Once the fire was out, the hotel clerk returned to tell us our room was ready. A pair of receptionists were positioning fans to clear the smoky lobby. Most patrons didn't even look up from their coffees and newspapers; one persistent woman kept jabbing the elevator button, despite being told repeatedly it was shut for safety reasons. But we were spooked, and the clerk could tell. His $20.00 per night “special upgrade offer” became free, an incentive to stop us fleeing the premises. And our new room included a mini-fridge... and a smoke detector.
So we checked into the Saigon branch of Fawlty Towers. Why not? After all, we wouldn’t be there long.
After months of vagabonding around Southeast Asia, we’d decided to settle down for a while. Sam was tired of the constant packing and unpacking. I was tired of sink laundry. The new plan was to set up an HQ for six months, preferably in a big city with lots of food and transportation options. We chose Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). Now we just needed an apartment.
Renting in Vietnam was notoriously cheap. The internet abounded with stories of people snagging entire houses for $250 a month. The property market was still recovering from a housing bubble. Cheap places were everywhere. We figured we'd find something in days, a week tops.
Strange new city. No connections. No language skills. Tiny budget. What could go wrong?
The Great Korean Apartment Crisis had given us a false sense of our own efficiency. We started with the shiny, excited, let’s-do-this feeling that preludes big changes. By day two, we were already slipping toward the dark side.
Looking for apartments in Vietnam was like looking anywhere else: mind-numbing, soul-draining, and peppered with despair. Mornings, we trawled rental websites and sent emails to agents like doomed carrier pigeons, never to return. Afternoons, we hit pavement in search of cho thuê (for rent) signs. Our needs were simple: air con, a washing machine, and a grocery store/good restaurant scene within walking distance. Food was the deal breaker, and it had to be close by. Our plans to get a motorbike died when we saw the traffic.
Ho Chi Minh City was divided into twenty-four districts, twelve numbered and twelve named. Foreigners usually opted for District 1 or 3 (expensive apartments in the heart of downtown), or Districts 2 and 7 (expensive apartments outside the chaos). All of these were out of our price range.
This did not phase our real estate agent, who insisted on showing us places we couldn’t afford (though we did meet a lovely Korean couple who were so thrilled we could speak hanguk mal that they offered to include their rice cooker with the apartment). To widen our options, we started making forays on our own. We freaked out a number of doormen and made idiots of ourselves trying to express “short-term contract” and “utilities included” in sign language.
When that didn't work, the internet suggested we ask locals for recommendations. So we hit a few street cafes and gave it a whirl. We ended up clinging to strangers' motorbikes as they took us to see their friend’s brother’s high-school teacher’s niece’s rental property. They were nice, though I myself wouldn't have cut off those buses.
This was getting frustrating. Facebook listed zillions of rentals in District 1. The cheapest required us to share with other foreigners; personal space started at twice our budget. But this was all foreigner housing. What we really wanted was to see Vietnamese properties, but no one wanted to show us any. To clarify, foreigner properties in Vietnam had more square footage, nicer amenities, and great locations. They'd been designed to accommodate western sensibilities. They were often serviced too, with a regular cleaning service to wash the floors and change the sheets. If that sounds pricey, it was. It was also all we had seen thus far.
Vietnamese-style properties, on the other hand, were much, much cheaper. But all our rental agents insisted that we wouldn't like them. They used every excuse in the book to steer us away: the rooms were in bad condition, the other residents could be criminals, it would be too small.
The problem, we learned, was two-fold. One, Vietnamese rental agents are paid on commission. Why sell a $200/month property if they could get us into something worth three times more? We were foreigners. Of course they felt we could afford it.
Second was, well, us. Landlords are required to register all non-Vietnamese tenants with the police (hotels too—that's why they always kept our passports). Local landlords didn't want the responsibility and hassle. We managed to score one appointment for a Vietnamese-style apartment by asking a street food lady to call on our behalf. The owner never showed.
After a week at Fawlty Towers, we were ready to move on. Saigon had defeated us. But the day before our departure, we took one last flyer on a listing from an expat forum. The building was tucked behind a busy street in northern Binh Thanh District. It had two big, furnished rooms, air-con, and free laundry. The landlady, a sweet and dainty grandmother, spoke excellent English. The apartment was ready to go—we could move in right away. Best of all, it was in our price range.
We walked out to the main street for the real test—could we eat here? The road was packed with cơm, phở, and mì quảng shops. A woman fried banana fritters behind the yoghurt store; a fruit stand took up the pavement beside a bakery. But our decision was made in the convenience store: there was soju in the beverage case. Sam and I exchanged looks, and headed back to sign the contract.
Foreigners need a three month visa to rent apartments in Vietnam. You can sign as long a contract as you like, so long as you’re willing to make visa runs.
These were the most useful resources from our apartment hunt:
Expat Blog Saigon’s housing classifieds
Housing in Ho Chi Minh City Facebook page
We also found this post from Fulltime Nomad really helpful. It includes info on the different districts and on working with real estate agents.