07 April 2008

Time To Leave

I have been in Vietnam for two years and eight months. Generally, two years in any one place, or at any one job, is my limit. For various reasons, I seem to have overstayed my allotted time here. I had already made the decision to go, but these past few months, and especially this past week, have cemented my resolve. I still like the country, and like the people, and love the weather, but it is time to leave.

Before I ever rented an apartment, I had been warned about sleazy landlords; that they could kick you out whenever they wanted, and to just assume that your two month deposit was a contribution to their private bank account as you would never again see it. But I lucked out with owners who were wonderful. They fixed any problem, didn’t raise the rent, and left me to be the excellent tenet that I am.

Then, in December, the owner called me to tell me that she was selling the apartment. I totally freaked. This had happened to so many of my colleagues. It generally meant that you would have to move in a few weeks so that the new owner could move in. Or equally as bad, if not worse, is that you could stay but that your rent might double. I was still paying the same as I had for two years but knew that the apartments in the area where I live were now at least $250 more than I was presently paying. This was not good.

Within 24 hours I had people knocking at my door claiming to be real estate agents wanting to take pictures of my place. One guy even said he was the owner’s son, which I knew he wasn’t. A day later a couple who had lived in the penthouse above me, and who I had met before, knocked at my door.

Kelly, Vietnamese and seven months pregnant, stood next to her British boyfriend, Dan, a hulking 6’2” twenty-something. She told me that they had just put down a deposit on my apartment and could they see it. I balked but then Kelly assured me that they didn’t want me to move out, that they were happy to keep me as a tenant. So I let them in and gave them a tour.

The next day I heard from my landlord who confirmed that Kelly was buying the apartment but that she, (original owner), had made an agreement that whoever bought the apartment would have to honor my contract which ended in September, 2008. I knew I was going in June, so told the owner that I could be out of the apartment by June 15th.

Sometime towards the end of January, when all the sales papers had been finalized, there was the final turnover of contracts and February’s rent to the new owner. We all met at my apartment.

While Kelly and my old landlord were discussing things in Vietnamese, Dan turned to me and said that I would need to leave “a bit earlier” which would be April 15th. I said that he couldn’t do that. To which he said he “could do whatever” he wanted and if he wanted me out, he would get me out. I quickly interrupted the women and repeated what Dan had told me. The old landlord said that if Kelly and Dan broke the contract, they would have to pay me my deposit plus two months rent, a substantial amount. We all agreed to keep the June date.

Since I would be going to the US in a week, where I would stay for a month, I explained this to all in the room. I also said that a friend would be staying in the apartment for the entire month. She actually would be staying only ten days, but at this point I had begun to become very mistrusting of the new owners. We ended the conversation with assurances that I would leave a set of keys with the new owners before I left. (I changed the lock the next day and left them with the old keys, which is perfectly legal.) (and they did try to break in when I was gone.)

While in the US, my friend who was staying at my place was constantly harassed by Dan. He would call and knock at the door demanding to know what she was doing there, swearing that I had told him nothing. He further told her that the police might come around and she needed to give him money so that he could do the paperwork necessary for her to stay there. (No, none of that was true.) No money was handed over.

An hour after I returned from overseas, my phone rang. It was Dan, wanting to know if I would agree to leave in April. I explained that I had just arrived from an arduous trip and that I would call him later. His excuse was that he thought I had returned the previous week, even though I had written the dates down for him.

I talked to him the next day saying that my plans had changed and that I was leaving at the end of April. I then asked that my two month deposit be used for March and April’s rent. He said he needed to “check the contract”.

Over the next week I got one text message after another saying that they had prospective buyers coming to see the apartment. It had become evident that they had bought the place to flip it, since prices were going up at about $15,000 a month. But the clients kept canceling, and I had to keep rearranging my schedule. One of the messages said that they had agreed to use the deposit for the last two months rent.

One evening I got a call from Kelly asking if she could come over in ten minutes to talk to me. (They lived in another apartment complex a block from mine). She came in, sat down, and spent an hour telling me her life story.

She had been from a poor family and had worked in an upscale hotel starting at the age of 16. There, she had met a well-to-do, older, Taiwanese businessman and married him when she turned 18. By 19 she had one child, and another followed two years later. Eventually, they split, she was left with the penthouse, and her kids now lived with her mother in an expensive apartment she had bought just down the road. Dan had rented a room from her while she still was living in the penthouse. He had come to Vietnam to work in “investments” although he had no university degree or much other training. One thing lead to another, she got knocked up, and now he was helping her to buy and sell properties in an attempt to take advantage of the skyrocketing prices.

She said the reason she was talking to me was to apologize for all the hassles that Dan had caused. She didn’t trust him and was sure he was after her money. She told me how he was pressuring her to marry him which would give him 50% of her assets. She made me swear I would never talk to Dan again or give him any money; that she was the owner. She told me that there would be no problem with the rent and that my deposit would be used for March and April. I only needed to give her enough to cover the final bills. Just before she left, she asked if she could take the bed I use as a living room sofa. She said they needed a second bed in their apartment because the baby was due in two weeks. I said I would get back to her.

