A Home Fit for a Saigonese King

I used to have a little home of my own. It was a tiny slice of urban paradise in the depths of Saigon’s District 3 . I’d often lay back in my rooftop hammock and giggle at the life around the tiny 1.9 x 4 metre footprint on which I relaxed.

Was my home fit for a king? As long as he had few possessions, a trim waist, a detest of luxuries, sure!

MY queen and I found ourselves riding countless wards of Saigon’s inner districts for months on end, searching for the perfect house. It had to be small, but not too small and preferably two or three bedrooms so I could share with some other expats. A good place in Saigon is difficult and more of a gamble than back home. Who knows what the landlady would be like after you settled in. The neighbours, of whom you share your immediate space with, could be rowdy. Crime may be an issue and the area might have frequent break-ins.

The landlady of the house I eventually found turned out to be amazingly kind. She lived next door ran a small shop from her place, which had been divided for my accommodation. I would often pop next door for yoghurt, beer, snacks or all of the above. She lived alone with her teenage son and daughter and turned out to be an amazingly kind lady and even though we couldn’t say much to each other we enjoyed living beside one another and had developed a strong mutual trust by the time I left.

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The footprint of the house was ludicrously tiny, even for Vietnamese standards. There was no chance of sharing this place. I was lucky that the house was  four stories high but with a garage of about 4 square metres I wouldn’t be able to start my plan of a part-time job of repairing and selling used motorbikes. With only two bikes squeezed into the downstairs garage, you couldn’t get from the front door to the toilet without crawling across the pillion seat.

Although the house had four floors, there were no internal doors. After moving in, i’d set up the second floor as a living room where I’d spend most of my time and the warmer third floor had a cool breeze at night so I set up a bed there. It was such a quiet and peaceful area at night. I always had a great sleep.

The icing on the cake was the rooftop. After moving in the first gift I received was a small cactus from a friend who was visiting from Australia. I’d put up a shade-cloth roof on the preexisting frame, bought a few more plants and hooked up a comfy hammock. There was also a decent vine up there that was doing quite well but sadly left this world within two months of the 2015 dry season. RIP.

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The rooftop was off limits during the middle of the day (unless I wanted to roast myself like a hog) but I drank many morning coffees there and would spend countless evenings watching planes take-off from Tan Son Nhat Airport. After trying in vain to count the hundreds of small bats chasing insects above my house, I would sit up there at night editing photos, watching a movie or just chatting up there with the girly or a few mates.

The three internal flights of stairs made it frustrating if you forgot something on another floor. Not only were they steep, they were also narrow – I don’t think the builders envisioned a burly ninety kilo, six foot tall westerner scurrying up and down them! I had to duck my head and hold my shoulders in on all flights. My shower was on the ground floor but I kept my clothes two floors up in my bedroom. They never usually got back up there after I took them off and were usually left hanging on hooks next to my motorbike for days.

It was a very secure house but it came with a payoff. I was always uncertain if I could handle the drunkards long term – this is the reason I didn’t buy any real furniture, install air con or set-up the house nicely.

Not only was the shop open everyday from six in the morn till eleven at night but I also had at least half a dozen ‘security guards’ sitting outside my front door. The small shop provided a constant supply of cold beer to a large group of local and unemployed alcoholics. The small alley gave them ample respite from the passing sun. Some of them were nice, genuine guys and while the others weren’t necessarily bad, they would regularly yell, swear, gamble and fight between themselves. Some evenings I’d be greeted by a semi-dead body in front of my front concertina door. The next day, I’d be woken by wafts of cigarette smoke creeping their way up towards my room.

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Two ‘regulars’ at my house

New drinkers would swing by, stay for a week or two and then disappear after a quarrel, never to be seen again. There was also the odd floosie who would hang out with the men, desperately lapping all their attention. These women like to scream out loud so they are heard by all.

I didn’t mind it at first and I learnt a lot about a certain demographic that I’d rarely get to spend time or want to be with. Although I understood the swearing, Tien always used to tell me how lucky I was not to be able to hear what else the guys were talking about. I would often share small words with them in passing but most of them were trying to hard to be ‘the-one-who-befriended-the-foreigner”. Their curious eyes eventually became too curious for me though I’m still grateful for the testing of my patience. I learnt a lot and opened my own eyes to a few personal shortcomings.

DSC03518I experienced living in a compact space, and learned about sharing my immediate world with others that I like and others I don’t. I could see how they’d destroyed the functionality of the neighbourhood and continued to make the life for families harder than it needed to be. The almost constant daytime presence of these guys became too much. After living there for eight months in the seemingly shrinking house, I moved out.

Murphy’s Law came to show off three days before I moved out. Early one morning the police turned up and told them all to move on and drink somewhere else. ‘Never return!’ was the demand I heard. Someone must have complained (it it wasn’t me).

Sooner or later I’m sure another group of chaps will wander down that same alley and take their place on the same plastic pews, continuing the cycle of stubborn self medication.

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