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.

The Ba Na Cable Car Tickets Incident: How Bitterness and Resentment Can Poison a Vacation

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.

You can't tell but I'm seething with resentment and rage in this picture.
You can’t tell but I’m seething with resentment and rage in this picture.

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.