Ho Chi Minh City: home, sweet, home

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VOV News English - 32 month(s) ago 6 readings

Ho Chi Minh City: home, sweet, home

(VOV) - I’ve been blessed (or cursed) with a face that is home in any Asian country. On a recent trip to Thailand, the taxi driver asked me out of the blue, “Flying back to Singapore?” 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.

Vietnamese street markets versus American markets Rediscovering noon in Hoi An

Strangely, it works everywhere except in Vietnam, considering I’m true blue Vietnamese. I’ve been in Saigon for over two weeks but have received the same greetings eight times, “Where are you from?” After 10 years of experience in Cambodia, I decided that it was time for a change. So I’m now back to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), a sprawling metropolis of over nine million people, from where it all began.

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. Not encouraging news. It’s not that my accommodations wish list was even all that demanding — a place in an untouristy part of town but still within a 30 minute drive of all the happenings of District 1, somewhere relatively quiet and with decent places to eat. And since the plan was to delay actual work for as long as possible, around US$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 all the way from the good, old US of A.

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

Taking all this advice to heart, it seemed I was destined for a huge furnished cardboard box that was neither an apartment nor a house.

Having a decent place to call home has always been important to me. Living in a developing country can be exhausting – haggling for every single item at the market, constantly wrestling with motorbike traffic, getting drenched every time it rains, and inhaling dust and fumes and Lord knows what else. Don’t even get me started on the incessant din of honking horns. So for me, at least, I’ve always needed a comfortable living space — an oasis to come home to.

After having a spacious, centrally located apartment for US$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 schlepping me all around the city, viewing apartments, detached houses and row houses, growing more exasperated by the minute (them and me). It was a bad episode of International House Hunters, except I couldn’t change the channel.

There was the apartment that had a spectacular view over the Saigon River, literally a stone’s throw from the zoo, overlooking the elephant enclosure. I have to admit, 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, so common in Vietnamese-designed apartment buildings. So long Dumbo! I barely knew ye.

Then there was the one that was fully furnished in a decent part of town. Excellent, considering I had not a stick of furniture to call my own. Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me was of a security guard sitting on the steps outside the building exfoliating his heels with the ragged edge of a tin can top. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m as much an advocate for personal hygiene as the next person, but I couldn’t help thinking, “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 and planets permanently plastered all over the walls. Have these people never seen Homes and Gardens TV? Does the word “staging” mean nothing? 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.

Game over.

Yes, it was out of my price range. But 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 any grandiose plans to use the pool, mind you. 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 if regular people food ever gets too boring, there’s a whole tray of cocoons of some kind. At least I think they’re cocoons… After 10 years of living in barren Cambodia, where KFC and an English movie theater have only recently made appearances, I find myself in the Co-op Mart at least twice a day, just wandering the aisles, looking at all the shiny things on sale.

Don’t even get me started on the Lotteria on the mezzanine floor. Having direct access to fried chicken all day long is just a crime. And then there’s an arcade for when I want to get my Foosball on. And private karaoke booths. I wonder what's the number for Hotel California… Forget exploring the country of my birth. I may just never leave my building.

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. I’m not kidding. The pile of money was literally the size of a brick.

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

Cost of high-speed internet: US$10 / month

Cost of cable TV: US$4 / month

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

House Hunting 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. With Vietnam’s crazy-high bank interest rates for Vietnamese currency accounts, 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.

James Pham

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