Back in the fall of 2015, whilst browsing through real estate agents ads and rental sites, I noticed all the listings geared towards expats had variations on the same theme:
“Cleaning six times a week. Wash twice a week. Change bed once a week.”
“Serviced Apartment to Rent! Cheap! Cheap!”
“Comes with cleaning services 3 times a week.”
When we came to sign the contract for our current apartment, I mentioned something about not needing a cleaning lady. After all, I’ve cleaned up after myself and other people my entire life, and it seemed stupid to get a cleaning lady now, especially as I wasn’t working at the time. Our real estate agent, Dan, was sitting across the table from me, with Lan (the cleaning lady) standing behind him. Dan was confused.
“Apartment comes with Lan. She clean, she do laundry. Three times a week. She can iron too, if you buy an iron”.
“But we really don’t need her”, I protested, feeling awkward. It just seemed ludicrous to have a cleaning lady when we are perfectly capable of cleaning up after ourselves. Do expats have a reputation for being lazy? (silly question - yes, we all do. Another story for another time).
Dan relayed this information back to Lan, who looked at us, baffled. I stared back across at them, feeling foolish. In my attempt to not appear like a lazy, eccentric expat, in trying to save Lan from having to work so hard and to give herself a break, I had unintentionally offended her. So I took a deep breath and tried to backpedal. “Fine, okay, she can clean”. Crisis averted. They both smiled, and we went about with our contract signing. A friend later told me it’s considered rude to not have a cleaning lady, as that cuts someone out of a much needed job.
And I must say, Lan has been a Godsend. She’s more a housekeeper than cleaning lady. I believe (but have not confirmed) that she’s related in some way to our landlady, who lives in Hanoi. Lan comes to the building early every morning, Monday through Saturday, between 7 and 8, and I can hear her sweeping and mopping the downstairs entrance hallway and the American chiropractor’s office on the ground floor. She cleans the three upstairs apartments on alternate days. She orders our bottled water and gas tank refills (for the gas stove). She sticks around and keeps an eye on deliverymen and the handyman when we're out. She collects rent - it’s a cash society here, so we hand over a massive wad of bills, which she gratefully takes, flashing us a huge smile before trotting off somewhere with it - presumably the bank, probably her own home though. The first time we paid rent I felt like we were conducting a drug deal. Massive wad of cash rolled up and tied with brown butcher’s twine. We giggled like idiots while handing it over to Lan.
When Tet rolls around, we give her a customary envelope of cash, which she gratefully takes. And this year we also gave her one of those massive baskets full of goodies (usually exported cookies and candy) that are all the rage here around the time of the lunar new year (they’re called “hampers”, probably because that’s the Australian term for “basket full of goodies”, though it only reminds my American pea brain of a mound of dirty clothes). This basket was bigger than she was - she’s a tiny, fierce little thing about 4 foot 10. I’ve no idea how she got it home, balanced on her motorbike, but I’ve never seen anyone as happy as she was when she saw that thing. Our apartment seemed to shine with cleanliness a bit more that following month.