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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, it was out of my price range.
But look, it had fingerprint door locks!
And a spare guest room!
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 I mention it has a supermarket?
With pretty decent ready-made meals for under $1?
And a fast food restaurant?
And an arcade?
And private karaoke booths?
The young landlords are super-nice. Even the never-slept-on mattress was encouraging.
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.
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.
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.