The street I live on is called Lê Văn Sỹ. How to explain the pronunciation? Try saying Lay-Van-Psyyy (like Psyduck from Pokemon). That’s pretty much it. If you get that reference we can be friends.
Lê Văn Sỹ is long, going on for several miles and reaching into 3 different districts – 3, Phu Nuan and Tan Binh respectively. Along this LED lit, bustling road are a plethora of stores; toy shops, book shops, restaurants, markets, coffee shops, helmet shops, phone shops, electronics shops. There’s even a Domino’s Pizza here thrown in for those fast-food cravings. But more than anything, there are clothes shops. I like to think of Lê Văn Sỹ as the unofficial style mile of Ho Chi Minh City because of this. Walk along the street and you will come across a mish mash of chains and independent retailers (whose owners are often the designers), featuring clothes that are both pretty trendy and significantly cheaper than if you went to say, the Vincom Mall. Sadly, a lot of them are a tad small for us larger Westerners. But there’s always something for everyone, and if you’re lucky the overtly camp and eager shop assistants will have picked out an outfit for you that makes you look both fierce and fabulous and ready to strut your bootay along the many sidestreets. It’s quite an experience getting jostled into a shop blaring techno music by a small Vietnamese man whilst having checked shirts thrust upon your chest, let me tell you.
When not a target for frantic fashionistas, you can usually find my housemates and I lesson planning, drinking beer or setting up hammocks at our house.
I sleep on the top floor of our 4 bedroom, $950 per month house. It’s a large size, and for the price it’s a bargain. You’ll find that many houses available for rent are big and airy, very often designed in a strangely kitsch manner. Usually these places are owned by wealthier Vietnamese families, looking to make some extra income. Be prepared to pay anything from $150-400 per month for a room in a decent location, with two months rent as deposit. Craigslist, expat blog and various facebook groups are good places to start looking.
I have air-conditioning, a wardrobe, a bedside table. My bed is queen-sized and perfectably loungeable. I didn’t bring a lot with me, but what personal effects I do have are proudly spread out. Step outside my bedroom and to the left is the rooftop patio. The deal-maker. This is a large outdoor space featuring a washing machine, clotheslines, plants (we’ve started growing our own watermelons and bell peppers), a table and chairs, a couple of ashtrays and a deck of cards. Yup, party space. Go back inside and down the stairs and you’ll come across another 3 bedrooms, each with slightly different features from the rest. One of them has a balcony. One of them has dinosaur wallpaper. Each to their own. Down the stairs again is the kitchen, dining area and living room (which we affectionately dubbed the cold room, as we often run into here and just dump ourselves on the couch and blast on the A/C, returning from work on those unbearably hot days). It’s a wonderful place to live and we’re oh-so lucky to be here.
Bills in Vietnam are relatively cheap in comparison to back home. Expect to pay $10pm for internet and TV, $15pm for water and about $1 for garbage collection (you’ll be shaken out of bed at 7am one morning to answer the door for a smiling garbage lady with a receipt). The biggest expense is electricity. Don’t make the mistake of leaving the air-conditioning on all day. It will cost you a shit ton.
The pictures hanging on the walls of the house are photos taken by our landlady’s husband, a professional landscape photographer by profession. They’re beautifully clear and atmospheric. No wonder, as they’ve featured in various magazines and publications across Vietnam. My favourite is a black and white still of the ancient town Hoi An that hangs adjacent to our kitchen; a wooden jetty juts out across a beautifully still lake, disturbed only by the landing of cherry blossom petals on the water’s surface. In the background a young woman in traditional Vietnamese dress walks past a collection of centuries-old houses.
“What is it you enjoy taking pictures of?” I ask as they’ve both come round to help sort out our visa extensions.
“I like landscapes -“
“He likes taking pictures of the girls!” Butts in his wife (our landlady) jokingly.
“No, no, no” he defiantly cries “the only people I put in my photos are either the very young or very old. Children or old people. Only girls if it’s from the side or back. Never from the front”.
It’s true. There’s an innocence about these photos which breezes along with the house’s light, airy feel.
Our landlady herself is a wonderfully kind woman. When not letting property she works as an obstetrician. There’s a private clinic adjoined to her house that’s often lined with expectant mothers waiting to be checked. This maternal nature has wholeheartedly been granted towards us. She’s helped us spread out deposits, organise bill payments, arranged visa extensions, bought us mosquito nets, crockery and even a fridge; she points out local places for us to visit and will always bring a small gift whenever she pops round (so far these have included bananas, mangoes, oranges, desserts and even a juicer). Without her we’d be a whole lot less comfortable. And I’m eternally grateful. For a bunch of ex-pats trying to make a life in a new city, she’s been our Vietnamese guardian angel.
After weeks of struggling to find a place to live post-LanguageCorps graduation we finally stumble across this house on a whimsy. My realtor tells me “I have a place I think you’ll like”. And when you find a house with no location issues, that isn’t under construction, that doesn’t feature a door to your neighbour’s place who happens to be your landlady, which isn’t under ownership by racists who claim no Africans are allowed, that isn’t a make-shift addict’s den, which isn’t chipped at the walls and in serious need of a clean and paint job – well, you damn well take it. Such is life here – things often take time to work out, and it’s sometimes good to take the long, winding road to what you want.