An unfinished love affair with a pair of hem houses (một cặp nhà hem)
(hem: alley or lane, normally very small, our hem is so tiny it only fits scooters)
It’s a different world, it has taken me almost five years to navigate, and I am still learning. In the South of Vietnam, trust is everything, people are suspicious of newcomers (and rightly so), especially foreigners, gentrifiers, strangers in their neighbourhoods, their hems, and there is a fine line between appreciating and respecting the culture as opposed to obnoxiously passing things off as cute and kitschy.
I am yet to master this six-toned language. I am not good at languages, and this pair of hem houses has been a long and painful process that has felt a lot more about winning people over and proving our true intentions than simply acquiring said properties.
I had never been to Vietnam.
I had always wanted to, so I accepted the job without a second thought about relocating to the other side of the world. I am self-sufficient, have travelled and worked away from my partner on and off since we first hooked up 25 years ago, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. As it turns out, I was only out here for a year alone before he joined me.
It all moved fast; we were flown out to ‘double-check’ we liked it; I had already made up my mind.
When we arrived and started to drive around, I was struck by the buildings; they are magical. Tall houses, hem houses, like something from a colourful fairytale, all skinny and tall or short and dumpy, pastel colours with intricate metalwork — I immediately fell in love, and this was the very start of everything.
‘You want to live where? In a tall house? No, you can’t live in a tall house, white people don’t live in tall houses, just Vietnamese people’
I had no idea this would be such a fight.
You see, with our housing allowances, we could get ourselves a jolly lovely tall house, but trying to convey this was virtually impossible. I hunted out Vietnamese property sites, showed the agent photos of the type of thing we loved; they thought we were insane; most Vietnamese people work tirelessly to escape hems and tall houses; they are not considered precious or special.
We were shown apartment after apartment. It was painful.
I wanted to immerse myself in the Vietnamese culture, be thrown in at the deep end. The more they said no, the more determined I became.
‘It is so dangerous though! Westerners don’t like living in Vietnamese areas because it’s not safe’
I inquired as to why it was unsafe, I was moving from an area in the UK where someone had been stabbed to death down my road, shot in the knee caps around one corner, and most recently, a man followed home from a casino to be gunned down around the other corner, so I needed to establish what was meant by this.
‘Well, you know there is karaoke, and it can be very loud and sometimes they even have weddings at home’
I couldn’t control my laughter; this was to someone coming from one of the most multi-cultural cities in England, the largest Indian community outside of India, so celebrations, weddings at home and festivals were an almost weekly occurrence. Something I loved and miss very much.
Still, this did give me an indication of what we were dealing with.
After some dreadful apartment viewings, they appeased us with some wildly inappropriate tall houses (indoor waterfall anyone? construction site next door? zero amenities?) we managed to compromise with a villa. A villa is a pretty characterless, giant, fancy house, but it was at least a house with gardens (one of my criteria), and my misguided plan was that once I was living here, it would be much easier to switch to a proper Vietnamese house.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
You see, there is segregation, or whatever you want to call it, because of the trust. Especially in a hem, when you are quite literally living on top of each other, you really don’t want some dreadful foreign people moving in and doing all sorts of untold things.
Plus, it is true, most ex-pats hang out with ex-pats in ex-pat areas because, well, it’s easier. About 80% of people who come here to work do so to make a quick buck and get out. They are not committed to a future here, so they keep it simple, and although I do understand that, I don’t want that for myself.
So we just put it to one side, and carried on in our first villa, ditched that agent, got a good agent, moved into our second (much nicer, fixer-upper, that we were allowed to decorate — hoo fucking ray!) palatial villa, so fancy — not us, not us at all. I mean, we have been in this one for four years now; we have made it as much our own as we can without ripping out stuff. Our neighbours have grown to love us (tolerate us) and all the cats we insist on rescuing and the seven motorbikes being restored in the front garden. It is home for now, but we didn’t completely give up. It has always been sat in the back of our minds waiting, percolating…
Coronavirus arrived in the rest of the world.
Things started to feel a little bit unstable for the first time in years. We started to worry about what would happen if we lost our jobs. We both work at the same place, our housing allowance is substantial and about covers the rent on this villa, if we lost our jobs, we would burn through our savings fast paying the rent, even faster if we returned to the UK. Plus, we didn’t want to return to the UK; we had only just started planning everything we wanted to do in Vietnam.
So what if we bought property here?
‘You cannot buy property here, impossible’
We parked it again. I got sick, Coronavirus changed its name to COVID-19 and arrived here, in Vietnam.
We badgered our agent, and finally, she caved. We went full circle; she took us to see apartments, bloody apartments, all way out of our budget, 50-year lease. Apartments here are insanely expensive — London prices, and of course, you don’t ever own them, not really. I mean, we had saved some money, but not that much, and not for something that we didn’t even want. We knew she wasn’t taking us seriously.
We hired someone else, a Vietnamese friend of a colleague, to help us look for a traditional house, and it is hard. Really hard. There are so many scams and so much stuff you have to look out for, and because she didn’t know a lot of these things, she was run through the mill, and we felt totally disheartened. To add to all of this, I was diagnosed with Chronic Adjustment Disorder and Fatigue; I could manage small bursts of energy before having to lie down, so this was a lot, and we were pretty much ready to give up again.
