House Hunting in Hanoi

Part 1: You don’t know what you got ‘til you lose it.

I decided it was time for a change. So I got in contact with a few local real estate companies and let them know I was in the market for a new place. Over the phone they seemed helpful but not entirely interested. Then, I told them my budget and they became very accommodating.

This is the first time I’ve been on a “house hunt” in Vietnam. My current apartment had been prearranged for me by the company I work for. So, after I arrived here, I just showed up at the door, was given a key, and that was it. Until recently, I had never experienced the trials and tribulations of searching for a decent place in Hanoi, and until now I never fully appreciated my 100% foreign occupied, security controlled, fully serviced, West lake gem of an apartment.

Part 2: Why the change?

No matter where you live or what you do, almost all of us face the dreaded commute to and from the office every morning and evening. I work in the center of Hanoi and at the same time live about as far away from it as possible. Let’s just say I can easily contemplate an extensive stretch of rice paddies from the roof of my apartment building. My wife, too. We agreed that losing 90 minutes of our life each day to the chaos of Hanoi streets was no longer an acceptable use of our precious time; we would much rather spend it watching movies on HBO.

Part 3: I hear you, I’m just not listening.

It seems that the real estate agents I contact, whether through the phone or email, are never the same people I actually end up meeting. I only figure this out after I meet the agents in person and address them by the wrong names, and soon after realize that they have no idea what apartments I am interested in viewing, not to mention any of my preferences or specifications. I try to explain myself again, but to little avail. I am typically guided to a number of homes on a predetermined list jotted down in pencil on the back of a folded scrap of paper. Following my comments after viewing a site, the tour is adjusted and improvised accordingly. I also meet with a pair of agents as well, meaning one girl and one guy. The girl knows a sufficient amount of English, is friendly, and claims to understand exactly what I’m looking for. From what I’ve observed, it is the guy’s job to drive the motorbike, look bored, and occasionally complain to his colleague in Vietnamese. The issue I most often encounter is that, although the female member of the couple supposedly understands my requirements, she leads me to progressively worse homes as the tour continues on; apartments and houses that stray further and further from the standard. The kitchen appliances become older, the bedrooms smaller, and the roads leading to the buildings transform into streets and eventually shrink to alleyways lined with wilting vegetables. The initial apartment building we viewed contained an underground garage for cars and motorbikes. Shortly after, however, the garage was replaced by a driveway, then the driveway became …a living room.

Part 4: A Buyer’s Market.

With the global recession and recent crash in the real estate market, it has become increasingly difficult for owners to rent out their houses and apartments to tenants at a profit. If you have money and the ability to negotiate a little, you can get a great deal on a home right now. This is what is known as a “buyer’s market”. In California for instance, house prices are just reaching 2/3 of their former value and before that, many homes were mortgaged at half their original purchase price; a tough time for sellers and a very good time for buyers, or renters in this case. And that’s where I come in. The situation is actually not so different in Hanoi right now. Because there is an excess of apartments for rent, whether it be explained by the recession, the excessive speed of urban transformation in developing countries, or any other economic factor for that matter, the bottom line is that there are a lot of great options to choose from. So, why am I complaining so much that I can’t find a decent place? Because the truth is that I have indeed seen some apartments downtown that were remodeled beautifully; hardwood floors, new furniture, stainless steel appliances, marble bathrooms, many of which would be considered exceptional even by American standards. So then is it the price? It’s not the price either, because as I said before, I as a buyer have the power of negotiation in my hands, and many landlords will readily lower their monthly rent by several hundred dollars in return for a one year contract, as well as provide any additional furniture the tenant demands. Not bad.

Part 5: “Location, Location, Location.”

There’s a saying in America related to the success or failure of a piece of real estate, no matter what you choose to build on it: “Location, location, location”. That’s it. That’s my problem. I would go so far as to say that the unfortunate location of some of these beautiful apartments is absolutely tragic. It’s easy to see that the owners have spent thousands of dollars remodeling their apartments in the hope that it would be enough to compensate for the noisy streets, dirty food stalls, massage parlours, and dilapidated houses that surround many of these properties. While the interior of a home can be completely changed, the location of that home cannot be moved an inch. 
Time and time again I regretfully inform my well meaning female salespersons, “you know, I actually really love this apartment, but again, it’s the location..I just can’t consider this one as an option.” or “if this house was over there, (pointing to a beautiful park, embassy, or other picturesque plot of land that it could never possibly be relocated to) then I’d definitely choose it,..but it’s not (shrugging shoulders).” The girl smiles sympathetically. The guy stares down at his shoes and sighs, for he understands just enough English to know that this foreigner is not satisfied, and perhaps may never be satisfied.

Part 6: Castles in the Air.

I remember giving one of the real estate agents the following piece of advice; “just imagine a house or apartment from West Lake district; spacious, clean, secure, surrounded by friendly people, a small park for kids…and you move that home as close to the center of the city as you possibly can. That’s what I want.” I tell them to help me because I don’t know Hanoi very well, and maybe there are some neighborhoods like this that I have not yet been introduced to. But to be honest, for the nearly two years I’ve lived in Hanoi, I have never seen a place that even comes close to what I am searching for now. Maybe I’m just chasing after castles in the air, for deep down I know that there is only one West Lake district. The center of the city is another world all its own, and by nature these two ways of life cannot coexist.

Part 7: Reason for Hope, Reason for Disappointment.

I’ve recently heard news of a new Western style housing development under construction on the other side of the Red River. So far, the Ciputra International City has been the pioneer of extensively planned self-sufficient residential communities in Hanoi, but the Vincom Corporation, most well known for its Vincom Towers Mall downtown, has a few ideas of its own. In Long Bien district, a largely undeveloped tract of land is scheduled to become Hanoi’s new suburbia. Yes, with sidewalks and everything; a luxury many Hanoians have yet to experience. Not only sidewalks, of course, but gridded streets, parks, a shopping center, schools and even a hospital. Rumour has it that this community will reach fruition by the end of the year, but knowing how things often go (awry) in Vietnam, it will most likely take a little, or a lot longer than expected. I try not to put my hopes on this potential new home of mine, and continue to dedicate my lunch breaks to motorbike tours around Hanoi. I’ve received the benefit of learning much more about the city through these recent excursions, but ironically, the more I learn the more disappointed I become. I hope that in the future, the “location, location, location” of these beautiful new apartments that are popping up throughout Hanoi can attract rather than deter foreign professionals like myself from enjoying the ever evolving, ever colorful capital of Vietnam. This will not only increase the convenience of everyday life for expatriates but, more importantly  will serve as a valuable way for the foreign community as a whole to establish  a closer relationship with their Vietnamese neighbors. Within the urban development taking place in major cities throughout Vietnam, there is both reason for hope and reason for disappointment. I hope that in the near future it is the former we are celebrating rather than the latter we are lamenting. 
Either way, I’m still optimistically on the lookout for my castle in the air. 

-Zac Herman 


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