It was 2002.
My friend and I just wanted to rent a house.
We figured it’d be a straightforward affair.
But the real estate agent, a French expat, wasn’t convinced.
Convinced by us, that is.
We weren’t exactly fresh off the boat in Hanoi.
I mean, my housemate and I.
We knew the drill.
An agent gives you a tour of houses, frequently and generously referred to as villas that have been carefully or not so carefully chosen according to your budget and preference for location (“Didn’t I say ‘no to places near the Daewoo’?”, “Yes, but this is a very beautiful villa…”)
Now, we weren’t quite bottom-of-the-barrel clients.
We were the next level up though.
That’s probably why we weren’t ushered into the still-plush-enough French period villa, where the expat-run agency operated.
Instead we were invited to enter an adjacent room, a room with no air-con, and very basic furniture — a desk, a set of chairs, and… nothing else.
It was more local People’s Committee in its aesthetic, if you know what I mean.
That didn’t bother us.
We knew we weren’t to be getting the UN-salary treatment.
All we wanted to do was rent a house for the princely sum of $400 ($450 tops).
As I already said, this would be a straightforward affair in our minds.
But the agent, well, he needed assurances.
Did we know how to live in Hanoi?
I mean, he didn’t say that exactly.
What did he say?
I think we thought he was just making small talk at first. Killing time while his assistant fetched a printout of our shortlisted houses so our tour of the city could begin.
The agency’s reputation was always a concern for him, I remember him telling us — he also mentioned his commission-based salary as if he were going out on a limb for the likes of us.
Without saying anything to each other, my friend and I had the same thought.
“Are we being screened?”
And we kinda were.
We were also to be schooled.
You see, renting a hypothetical Hanoi house in a hypothetical Hanoi neighbourhood, where a proud, if imagined community, awaited us was not a straightforward affair.
Not in the eyes of the agent anyway.
Sure, we wouldn’t be able to blend in, but we had to make an effort to coexist.
Like a theatre director talking to a pair of amateur thesps, he explained how we’d play the role while miming certain actions for emphasis.
We’d have to smoke cigarettes and imitate local facial expressions at the nearest tea and pipe stand to our hypothetical hosue.
There we’d befriend the anh and chú (brothers and uncles) with small talk.
We’d walk the hypothetical laneways and greet the ông and bà (granddads and grandmothers) with polite hullos.
We’d breakfast at the nearest phở place and compliment the cô (aunty) on her cooking.
Generally, we’d respect the local culture and frequent the local businesses.
I can’t remember what we said to all of this.
Thinking back now, I wish one of us had said, “So what I think you’re saying is we shouldn’t move in to this hypothetical neighbourhood and behave like a pair of unfriendly arseholes?”
But we probably just nodded our heads, and said, “sure, sure” until the agent appeared satisfied that he had fulfilled his duty by informing us of our social contract and obligations as foreign renters.
After that I guess his Vietnamese colleague must have arrived with the shortlist and the tour began. (“Um, Thuy/ Tuan, are we driving to the Daewoo?”).
If memory serves, later in the same week my housemate — channeling his inner Del Boy (he was from a town nearish London )— ended up revisiting one of the houses we were shown that day to get a better deal.
He also asked the landlord to move his house altar from the top floor of their adjacent-but-connected house, so he could sleep right beside a large rooftop terrace — this also enabled us to sublet the extra bedroom to seven different people in a year, never telling anyone it was the noisiest room in Hanoi.
I know, for all of the above: what a pair of arseholes.
But it all turned out to be pretty straightforward.
That was the main thing.