It’s been said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes, though in Vietnam it appears that only one of those things may hold true for some people. To these I would like to add a third - no matter who you are or where you live, you will eventually have to go through the process of moving house.
When someone is asked what they’re doing over the weekend and they reply they’re moving, it’s always said with a sigh and never with a smile. Packing your entire life into boxes and bags, all of which of course will subsequently have to be unpacked, is nobody’s idea of a good time, especially in the sweltering heat of a Vietnamese summer. Being expats and as such having a limited amount of luggage when arriving here, most of us shouldn’t have a ton of belongings but it seems that the longer the packing continues the bigger the pile of stuff becomes. A set of books you forgot you had gets stacked on top of a box of assorted kitchen equipment you never use and before you know it you have a mountain so high that you need to enlist a Sherpa to help you reach the top. It’s safe to say that it’s more likely for Hanoi to be hit by a snowstorm than it is to find someone who actually relishes the act of moving house.
Given how much of a pain in the neck the whole procedure is it’s unsurprising that some people will go to great lengths and put up with a lot just to avoid relocating to a new house or apartment. Loud, messy and inconsiderate housemates, mouldy walls, non-functioning appliances and overbearing landlords have all been deemed more tolerable by some of my friends than picking up sticks and finding a new place. While my threshold for what I’m willing to bear might be somewhat lower, I will still try to keep the amount of times I change where I live to an absolute minimum. For one thing, even before getting to the tedium of packing, you need to invest hours upon hours in searching for suitable properties online if you want to avoid ending up in an absolute dump.
There is no shortage of real estate agents in Hanoi and they all seem to have some sort of web presence, though some sites are certainly more operational than others. However, one practice that, despite in no way being unique to Vietnam, is definitely more prevalent here is the act of baiting and switching properties. Speaking from personal experience, the vast majority of the houses and apartments listed online have been rented already. It can be somewhat infuriating to email or call an estate agent with a list of ID numbers of places you would like to see in person only to find out that none of them are on the market and all that time spent on painstaking research was for nothing. This is only the beginning of the dance, as the estate agent will then send you links for properties that are currently unoccupied, no doubt all of which you have already looked at on the website and rejected, before asking you the three key questions: which area, how many bedrooms, and what’s the budget. A meeting will then be arranged where you will be shown a few properties that are yet to be uploaded to the site but you will be assured that they are all great and fit your needs. This is something akin to being set up for a blind date by a friend. They tell you that this person is attractive, intelligent, has a good sense of humour and that you’d be a perfect match for each other. The extent to which these things are true probably depends on how close a friend they are but if they proceed to set you up with an unattractive, dim-witted bore with whom you have absolutely nothing in common it’s unlikely they will remain your friend for much longer.
The same goes for an estate agent, albeit motivated by the prospect of a commission as opposed to a friendship, who can only show prospective clients so many dark, dingy hovels before they begin to look for help elsewhere. There are no fees for engaging an estate agent to help you, as the commission comes from the landlord, so it’s clearly in their best interests to try and show you a place that you find agreeable enough. A word of warning though - if you’re using several housing companies make sure that you ask for exact addresses before being shown a place or, like me, you might end up being taken to the same exact house on multiple occasions, much to the confusion of the owner. When you finally do find a new place to lay your head at night, be prepared to be gawked at by the entire neighbourhood as you unload your life from the rental van, especially if you are moving into a lane in a traditionally non-Western area. Being gazed upon as if you were a strange and wonderful creature while you are struggling with heavy boxes and unwieldy furniture is the final cherry on top of the sundae that makes moving house in Vietnam such a special treat. It should be said, however, that in some respects Vietnam does have an advantage over the West. For one thing, there is little to no cleaning required when vacating a property and landlords are fairly forthcoming with the return of deposits once all outstanding utility bills have been covered.
Despite this, moving house will continue to remain near the very bottom of my list of things I like doing, just below walking over hot coals and eating cat meat.