Home, Sweet, Home Chi Minh City

My chameleon face at home in Japan

I just have that kind of face.

I’ve been blessed (or is it cursed?) with a face that is home in any Asian country. After a recent trip to Thailand, the taxi driver who picked me up asked out of the blue, “Flying back to Singapore?” Ummmm. No. Good guess, though, guy.

In Japan, I get taken for Japanese. In Hong Kong, people automatically start speaking to me in Chinese. In Cambodia, I’ve even scored tickets at the local rate just by saying as little as possible.

It works everywhere except in Vietnam. Ironic, considering I’m 100% Vietnamese. I’ve been here just over two weeks and I’ve already been asked eight times, “What country are you from?” Sigh. I can’t get no respect.

Sunset over Saigon

After 10 amazing years in Cambodia, I decided that it was time for a change. So I’m returning to the Motherland, the place where it all began — specifically Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), a sprawling metropolis of over nine million people.

First step, housing.

In a recent report, Ho Chi Minh ranked 12th among the most expensive cities in Asia (and 52nd worldwide) and office rents are reportedly higher than in Manhattan! This was not good news.

It’s not that my accommodations wish list was even all that demanding — a place in the untouristy Binh Thanh district near where my friends live, relatively quiet and with decent places to eat. Oh, and since the plan was to delay work for as long as possible, around USD 300 a month for rent. One can dream, right?

Simple eats. Every man's right

Unfortunately, my local and expat friends weren’t of much help.

“Don’t get an apartment”, they said. “The monthly fees are really expensive.”

“Don’t get a house on a quiet street”, someone else piped in. “Everyone will know all your business. Thieves will break in when you’re on holiday.”

“Don’t get an unfurnished place. You’ll lose money when you have to sell stuff.” 

Even my dear old mom piped in.

“Get a big house so that we can stay with you when we visit!”

Hmmmm. Pay 359 days of expensive rent for the 6 nights a year my family comes over? Not a great ROI as they say…

Taking all this advice to heart, it seemed I was destined for a furnished cardboard box that was neither an apartment nor a house. Thanks, guys! You’re the best! Sigh.

Having a decent place to call home has always been important to me. Living in a developing country means fighting motorbike traffic, the incessant din of honking horns, getting drenched every time it rains but you still need to get somewhere and inhaling dust and fumes and Lord knows what else. So for me, at least, I’ve always needed a comfortable living space — an oasis to come home to.

After having an awesome 4-bed, 4-bath, separate kitchen apartment for USD 350 a month in Cambodia, my expectations were high. It turns out that finding something similar in Vietnam was akin to the quest for the Holy Grail, with real estate agents traipsing me all around the city, viewing apartments, detached houses and row houses, growing more exasperated by the minute.

There was the one that had a spectacular view over the Saigon River, literally a stone’s throw from the zoo, overlooking the elephant enclosure. I love me some animals and the thought of sitting out on the balcony watching the animals over morning coffee had its appeal. But the apartment had weird flimsy aluminum doors and a slightly claustrophobic feel with windows directly into the public corridor. Veto. So long Dumbo! I barely knew ye.

Washing machine in the living room is all the rage, don't ya know?

Then there was the apartment that was fully furnished (score!) in a very Vietnamese-y building. Unfortunately, my first impression was of a security guard sitting on the steps outside the building exfoliating his heels with the ragged edge of a tin can top.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much an advocate for personal hygiene as the next guy, but do I really want to come home to that scene every day? Veto.

Apartment with exfoliating security guard outside

Then there was the house that had a bedroom entirely decked out as a kids room, complete with bunk beds and glow-in-the-dark stars plastered all over the walls. Have these people never seen Homes and Gardens TV? One word, people — staging! Veto.

Yay! Sleepovers!

Then I saw it.

A gleaming white, brand new 18-storey apartment building with a sheltered outdoor pool, soon-to-be-gym and a large supermarket on the ground floor.

Game over.

Hello, beautiful!

Yes, it was out of my price range.

But look, it had fingerprint door locks!

Ooooooh. Aaaaaaah.

And a spare guest room!

Oh, you want to come for a visit? Errrr. Sorry. I think I'm busy that day!

Thereafter, every property I viewed was met with a whiny, “But it doesn’t have a swimming pool!”

Not that I have that great a history with swimming pools. But at least I like the idea of having a swimming pool.

