Mr. Thu always knocks. Even though this is his house, and even though he has a key, he never barges in. He greets us with a cheerful “Xin chao!”, before tottering into the kitchen to fix the stove, or change a light bulb. Sometimes he fixes things we didn’t even know were broken. But he always knows what’s wrong, because this is the house where he grew up.
He’s been renting his family home on Lane 31 to foreigners since 2004. His mother lives next door. She divided the house between him and his brother, who lives on the other side; the neighbourhood butcher, we hear him chopping meat in the mornings, amid the chatter of the vegetable market that fills the alley every day.
Just a block away is Quang An, part of the road that now encircles West Lake. Finished in 2010, it’s now a waterfront strip of Western eateries like Don’s and The Republic, but Mr. Thu remembers the gardens that used to stretch out behind the houses lucky enough to sit on the lake. He remembers the farmers who grew flowers, the fishermen, called danh xiec, a slang term that likened them to circus performers, and the craftsmen who made silk to sell at the market.
“The locals lived in mud cottages, but had a big yard to plant trees or vegetables,” he recalls. “After 1988 or 1989, foreigners started moving to this area, and housing prices went up. The rich bought lots of land here.”
I am one of many foreigners that have lived in Mr. Thu’s house. Before me, there was a German architect, a Thai technician, and many English teachers. He tells me all of this as I pay rent in our living room on a Monday night, his daughter, Huyen, translating for us. His family used to be one of the poorest in the neighbourhood, he says, but now they are doing well.
Not all of Tay Ho’s original residents have been as fortunate. Many gave up their homes and moved away. Mr. Thu estimates that about 40 percent of the people who live here are locals; the rest have moved in from other parts of the city — and the world — over the past decade.
“We wanted to get out where there was some fresh air,” says Pia Husted, a Swedish business owner who runs the children’s clothing line Copenhagen Delights with her husband, Soren, at 55 Xuan Dieu.
Just out the window, cranes are building a high-rise full of serviced apartments on the corner of Tay Ho Street. But when the couple first arrived 16 years ago, there were no apartments at all. Xuan Dieu was a one-lane street, and the only road to the airport went through a rural village.
“We were driving from the bridge towards Tay Ho and it was gardens, no houses, no streetlights, totally dark,” Pia remembers.
“There was not even a restaurant here, not even a minimarket,” says Soren. “When we had to go shopping, we went to L’s place in Daewoo. The only place we sometimes went out to was the Dragon Hotel, otherwise there were no restaurants until 2003.”
That’s when Don Berger left his job as executive chef at the Press Club to open Vine on Xuan Dieu. “I found a little place for US$700 [VND15.4 million] a month to rent, set up a kitchen, set up a dining room, and it took off. Westerners who lived out here, they had nothing. I was the only one,” he says.
“Vine was a sensation. It was the restaurant. You could go down and get a glass of wine, there was a bar, and they served decent food,” Pia remembers.
A Seismic Shift
In 2009, Don left Vine to open a restaurant of his own name on Quang An. “When I moved here, it was before the road [around the lake] was finished. They worked on it for five years, and they had to fight with each and every one of the landlords. They didn’t want to give up the space, but as soon as they did, their property value went up by three times.” Since then, prices have skyrocketed again.
“I can only swear when I think about how expensive it is now, because I really wanted to buy one, but there’s no way I can afford it. This house is now worth US$4 million,” he laments of the lakefront building that houses his restaurant, Don’s. He points across the lake to a tall white building on the other side. “That’s about a US$20 million house. Prices have gone crazy.”
“I still remember, we had some friends who stayed on Lane 31, where you have Don’s now. They had the most beautiful garden. Whenever people had some rubbish, they threw it in the lake and extended the land further. Everything went in, so the gardens would get bigger,” says Pia. “And then when the road came, the whole garden was just chopped off.”
“It was just the gardens that were taken around here, but on the other side, near the Intercontinental, they had to take down the houses,” Soren recalls.
It’s hard to say what happened to those that were displaced, but many of Tay Ho’s original residents have been quick to adapt to these fortuitous shifts in the market. Mr. Thu rents his own small place around the corner from his house, so he can cash in on the opportunities that foreigners like us have brought to the neighbourhood. His family home must be worth millions now, so I ask him why he hasn’t sold it off.
“This is my dad’s house. I don’t want to sell this land. My childhood is here,” he says.
Everyone’s a Winner
On a Wednesday afternoon, I hear the gate creak open. It’s Mr. Thu and his three-year-old granddaughter, who he’s nicknamed Sushi. They wave hello in the courtyard, and he gives her the hose and shows her how to water the plants.
My housemate pulls up in her smart teaching clothes on the Honda Dream that she rents from Mr. Thu, and he gives her a thumbs-up to ask how it’s running. She smiles and nods that yes, it’s good, and scoops Sushi up in a bear hug.
They turn to go, and Mr. Thu points up at the lights in our living room. “Tomorrow,” he says. “The electricity is due.” “Cam on, anh!” we smile, and lock the gate behind them.