The Officetel

Another reason why not to buy an apartment in Vietnam are officetels, apartments legally regulated for commercial purposes in seemingly residential buildings. Typically, in America and many other parts of the world – developed and developing, there’s a clear divide between residential and commercial spaces in mixed-use properties. Let’s look at Trump Tower in Manhattan, for example. The first 29 floors are for commercial use and the top 38 floors are for residential use. While you’d think that’s the standard, it’s not in Vietnam. The Communist Party of Vietnam is of a different mindset. Most, if not all, residential properties are comprised of both residential and commercial spaces on almost every floor excluding those allocated for shophouses, which are storefront units at the bottom level(s), and penthouses.

Of the apartments that we’ve rented in Saigon, at least three units on each floor, roughly 30%, are an officetel. There’s three on our floor, currently. Previously, we shared a wall with a small clothing manufacturer that had six employees. Sometimes it was difficult to sleep in the mornings because people could be heard working next door. Little did they know there’s a guy (me) who hadn’t even got out of bed no more than five feet away. We’ve also shared a ceiling or floor, depending on perspective, with a carpenter. Loud banging and even louder noises from constant drilling and sawing occurred every day between 8AM and 11AM and 1PM and 4PM. At first, we thought the owner was undertaking a full renovation but eventually knew that wasn’t the case after it had been ongoing for about a year.

Otherwise, we know of officetels and/or apartments in our community being used as spas, which include those providing cosmetic and beauty services, such as botox, liposuction and plastic surgery, and all types of massages. They advertise on Facebook, Wechat, Zalo and other social media apps. Now, seriously, imagine having a nice family dinner while there are guys right on the other side of the wall mid-way into their 60-minute session. Welcome to Vietnam.

It might be easy to overlook my family dinner example but that’s much closer to being the norm than an exception. There’s so much shady stuff happening in Vietnam daily that you’re likely to encounter some of it albeit unknowingly. We’ve definitely shared a wall and floor with men and women engaged and/or employed in prostitution. I recall frequently seeing different prostitutes leaving the apartment of a larger white guy who stayed a couple doors down in the afternoon hours before COVID-19 and a few girls in short dresses or skimpy golf outfits always stumbling back into other apartments on the same floor in the middle of the night on weeknights. I’d never have known they existed if my schedule didn’t keep me up late during the week.

Without a significant amount of due diligence, there’s really no way of having a good idea of what’s happening in neighboring apartments let alone floor. Even if a building’s management gave you a list of units and their legal classification, you still wouldn’t know if an apartment is being used for business purposes or the type of businesses that are operating in officetels and the extent of their operations. Some woman we knew ran a daycare business from her apartment. She watched around ten children at any one time until 8PM or 9PM on weekdays. I’d complain to your mother about her because screaming kids could be heard all day but only up until we decided to send you to one.

When the thought of buying an apartment in Vietnam crosses my mind, officetels are another reason holding me back. Even if we could ask neighbors about living conditions, I doubt they’d give a straight and/or complete response. I also doubt Vietnamese contract law would provide any protections from lack of full disclosure. One positive, though, is loud, non-stop karaoke hasn’t been an issue with the people that occupy those units in my experience, yet.

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