House Hunters International Hoi An Edition

posted by Katie on Sep 9, 2019

On July 1st, we finally made the transition from hotel vagrant to home dweller.

The process of getting a long-term house rental here in Hoi An, in the early summer months, during an unprecedented heatwave (oh, did you know it’s hot here?), sweating (obviously and always) with a toddler who wouldn’t stop saying how much she missed “the blue house” back in San Francisco, was a new and spectacular form of torture.

The first house we looked at hit all the marks: a separate guest cottage in back. A small swimming pool(!) in front. An expansive kitchen with beautiful vintage Vietnamese tiles on the staircase leading up to the two bedrooms on the second floor. All of this for around 1000 USD. I was ecstatic. See, I wanted to gloat to Matt. I told you we’d find a house easy.

I was about to say, “We’ll take it,” when the tenants—a foreign teaching couple and their waddling 2 year-old—began describing their experience with dengue this past winter.

Both husband and wife had been hospitalized for a week. The husband dismissed it as no big deal. But then I noticed the dark circles underneath his eyes. His dangling, stick-thin limbs. The tiny pouch of stomach protruding through his oversized tank-top. The moment I heard “dengue,” this once healthy American male transformed into a malnourished third world child before my eyes.

The same happened with the wife. What looked like pale skin at first now appeared sallow and waxy. Her limbs, too, seemed to flail aimlessly off her body. She spoke slowly and deliberately. Was she always like this, or did Dengue deteriorate some of her language capabilities?

I looked around the room and noticed how dark the interior was. The windows were open, but the outside foliage shaded much of the natural light. Above the dining room table dangled three barely-lit light bulbs. My foot started to itch. Matt scratched his ankle. And oh my god. The swimming pool! I now saw its real purpose. Surrounded by big leafy trees, it stayed shaded from the bright afternoon sun. Perfect for mosquito family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and other large-group gatherings.

In an effort to put the disappointment of the Dengue Den behind us, we went to look at house number two. This one was introduced to us by Hoi An’s one and only housing rental company for foreigners. Their total and complete monopoly on the market means they do not respond to emails, desperate text messages, or even begging and pleading in person. Communism is funny like that.

It took multiple requests before a tiny teenage tot of a worker showed us a house down a construction-laden lane. It was the last on a dead-end alley, surrounded by piles of rubble and bricks. It had a pool, but it also had a floor-to-ceiling photo of a waterfall in the living room. A glittering crystal chandelier in the dining room. White tile floors. Mirrored walls. Dark leather sofas. Glass-topped surfaces. A lingering aroma of cigarettes and sweat. If I were a Russian hitman hiding out in Fort Lauderdale, circa 1986, I wouldn’t have hesitated like I did.

“What do you think?” the real estate agent said.

“What else can we see?” Matt said.

“Nothing else.”

“What is wrong with you people?!? Why can’t you help us spend our American dollars on you?” is what I wanted to shout at her small freckled face. Instead, we biked back to our hotel, sweating, worrying, and waiting for the rental company to never respond.

~ ~ ~

“Where’s home?” Remy asked a few days ago. We were biking past the green expanse of rice paddies on our way back from dinner. From my experience of translating three-year old logic, I understood she meant, How far are we from home? But even so, the question stayed with me.

Our home—house number three—is one we found by a chance conversation with a fellow parent at school. It was mid-June at this point. We were living in hotel #3. A friendly-looking father was picking up his daughter at the same time I was. We started talking. He told me he and his family had moved to Hoi An from Brooklyn a year ago. They were moving to Ireland at the end of June. “Can I have your home?” I said as calmly as one should.

It’s nice. It’s big. It will fit all of you and more for my 40th birthday dance party next July. There is no pool. Instead, there is a lime-colored shrimp estuary in the backyard. There is a banana tree in front, with no bananas, but the biggest single leaves I will likely ever encounter in a front yard in my lifetime. Leaves of a lifetime.

It is our home in Hoi An. But still. Remy’s question lingers. Where’s home?

We left San Francisco because it started to feel less and less like home. Friends and family were leaving. Or if they hadn’t gone yet, they were talking like they wanted to. We left San Francisco because the city, and the country, has taken a dark turn. And with a young child, it felt like the right time to enjoy some light in the world.

Vietnam was once my parents’ home. Then, Vietnam took a dark turn. My family fled the country as refugees. I grew up in Minnesota listening to my parents’ homesick stories. In my child’s mind, Vietnam was a mythical place, where the language sounds like singing, the fruit looks like colorful Dr. Seuss creatures and have names like “Chom-chom” or “Du-du,” and where you can wear pajamas all day long.

This is my third time living in Vietnam. I think I keep coming back in search of that starry-eyed home of my parents’ memory. A place that likely never existed how they remembered.

Matt and I have started playing the game, “Where should we move after Hoi An?”
Back to San Francisco? One of us begins.
Hmm. Where else? The other says.
Berlin?
Germany? Ich don’t think so.
Not Hong Kong. Not these days.
Bangkok?
Melbourne?
Minneapolis?
Back to San Francisco?
Hmmm. Where else?

Neither of us knows. Meanwhile Remy asks “Where’s home?” and I don’t have enough conviction in my voice when I tell her it’s right here, in Hoi An.

I keep thinking back to the last conversation we had with the couple who lived here before us–the ones who moved to Ireland. “Just you wait,” Joanne, the wife, said to me. She had curly hair and shiny blue eyes that always looked like they were on the brink of tears. She worked for children’s rights in the developing world. No wonder her eyes permanently looked like that. “You’re going to be here a year from now, just like us, and you’re going to be sad to leave. This was our home. I’m going to miss it.”

I miss the blue house back in San Francisco. I miss you—the friends and family we left behind. But I know, just like teary-eyed Joanne says, I will one day miss this banana-leaf home in Hoi An too. Does missing a place make it home? I am starting to think so.