Everyone told us we were stupid; everyone told us it was impossible. People actually laughed at us.
Foreigners cannot buy property in Vietnam, and hem houses/tall houses are the most difficult as the system is much more of a word of mouth thing than just picking out what you like the look of on a website.
Then it happened.
‘Well, university has been cancelled, I haven’t got anything else to do’
This was one of my ex-team, and a good friend, who just so happened to be in her final year of studying to be an architect, and from that moment, we started to believe again. Having her on board helping us in the search seemed to convince our agent that we were serious about this, we wouldn’t be giving up anytime soon, so we were worthy of her trust, Vietnamese contacts and I will cut out the mystery adventure on a party bus to a plot of land in the middle of Dong Nai, the multiple houses that didn’t exist because they were all scams, and focus on the day that we found what we were looking for.
I can’t explain exactly how it feels to go into a hem.
Out of place, I guess, like when you go into a fancy clothes shop that you don’t think you belong in. The entrances are often hidden or hard to see, and it is a maze of tiny lanes. You will often get asked if you are lost, children will wave or talk to you, there will be disapproving stares, suspicion. I can speak basic Vietnamese, but conversational is hard and terrifying, so my biggest fear is that someone might ask me something that sends me into a panic, in turn making them panic. The deeper you go, the more attention you attract. You have to be brave; you know that you are not there to do anything bad; you know your intentions are good; it’s just a time thing.
The first house was adorable.
I always chuckle when I see these ‘tiny house’ things on TV. They are not really tiny, not by the standards here. It would have made a lovely studio, one up, one down, loads of light, but simply too small. The next was a tall house; I could not believe it was within our budget, in just one day we already had two houses to see— we had been searching for months. My partner was not convinced, so our agents’ friend, who was quite the character, threw us a wild card—way over budget.
As we drove into the next little alley, I was trying not to get excited, but I already knew this was ticking certain boxes — the end of the hem is safest — tick. Elevated to avoid flooding, that’s another tick. Surrounded by more hems (so less likely to be knocked down for developments), tick!
‘there is a problem, there is only one deed for two houses’
We had already encountered this once — it’s pretty normal as land isn’t really regulated, so people typically buy a house and any space they can build on next to it, on top of it, behind it — oh, they will!
‘so which house is the price for?’
We go into the first house to look around. I am trying so hard not to get excited, but I can’t help it. It’s a cute little green house. It needs a lot of work, but it has potential. The second house is more of a workshop on the ground floor and a little studio apartment on the top floor. The price is too high for either one of the houses. Maybe we can get it down because of the deed issue.
‘the price is for both houses’
WHAT? Ok, so now I am struggling to keep my cool; my agent knows this is a good deal, and she is calmly nodding at me deadpan.
My thinking is that we have the main house, then the workshop for all the motorbikes and then our architect friend who is dying to escape the clutches of her family can live in the studio.
We disperse; we have a lot to work out.
A few days later the architect goes in to take a look, and long story short, there is some aggressive haggling on price due to the legality of the land, a really long wait for them to move out because of an impending wedding and on March the 21st, 2021 after almost a year of searching we got the keys.
You would think that the hard part was over, right?
‘We know the white people bought the houses’
Agh, so what. They were hours late moving their stuff out, we anticipated this. There was a big fight about some tax they hadn’t paid, and they left us with a pretty hefty electricity bill for each house, whatever life goes on.
Or so we thought.
You see, the two houses needed a huge amount of work, reinforcement, construction. This was fine; we had budgeted for this. It took a couple of months for all the drawings to be complete, negotiations to finish and the contractor to start to work.
It was in full swing; walls had been knocked down, holes were cut into ceilings, and these two neglected little treasures would soon be transformed into the beautiful houses they deserved to be. We were starting to visit regularly; our presence in the hem was no longer met with fear or suspicion. I was getting better, our architect would soon have her own place to live, and we were all getting excited. Our little ragtag team had actually pulled it off; it was really happening!
You see, in Vietnam, the beginning part — the trust part takes a really long time.
Every part of the process that had resulted in the success had been about building someone’s trust so they were willing to engage and gain someone else’s on our behalf.
Then, it moves at breakneck speed. They had finished all of the demolition within a week — they move in and live there, no time to waste — it’s incredible. Then the COVID-19 waves came, and to start with, all construction work was allowed to continue. Of course, that didn’t last long; the rules got stricter and stricter until they could no longer get building supplies, so they had to abort.
That was almost a month ago.
The last time we went to see how everything was going, it felt as tentative as the first time. People are frightened, terrified. Half of the hem was barricaded shut, they don’t want anyone bringing COVID-19 into their little community, and this is not unusual, people are taking matters into their own hands, and I get it, I do.
We got in, had a look, got out quickly before we caused any panic, and that was the last time we saw our little pair of houses.
All that hard work, all of the trust we were beginning to build and now, well, now we don’t know. We have affectionately named them the onion houses because of all the layers. Every piece of skin we peel off reveals something else, a memory, a trace, a life, an imprint. They are all magical, and they deserve to be appreciated, even by us.
We are now in a total lockdown situation; this will go on for at least two more weeks, we cannot leave our houses for anything except an emergency. I don’t know when we will be able to return, and I don’t know how we will be received when we do.