Hell Money Hem
We found our own slice of heaven in hell money hem, a narrow alley in a warren of alleys behind a busy thoroughfare in Ho Chi Minh City.
It seemed like a quiet hem when Darling Man took me there to sign the lease papers. I’d stayed out of sight until then to avoid the usually inevitable “foreigner tax” imposed once a wily seller spots a white face.
We were sitting on the fancy red couch that our adopted cats were later to scratch to shreds, under the ornate chandelier, when a child slipped into the house and flung himself on the armchair across from us. The brother/boyfriend — we could never quite work out the relationship — of the landlady smiled indulgently.
The boy had a shy smily and widely-spaced eyes, the legacy of his extra chromosome. There was no way we could have known that this boy, aged about 10, was a karaoke superstar.
Darling Man, the housing agent and the landlady’s boyfriend/brother concluded the deal. A tower of cash was handed over, counted twice, a dodgily-photocopied lease agreement was signed and the men disappeared upstairs to check the inventory.
Our house was newly built. The boyfriend/brother, who owned a construction company, had built it for the landlady’s mother and sister. But they had decided to move to Australia instead of into the purpose-built mansion. It was fully furnished and fitted out. The decor and furniture had been selected with the eye of a brothel madam.
When we were finally alone in our new house, Darling Man told me he thought the decor was “high class”. Which was somehow apt and not apt.
The bright red couches in the lounge sat beneath the already-mentioned chandelier, which the boyfriend/brother/builder said cost 10 million dong (about $500, a princely sum), and a huge vase filled with an enormous display of silver, brown and orange autumn foliage. On the wall was a giant oil painting of a log cabin and a deer in a European forest.
The kitchen had black marble benchtops, purple tulips on the tiles and a fruit still life oil painting. A glass-topped dining table was wedged into a tiny dining area and a tiny bathroom was wedged under the stairs.
A black marble staircase swooped up to the first floor, which featured a bedroom and a bathroom with an orange glitter vanity, a bamboo design on the shower screen and whales frolicking on the window above the toilet. In keeping with the brothel theme, there was a dimmer light, which flashed sexily when turned down low.
Because the air-conditioner in this bedroom wasn’t very effective, we installed ourselves in the second-floor bedroom (or third floor bedroom, depending on how you count floors) opposite the bathroom with the spa. It was probably meant to be a two-person spa but when Darling Man and I both got in, all the water was pushed out and neither of us could move without inflicting damage on the other. But the dimmer light made it very romantic.
On the next floor there was a smaller bedroom, a washing machine, a trompe l’oeil painting of a French garden, a white plaster cherub, kneeling in prayer, a large balcony and a narrow winding ladder-like staircase that led up to a roof-top terrace.
It was here, behind an ornate black and gold security fence, that we started our new life together.
The house provoked different reactions from different people. My Western friends thought it was hilarious. Darling Man’s Vietnamese friends thought it was swanky and Darling Man’s parents thought it was an outrageous waste of money and space.
Funnily enough, Darling Man’s family and friends considered the hem to be pretty mundane. But I found it exotic and fascinating. But it was also LOUD.
Our neighbours were hang ma merchants. They made and sold hell money and various paper items for the dead, from paper mache horses and elephants to cardboard motorbikes and paper suits. Loving relatives could purchase these items then “send” them to their dearly departed by burning them.
The hang ma items and the hell money are part of the Vietnamese tradition of ancestor worship. Although some send worldly goods to the other world for the benefit of their ancestors, other do it in the expectation that their happy ancestors will return the favor by sending their generous earthbound descendant good fortune.
There seemed to be several neighboring families involved in the production and distribution of their hang ma handiwork.
We often had huge stacks of paper mache horses or paper suits outside our house. The hem was only about two meters wide, so negotiating a motorbike past these stacks and up our ramp was sometimes a bit tricky. Delivery drivers would roar up on their noisy old motorbikes at all hours of the day and night, often sitting on their puttering bikes right outside our loungeroom and conducting loud negotiations with the hang ma families.
Our swanky mansion had a dedicated motorbike area, unlike lesser houses, where the lounge room doubled as the parking garage. Our lounge room opened into the alley, through French doors. The glass and the thin curtain did nothing to dampen the sounds from the street, which included frequent karaoke sessions.
I never did discover karaoke boy’s name. He was a lovely boy, who usually greeted me with a formal bow with one hand folded across his chest. He was scared of our dog but he loved the cats we adopted. And boy-oh-boy did he love karaoke.
I’m not sure whether his parents used the karaoke machine as his reward for good behaviour, a distraction from bad behaviour or whether he was a free-range karaoke star, able to fire up the machine whenever the urge took him.
The first sign of an impending session was an ominous loud twang of a sound system being turned up way too loud. Then karaoke boy would launch into a tortured Vietnamese love song, putting as much emotion as possible into each syllable. It was truly awful and it boomed, screeched and yowled out of his lounge-room for hours on end.
No one ever seemed to ask him to stop singing. No one ever seemed to complain. I seemed to be the only one who resented the intrusion. Everyone else just viewed it as an inevitable part of daily life in the densely-packed Ho Chi Minh City.
10 years ago