in each kid lying on top of us in cramped seats for an 8 hour train ride that departed at 1am. All this agony to save US$36!!!

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

We managed to circumvent Aunt #6’s duplicitous plotting with some counter-plotting of our own. Part of how Aunt #6 manipulated us into going on this trip was by convincing us not to buy return plane tickets. She promised that return flights were cheap and plentiful and by not booking them in advance we would have flexibility to return whenever we wanted. Turns out that flights from Da Nang to Saigon during the holiday season were neither cheap nor plentiful, and the only way to get back within a reasonable timeframe was by bus. However, the roads in VN are so poor that a one hour flight is a THIRTY HOUR bus ride. Kids ride for free but aren’t given their own seats, which means that the five of us would have had to cram into three seats for THIRTY HOURS. If we had known this ahead of time, we definitely wouldn’t have gone, and we wouldn’t have been roped into paying for Aunt #6’s vacation. The day before our planned departure, my poor girl got food poisoning and started vomiting all over the place. She couldn’t hold anything down, not even water, and also had diarrhea. Obviously we weren’t about to take her on a THIRTY HOUR bus ride. We wanted to stay behind and figure out another way home, but worried that my retired aunt and uncle would volunteer to stay with us. So we hatched a plan to visit my mom’s friend in Quang Ngai, a few hours from Da Nang, and then do overnight stays in multiple destinations to break up the trip back to Saigon. We were thrilled to be rid of Aunt #6’s family, and the disappointed look on Aunt #6’s face when we paid for the car rental but didn’t include money for their return bus fare was priceless. If we had traveled with them it would have been awkward to hand over only enough money for our own bus fare and not pay for their fare since we had been covering all of their costs up until that point. Aunt #6 surely would have asked for the difference. But since we were no longer traveling with them, she didn’t have the nerve to ask. Victory! Until we arrived to Quang Ngai and saw where we would be spending the night. My mom’s friend’s house ended up being the most uncomfortable night we’ve spent in VN thus far. It was dirty, dusty, and teeming with mosquitoes. I don’t know how it’s even possible for soap to be dirty but her bars of soap had black spots on them. We had to sleep under a mosquito net in a hot, muggy room that hadn’t been used for years. By 2am the kids were crying and we were all awake because we were being devoured by a couple of mosquitoes that had gotten trapped inside our mosquito net. We didn’t have any luck trying to kill them but didn’t dare open the mosquito net because there were far more mosquitoes outside of the net. It was an awful experience and I hate seeing my kids covered in mosquito bites. To top things off, the boy got food poisoning the next day and projectile vomited all over the kitchen floor. We did not enjoy Quang Ngai.