Did someone say Pool Party?

Did I mention it has a supermarket?

I find myself in here at least twice a day, just wandering the aisles.

With pretty decent ready-made meals for under $1?

Regular people food too boring? Try the cocoons!

And a fast food restaurant?

Me in the same building as fried chicken = recipe for disaster

And an arcade?

For when I want to get my Foosball on...

And private karaoke booths?

What's the number for Hotel California?

The young landlords are super-nice. Even the never-slept-on mattress was encouraging.

Thanks, Mattress! I needed that pep talk!

The point of no return came on the day I signed the contract and handed over 6 months’ worth of rent. I gulped as I forked over the brick of cash.

VND 60,000,000. Literally the size of a brick.

So, two weeks after arriving in country, I was no longer living out of a suitcase as I had been doing for the past 4 months.

Oh man. What have I done?!?

The cost per month for my 2-bed, 2-bath apartment, including all fees? USD 518.

Cost of high-speed internet: USD 10 / month

Cost of cable TV: USD 4 / month

Being able to watch my favorite shows on Hulu in my swank new bachelor’s pad? Priceless.

What about you? When was the last time you took a leap of faith and tried something scarily new? Share your story in the comments section below!

Tips: (1) I found the website muaban.net a good starting point. You can sort listings by area, price and other features. Of course, being able to read Vietnamese is a plus. Something else I discovered was that home owners tended to work with various agents. So chances are, you’ll be dealing with an agent, which makes negotiation slightly more complicated. Of course, the agent is equally eager to close the deal and collect their commission, but it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the agent was an advocate for the renter or owner. (2) If you feel comfortable with the owner, you may want to consider making concessions to get added benefits. It’s the Asian way. Want an additional air-conditioner installed? Considering making a larger down payment. Asian landlords don’t seem to mind using rent money to upgrade. Vietnam has crazy bank interest rates for Vietnamese currency accounts (I’m talking 13-14% p.a.). So by paying multiple months up front, the landlord can invest the money in exchange for reduced rent. I was able to negotiate almost 25% off the asking rate by coughing up a few more months’ rent in advance.

You can also read this article on Voice of Vietnam, your one-stop source of information on Vietnam.

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48 thoughts on “Home, Sweet, Home Chi Minh City

  1. Chú Bách

    Bravo.
    You look too heavy for a true Vietnamese. Considering the ubiquitous foodstalls in Vietnam, I will soon get that same problem when I will come next week. See you there.

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Wait. Was that a fat joke? Sigh. Hence, the swimming pool! It’ll be my goal for the new few months to fill my afternoons with swimming and tennis… Stay tuned! You won’t even recognize me! (No guarantees, though. The food here is sooooo good). I’ll have to do a post on the “pho” options alone!

      Reply
  2. Fay

    Jimmy you are soooo funny………. Is the food there better than in Thailand??? Love your apartment and everything else……. Enjoy. Now i want to hear about your service experiences…..

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks, Louise! Life here is more expensive than Cambodia, but perhaps a bit more comfortable. However, I do miss knowing where everything is. Navigating the streets is another challenge. I have a driving test tomorrow. Eek!

      Reply
  3. Elisa

    Hello Jimmy,

    Happy things are coming together as you have always wanted. Look forward to your further posts.

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks! It’s a hobby, really. But who knows? WordPress says that their members alone generate 500,000 posts PER DAY. That’s a lot of content. I’m a small needle in a BIG haystack! Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Wendy Campbell

    Well done Jimmy finding the best place to live. Have fun in “dragon” city, my nickname for HCM city because of the incessant noise. Enjoy, and hope you are high enough not to hear so it is a real escape. Enjoying an extended…holiday in Perth,WA with perfect autumn weather. Hi to all the friends. Love, Wendy

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks, Wendy. The apartment is a dream. Super quiet and a real oasis. I’m loving the availability of ready-cooked meals downstairs… You’ll have to come over for a visit!

      Reply
  5. Olivia

    So you’ve found your dream home… and it’s above a Co-Op… What does that say about you exactly? Is this your way of replacing chi Thi? Will you be replacing other friends with random shops and impersonal services? Is my new obsession with psychoanalyzing in any way due to your pointing me in the direction of that personality test?

