You meet the landlord and he or she is all smiles, agreeing to purchase some new appliances, buy some nice(r), comfier couches and hook up the cable TV with BBC and TLC. Everything seems fine, but then, just when you are settling in to your new place and discovering the best places to eat in the hood, it strikes. The curse. The curse of the crazy landlord. Crazy as in weirdo, watch you sleep at night, extort you of all your money, make you think you're the nuts one, crazy.
All expats who have lived here for at least a couple of years and in various locations around the city know the curse of the crazy landlord and also know that it is unavoidable. It is like a rite of passage. Like the Xhosa circumcision rite, just more painful and enduring. While not all landlords are crazy – my current landlord is wonderful – somewhere along the line there is always THE ONE you will never forget. The mere mention of his name makes you utter inane profanities under your breath and make little stabbing motions with your pen. And I use "him" loosely here - just as often it's a "she". A she-devil. You identify these malevolent landlords and ladies (such ironic terms!) by their malignant actions. They are the ones that you tell your friends back home about and they refuse to believe the stories. Like when you tell them you saw the tokoloshe under your bed last night.They're all scoffs and sniggles as their cognitive dissonance kicks in.
My "one" was Mr Hiep*. At first, he was lovely - a middle-aged ex-pilot for the air force. When we moved in, he bought a new water cooler and hooked up the ADSL internet just as we had asked. He even bought me a miniature MIG fighter plane made from recycled bomb metal and offered me a pack of Camel cigarettes: "From Mỹ (America)," he assured me.
Mr Hiep lived behind our house with his family, which was fine at first, but this was also where the trouble started. It meant he had a key for our backdoor, which, in turn, meant that he would drop by unexpectedly at unforeseen hours of the day. His favourite time to drop by for a “chat” was 6:30 am on a Saturday morning, while I was inevitably still sleeping after a late Friday night out. I’d wake up from the smell of cigarette smoke (even though we didn’t allow smoking in the house, Mr Hiep always chain-smoked his way through all the rooms). I’d rub my eyes and he’d be watching me as I woke up – no knocking on the bedroom door either – just...kind of...watching with his red, beady, droopy eyes, like two pomegranate seeds stuck in a melting Dali clock. Other times he'd pop by around 10-11pm. He had this crazy landlord sixth sense that told him when the worst and most inappropriate time to visit was – and that’s when he would appear!
Sometimes he’d also bring his children – and I’m sure he did this just to torture me. Before I knew it, there'd be little hyperactive sugar-fueled balls of destruction whizzing through the house screaming and going through all my possessions. Sometimes he would come over with a few beers, which he drank most of himself, or some food that I'm sure he knew I wouldn't really eat, like durian, moon cakes or nem chua, which he ate most of himself, and told us stories about the war. The drunker he got the worse his bad English got.
"Fly to Cambodia," he'd recall, toking on a Camel. "Weather, no good."
"Drop maaany many bomb."
I started barricading the backdoor, but somehow he'd always find a way in. One time, when I when we came back from a holiday, Mr Hiep had decided to paint the inside of our house a very disturbing peachy salmon, without asking us. He'd also taken it upon himself to install an expensive and extremely garish water feature in the house, which made smoke come out of a fountain when you turned it on, and had a ball rolling in the smoke and water with disco lights shining everywhere. I could handle this seriously Western decor faux pas (yet what was probably the height of fashion in Tan Binh, Ward 7 at that time); however, what got me was Mr Hiep then decided that we needed to pay for all of it because he had done us the favour of painting the place and installing the smoking water contraption! He also decided to increase our rent by $100 because our house now had “added value”!
One day, I asked Mr Hiep to send someone to clean the air conditioners, I got home to find him sucking on the air-con exhaust pipe, spitting out the dirty water into a bucket.
The last straw was when my housemate and I started noticing our utilities bills going up every month, even though we didn’t use more electricity or water. It took me a while to investigate, but I finally solved the mystery. Mr Hiep had plugged in his very large aquarium into our power plugs in the backyard. Not only that, but he’d also plugged in his washing machine to use our electricity and water!
We decided to move out to a more honest/sane place. When we told Mr Hiep, he couldn’t understand why, but immediately started showing possible tenants through the house, again at the worse times! I’d be lying in bed on Sunday morning when suddenly and unannounced four people would poke their heads around the corner and start walking through my bedroom and bathroom, expecting the place, poking their head into my closet, turning the shower on to check the water pressure, and such antics.
I guarantee you that if you ask any foreigner living here, all of them would have a story of a crazy landlord. It’s one of those things which makes living here in Vietnam so random and unexpected and one of the reasons I love it so much, even though it is infuriating at the time. We all need our Mr Hiep story.
*This is not his real name for privacy purposes. I also don't want him to hunt me down and find myself waking up in a bathtub full of ice sans three toes and a kidney.
Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn