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