27 May 2021

Building a House in Dalat, Vietnam — Part One

 It's a different planet here in so many ways...

"Stick" construction is virtually unheard of here unless you're a very poor ethnic minority (that's me piloting the sidecar, by the way).

'Most everyone else builds with concrete and bricks; in the cities, it's row houses for the hoi polloi 
and stand-alones for owners of larger properties.

Earlier this year, I settled a lawsuit for knee injuries suffered in October 2016 when an intentionally neglected hole in Jefferson Street, Olympia, Washington, USA "grabbed" the front wheel of my R100GS motorcycle, throwing me to the ground. The impact shattered my right knee and subsequent negligence by three different orthopedic surgeons caused a total of seven procedures to-date, irreparable damage 

and continuous pain that I will endure for the rest of my life. I was advised against blogging about it until after the lawsuit settled; I may add a post or two about it later. Back to the current story...

So the lawsuit gave us just enough cheddar to build a house here in Dalat, but NOT ENOUGH to buy property, so... my in-laws said that we could build on their land. Their house at the time (see lavender house above) was old, poorly constructed, and so full of black mold that it was, in reality, a tear-down.

So we did.

We hired an architect and a builder, both of whom worked on my brother-in-law's house and were known to the family for many years. Then the fun started.

The lot is big by Vietnam standards--six meters wide in the front and five in the back; 18 meters deep. Total lot size is about 100 square meters (900 square feet). It is bordered on two sides by other row houses and in the back by a hill about 7 meters (22 feet) high. My in-laws signed the deed over to ViLa (my wife) over a year ago so that she'd always have a place to live. Vietnamese law says that foreigners, even those married to Vietnamese nationals, cannot own such property. Until our daughter is 18, it will be in La's name only, so I'll have to behave for the next 25 or so years.

Although I was very clear to the architect that we want a house with as much natural light as possible, it took at least five face-to-face meetings with a paid translator, one set of WRONG drawings, and a threat to fire him and hire someone with the ability to LISTEN, before he decided to give us what we asked for.

We started off with four bedrooms, each with an en-suite bathroom; living room; kitchen; garage with sidecar lift; shop for ViLa's second-hand purse business; office for me; storage closets; laundry room, three other bathrooms; an elevator (three of the five residents are 65 or over), and an eight-meter by 50 cm opening in each floor for natural light from roof skylights.

A few minor changes later, and we're off to the races.

Sort of...

To build a house here, you start by getting drawings from the government showing you how large your house can be, if you so choose. Exceeding these drawings by even 20 cm can get you in trouble, with the worst thing that could happen being they tear down your house for you.

My in-law's property had (foreshadowing here) a 5 x 4 x 4 meter (about 16.5 x 13 x 13 feet) hill of dirt in the very back that had, apparently, never been touched by a shovel. It's behind the brick wall and the red corrugated metal is the roof of the first floor of the old house.
The government drawings said, "you can't build here."

This is the property:

This is what we can build (you can see the wall from the above photo on the top of the left-hand image):

On one of my almost daily visits to the job site, I see that the excavator is tearing into the hill we're not allowed to build on. 


That night, at one of our meetings between my father-in-law, the builder, the architect, the translator and me, I ask, "WTF?" but nicer because my father-in-law is there.

I'm told, "khong sao", which is Vietnamese for "don't worry, we've got this,"--the national response to a LOT of things that actually merit concern.

Then my father-in-law drops the bomb.


This video is typical Vietnam karaoke and was shot at a wedding soon after I came to Vietnam. 
Her flowers started their cut life as a table centerpiece. 

Father-in-law wants to use the verbotten space for his very own karaoke room for him and his friends. To his great surprise, I answered with a thumbs-up and the caveat that it must be professionally soundproofed, just like the dozens of karaoke shops in town. His grin is ear-to-ear.

Everything is all sunshine and roses... until the government inspector drops by a few weeks later. My wife tells me he's "upset." 

No shit, Sherlock! 

"We" have blatantly disregarded their mandate and even, by now, poured the floor and started building the brick walls. This is going to get expensive--one way or the other.

Fortunately, it's Vietnam, where most such sins can be made to go away with the proper application of begging, cajoling, and apologizing with more than words. One of the aunts is a well-connected lawyer and the sister-in-law who likes me works for her. It takes about a month, but we finally get drawings that say we can take out the hill and build on its remains. Let's just say there is now budget for one less flight to the US in my future.

Things go relatively well from there until about two weeks ago when I notice that the opening in the second level for natural light is about two meters short. Inquiries reveal that father-in-law told the builder to stop it at a beam, violating the agreement that BOTH he and I have to approve of any major (and, as a courtesy, most minor) changes. Opening should be the length of the red oval; it is currently the length of the blue rectangle.

Damn it! Hurried conversations with the builder result in a promise that the opening will be cut into the floor to give us the opening specified. Remember that the ground floor of this house is blocked in on three sides so there can be no windows. This makes the opening through to the roof crucial. It's still not opened, but I'm not worried 'cause the contract says the builder doesn't get any more money until we are both happy with the construction to that point.

Father-in-law and I now have another agreement that ALL changes to common spaces will be run past the other prior to saying anything to the builder. The builder has smartly decreed that any changes must be made to the architectural drawings before he will implement them. We should be good from here if we can only get the architect to flippin' LISTEN to what we tell him to change.

I always believed people when they told me building a house is a nightmare. Try doing it when you don't speak the local language and are still learning local mores. Fortunately, most of the people involved are somewhat forgiving of the faux pas made by the rude foreigner (the last two words are redundant here, by the way, when put together).

Next: Feng Shui rears its ugly head.


  1. Wow! Cultural, familial and legal considerations- and you are negotiating it. So tell me, your Disc is a D from a low context culture in a high context culture where most must be S or I. Am I right?

    1. Yes, and what we call "passive-aggressive" is how most natives interact. It's a challenge.