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Totally. Without my trust dusty housekeeper, I’m lost. I had to actually sweep and mop my own house last night. Quel horreur. PLUS, these silky soft hands have never touched dishwater. They MUST be preserved… But I did guilt trip her into coming over from Cambodia last weekend to help me move (and clean the apartment). So… SCORE! Now if only I could find good Catan players to rent… Happy psychoanalyzing, Ms. Mastermind!

      Reply
  6. halao

    Love the new apt! Enjoy!
    Most people who move to Asia get slimmer, but you and I seemed to have defied the norm! We can blame it on the food . . . too yummy!
    I’ve been living without a housekeeper for 3 months! Oh, the dust!!!

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      I know. And so cheap! I found my favorite lunch spot. A main course + veggie stirfry + soup + rice + fruit + iced tea for $1.50. They literally give almost too much to eat. And it’s in a nice garden setting. Sigh. I don’t think I will ever use my kitchen except to make meals I crave (like a huge pot of spag bol!). But cleaning my own apartment and ironing my own clothes? Phooey!

      Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks, Ryan! If I’m around, give me a shout. Hope to know the city a little bit better by then! Where I am is definitely an UN-touristy part of town. Hardly any foreigners here. I still stare at the odd white person on the street. In my area, I think I’ve seen one in the past three weeks. It’s akin to seeing the elusive Sasquatch!

      Reply
      1. Ryan Maull

        ROTF!!..that is too funny! LOL! yeah bro i sure will i’ll give you a heads up before that time my plan is also to take a side tour of the Centeral Highlands Dak Lak Buon Ma thuot area some time in the fall October or November if your interested in going?.. some friends may also go from HCM as well i’ll let u know how the plan may go, yeah i bet it is an adjustment moving there from Cambodia maybe u will see more foreigners this spring and summer alot folks travleing this year hehe!!..

        Reply
  7. Ruth

    Wow, you got a good discount by paying for so many months upfront! I might have to consider that myself next time. Good news for you is that housekeeping services are affordable here in HCMC too – many (if not most) expats I know have one.

    Reply
  8. Ruth (@RuthInAsia)

    Wow, you got a good discount by paying for so many months upfront! I might have to consider that myself next time. Good news for you is that housekeeping services are affordable here in HCMC too – many (if not most) expats I know have one.

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks, Ruth. I was really unsure about how many months to pay up front. I think 2 months’ security deposit is standard. They wanted me to sign a two year contract but I only wanted one, so I think this was a good compromise. I’m going to try taking care of my place on my own for a month and see how I go. That was the difference between getting an apartment vs. a house. For sure, the house would’ve needed some help… But having a housekeeper for the last 10 years in Cambodia has effectively erased all my “muscle memory” for cleaning. Eeeek!

      Reply
  9. Efren Santos

    James! you are one incredible writer…I’m constantly smiling and then laughing while reading your “life events”. Hope to see you again, perhaps on another cruise…you are, by far, the BEST trivia player we’ve ever met. Can’t stop smiling, Efren

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks a ton, Efren! I just checked out the local tennis courts yesterday. Great courts, and only $20 to join per month. That includes three sessions a week with a doubles league, all your balls and a ball boy! Going to bring over my racquets from Cambodia this weekend. The Vietnamese players are HILARIOUS. They trash talk each other DURING the points. And they don’t follow the rules. 90% of the time, they foot fault. And when one person is serving, both players will stand on the same side. Can’t wait to blast a forehand down the line… Keep smiling that beautiful smile, buddy! Say hi to Johnny Mac for me…

      Reply
      1. Efren

        Make sure to aim high when you blast that forehand and with a lot of topspin! If you miss, it won’t be in the net…and it’ll still be inside the line…aka Stefan Edberg.

        Reply
        1. jt10s Post author

          Oh my goodness, Efren. I KNOW you aren’t trying to tell me to emulate Edberg’s wonky, awkward forehand! I’ll take Fed’s or Pete’s forehand on the run any day!

          Reply
      2. Tim Nguyen

        LOL…that’s funny because I’ve seen the EXACT same thing down here in the Little Saigon community tennis courts. Trash talking During the point and Totally ignoring foot faults! (it’s mostly the old-school viets tho). The new generation players know better.