The next day, March 11th I got a text message asking if they could come over to get the bed. I replied saying no, that I needed it. That was followed by a text message saying that since I would not give up the bed, I would now have to pay the rent for March. (Remember, we had already agreed that the deposit would cover the rent.) I then called and when Dan answered I told him he was being unreasonable. He proceeded to scream and yell at me saying since I hadn’t “helped them out”, the rent was due. I hung up. I then got a text message saying that they were canceling the contract.

I called the real estate agent who had originally rented me my apartment and told her what was happening. She said not to worry, that she would handle it. The next week went by with no further harassments and I was really enjoying life.

Last Saturday, at 11am, the power went off. After thirty minutes I decided to check with the neighbors and saw that they had power. I immediately knew what had happened; the sleazy landlords had cut my utilities. They cut water, electric, internet and long distance phone calls. The water was easy enough to handle. I simply walked out into the hall and turned the water main back on. The electricity was not so easy. I spent hours calling the electric company and the previous owner and the real estate agent. While at the realtors, Dan showed up, yelling at me that I had broken the contract and I needed to get out. At 7pm that night he showed up at my door saying I could either vacate in two hours or pay him $800 by the next morning. If not, he would physically break down the door and throw me and my belongings on to the street.

I had been calling all my friends for suggestions on what to do. One of them had a list of lawyers supplied by the Australian Embassy. I got the list and, at 8PM, called the first lawyer. He said he would be at my place the following morning, Sunday, at nine. I also talked to the president of the owners association in my building. He said it was illegal to throw me out and that the police would be there the following morning. Another friend said she would be my moral back-up.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. This is the hottest time of the year. I can live with out air conditioning, but not without a fan in a stagnant air, 100 degree apartment.

My friend arrived at 8, and at 9:00, Dan arrived. Using the security chain, I opened the door to tell him he was not coming in until my lawyer and the police arrived. He then stood in the hall and made phone calls saying he “was about to kick down the door.” He disappeared about the time the lawyer arrived. (apparently the police were never called by building security, because they never showed.)

Although I had all the text messages that had agreed to letting me use the deposit for the last two months rent, I didn’t have it in writing. My stupidity. I had become complacent after all that time with honest landlords. The lawyer spent the next two hours calling Kelly, who would agree to something and then say, “Let me call you back.” She was obviously conferring with Dan, as she would call back and say something like I needed to give them $700. At this point, I just wanted to get the hell out, but I most certainly couldn’t pack all my belongings in a few hours, and could not work without electricity. The refrigerator had really begun to smell. The final agreement was to meet the next day at 3PM. It was also agreed that Dan could not be there since he was not the owner. And I found out that Kelly’s mother, not Kelly was the real owner.

All went well at the meeting. The mom was very sweet and agreed to turn on everything as soon as she left. She agreed to return the rest of my deposit, and agreed to give me until Sunday to move. I was relieved until it got to be about 4:30 and I still had no power. Calls to lawyer and power company came back with the fact that no one had called to re-establish power. There was some BS story that it would be on my noon the next day. So one more god-awful day in the apartment.

It was not turned on the next morning, and all parties, Kelly and her mom and brother, refused to answer the phone. This was four days with no power and I knew they were not going to comply with our signed agreement. I went to the power company with the signed paper. They were horrified, as was every other person I had told this too. They said they would have it on by the afternoon, even if the owners continued to not answer their phone.

The electricity got re-connected at 4PM, but I never did get the internet. And as far as the owners are concerned, I never got water. I spent that night, Tuesday, and the following two days packing. Friday morning I moved my things to a hotel two blocks away.

I have a lovely room with a balcony and open space in front of me. Since it is on the main drag, it is a bit noisier than what I am used to, but better than being in town. Also worrisome is that the building does an earthquake rock and roll every time a big truck rumbles by. I figure since I am in the 5th floor, if it collapses, I might have a chance.

So my plan for a peaceful last six weeks in Vietnam did not quite turn out as expected. There are a lot more details to the story, but it gets tiresome to listen. It all seems so unnecessary. Everyone keeps saying, “But they can’t do that!” The fact it that they can and they did. Maybe if I had lots of money I would take them to court, but I don’t. The expense of lost deposit, hotel cost, and lawyer fees adds up to about $1000. I can’t afford anything else, either financially or emotionally. I would really love to hire some gang bangers to pound on Dan, but that would be stooping to his level and might seriously mess with my karma. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that he will get his in the end, and it will come from some source not related to me or my situation.

I think I am close to being in a relaxed state. I still have to try and get my deposit back from the owner. There is little hope of that, even though I have a legal document, but I’ll give it a go at the end of the week.