High-rise buildings along Nguyen Huu Tho Street in HCMC. (Photo: Thanh Hoa)

The 6 a.m. on a Sunday dragging-of-ass across Saigon to (fittingly) the Zoo, where hundreds of would-be land prospectors were waiting to be shepherded into a fleet of buses. We’d then be shuttled across this great city… Into the next one. Bien Hoa, the land of milk and honey on the other side of the Dong Nai River, home to the future international airport and various industrial parks.

The endless droning at volume 11 of a chipper female MC about the greatness of the Saigon Metro system, yet to be completed and visible for roughly half our commute outside the windows, was punctuated by a rotating cast of agents working the aisle, chatting us up to tell us more or less the same thing in a different voice. Nursing a hangover, it all just became a wall of sound, and I put my head on the chair in front of me, waiting for the ride to end. But once we got to the site, we were dropped directly into the shark tank.

Buckle up!

“How many square meters will you be buying today? These lots are further from the main road, so they’re X per square meter. These are right at Highway 1A, across from where the metro extension will end up. Of course it’s going to happen!” (Maybe in 2050.)

“And you’re within spitting distance of the new Long Thang International Airport, ready to whisk you throughout the region as the replacement for aging Tan Son Nhat in Tan Binh District.”

Agents and buyers rode the emotional roller coaster; from the innocent joy of singing karaoke on the bus (I won a clock) to the pressure-packed hard sell of land lots. Buy it before it’s gone! Agents sweating through their jackets, buyers trying to make sense of all the calculations and figures being thrown at them. A lounge singer in a white tux and his backup dancers gyrating away amidst the chaos. You could be forgiven if you thought you were in 1889 Oklahoma, only with motorbike giveaways and ATM machines.

Another observation, as a foreigner, is that the whole thing was LOUD. Too loud to think. Too loud to ask hard questions. Act and react. Grab the land before the next person does. Sign here and we’ll let you out of this crazy tent.

My wife My and I keep looking at ways to grow our earnings, and one way we’ve been doing that is in Vietnamese property. As a foreigner, I can only have my name on the books for a condo or dwelling; land isn’t open to outsiders for purchase in Vietnam. My wife, however, can do so, and we first got into the property game in Binh Duong three years ago. We also got a condo, largely because I figured I’d live here long enough to pay it off and paying rent all that time seemed kind of pointless.

There are other factors at play for me as well; my mother did quite well with property in Ottawa, something that wasn’t lost on me growing up. Also, having moved here from Toronto and subsequently Edmonton, property in Canada is spiraling to unaffordable levels. In a strange way, owning property is “real” wealth to me. Whatever we can hold in our hands or stand upon, that’s real. If I’m a citizen of this world, and there’s some lot somewhere that I own, I own a piece of the Earth. Not an imaginary currency or a share in a company whose goods I never buy; it’s tangible to me. It makes sense.

The condo market, from my point of view, is saturated in HCMC and is a bubble about to pop, whether analysts agree or not. Seemingly every week, a new development is shooting up. It takes 10 years to NOT complete the subway, but Vingroup’s Central Park development seemed to pop up in no time flat. And, as I said, foreign money is OK for condos, hence a pricing surge coming from all over the continent. Much ink has been devoted to the influx of outside money from Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul and points in between. If my wife and I, who between us make OK money in Vietnamese terms, consider most condos out of our price range and not worth a look, I can imagine we’re not the only ones thinking this way.

Land is still not really an option, so the prices are (marginally) more within reason. Will Saigon become the new Vancouver, with ghost condos eating up the downtown and locals pushed to the periphery of the city?

Battling buyers’ regret/money is time

My wife and I aren’t particularly flashy people. So there was a period last night where she agonized about this newest purchase and how it would affect our buying freedom for the next year or so. Having now sunk six figures (in dollars) into the property market in the last five years, I don’t think we can do much more.

This is owing to a number of factors, but mainly because our children will become a lot more expensive in four or five years. At that point, we’ll need to decide if we’re staying in this country (income will be a consideration) and shelling out big cash for international schooling, or returning to Canada where we can get it for free.

The act of undertaking a major purchase is also exhausting. We both view money as units of time and work, as in how long did we have to work to save this amount of money. Spending X amount sets us back a month of savings. Spending Y sets us back a year, and so on. To us, money is time, not so much the reverse.

In the end, we sat on the property for two years, awaiting a “pink book” which allows you to develop your property. Without one, the land is less valuable (obviously). We wound up selling the land back to the company, and felt fortunate to make our money back. Others who bought with them are still in limbo, awaiting the same thing we were.

The silver lining is we got a lead on a beautiful property in Nha Trang, and grabbed it. We’re happy enough with that purchase that I foresee us continuing to show interest in Vietnamese land deals. But don’t expect me to take any buses to Dong Nai anytime in the near future.

By Harry Hodge