        Reply
        1. James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly Post author

          I started playing with the coach this week to knock the rust off. The foot-faulting is horrendous. The guy’s practically inside the service box by the time he’s finished his motion. It’s such an unfair advantage. Can’t wait to play them and teach them a lesson…

          Reply
      3. Tim Nguyen

        Horrendous foot fault is an understatement. You would think that a person with title “coach” would know better tsk..tsk

        Reply
  10. Maria

    Hi James! Welcome home! You and your house search would have been a perfect episode for House Hunters International on HGTV!! Nice apartment! Got to visit HCMC on a cruise a few years ago, even got to see a water puppet show. Enjoy your place, the food, the people, the sights! Take care, and we’ll be waiting for your next adventure!

    Reply
    1. jt10s Post author

      Hi Maria! I just watched an episode of HHI last night online. Yeah, my search would’ve been classic. But more like Ghetto House Hunters International. Instead of three great properties to choose from, it would’ve been more like: Where DON’T I want to live. LOL!

      Reply
  11. travelnlass

    Nice digs – the pool and the co-op beneath will no doubt come in handy. A bit too far from the center of things for me, I found a great place (albeit no pool, but likewise spiffy/modern/spotless) for $450: 1 BR including cable, internet and daily maid – yessss! The best part: the location – just off Nguyen Trai in Dist 1 (in a quite alley w/ nary a single backpacker in sight – yay!) I only wanted (and got) a 6 month lease, and paid only $250 security deposit plus 1st month rent.

    And yes, most all properties in HCMC are listed by multiple agents. I found mine on Craig’s list, and the agent seemed eager to negotiate well for his commission.

    Welcome to the utter nutsoness that is quintessential HCMC!

    Reply
    1. James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly Post author

      Yeah, it’s about a 20 minute drive to District 1 where all the haps are… Didn’t even think to look on Craig’s List! Good to know for next time… I’m just happy to be settled and can now explore. Wheeee!

      Reply
  12. Tim Nguyen

    Hi James, I just came across your blog for the first time. Makes interesting read. I’m a vietkieu currently living in Los Angeles. The last time I was in HCMC was in 2010. I often miss the crazy streets of vietnam. Me and the wife plan to visit VN again in 2014. Good luck on your driving test. Is your Viet good enough to pass the written portion? Reading and writing is my weak area, but I can speak fluently. What are you plans for work while in VN? Good luck, Tim

    Reply
    1. James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly Post author

      Hey Tim! Thanks for reading the blog. I’m happy to say I passed the driving test last week. It was a hilarious experience, not without a modicum of anxiety. The Vietkieus were terrified of the driving part with all its crazy figure 8s and figure 3s and the local Viets were terrified of the written part. I’ll write up a blog post about it soon. Feel free to subscribe to get notifications of new posts. You won’t want to miss this one, believe me!

      Reply
  13. emmasnewgroove

    I remember flat hunting here well. We were looking for a 6 bed house which was so difficult, especially as we’re all western and at that point spoke no Vietnamese! We struck lucky though, thank goodness! :)

    Reply
    1. James

      Yeah, am SO glad house hunting is over with and can just get on with life! We should totally organize a Vietnam bloggers lunch or something to share stories!

      Reply
  14. Huy Tran

    Thanks for the good info on VN!! We will follow you in a few months so keep your stories coming! :o)

    Reply
  15. Paul Eisen

    James; glad to hear you are ‘setteling down’ [ha-ha] with all your travels you should be working for either C-N or Nat’l Geographic, you could make your own issue. Won’t be headed your way, but I’m planning to volunteer for 2 weeks in December to work on an Israeli Army Base, then visit family there, should be interesting. BTW, I sent some photos of Italy to our So. Florida newspaper, and they published one in the Sunday Travel section. I told you San Gimmiano was worth the trip! We were out again in March to Belize [snorkeling] and Mexico [zip lining] still getting it on @ 72!
    Paul

    Reply
    1. James

      Wow! Those are some major plans! I’d love to visit Israel and all the Biblical places there! Do you have a link to the newspaper article? Would love to see it! I have a few articles myself coming out in some of the English glossies here in Vietnam. I’ll post them once they’re out. I hear Belize has great beaches as well. 72 is obviously only a number for you!

      Reply
  16. Huy Tran

    Thanks for such detailed info on your apartment hunting! We’re learning a lot and getting a realistic idea of what its like on your side of the world. Keep it coming and we’ll keep reading!

    Reply

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