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Living as an Expat in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Living and Teaching English in Vietnam
Teaching English in Vietnam
2010 Expatriate Writing Contest Runner-up Winner

Vietnamese for Life

Living and Teaching English in Vietnam

Motorbike carrying packages in Hanoi
Photo ©Beth Whitman.

It’s 6:30 a.m. and ten minutes ago, I was asleep, dreaming about a beach, a boat and some beer. Now, I am on my feet, listening to the early morning lament of a woman selling bread on my street. I may be in bed now, but in 45 minutes I will be in front of a classroom, wearing with an orange tie, ready to teach English to Vietnamese school children with the aid of a few scrunched up pieces of paper and the type of enthusiasm which can only derive from hopeless love.

I arrived here three years ago, clutching a TESL certificate ready to earn my keep overseas. While I never imagined staying more then six months, I did not count on remaining in Hanoi.

I ride to work on bicycles. In winter, the journey is gloomy and frigid. In summer though, it is the nicest time of the day and the Hanoians know it. There is a market at the end of my street and if I wanted, I could take my pick of fresh cut pig leg, pineapple, or lychees sitting in a basket. My colleagues buy loads of apple-pears and then slice them up for us all to enjoy. There is something sacred about gathering in the morning over shared fruit.

When I first came here, a friend set me up with a job interview. The director of the school was easy going, and ready to see me teach. Could I start the next evening?  I spent the rest of that day buying supplies and marveling at how, at any moment, something is happening, from the man selling handmade clay figurines, to the lilting speech of gossiping flower women.

Living in Hanoi

In Hanoi, reality and romance are woven together unapologetically. When the traffic relaxes, it is impossible not to sing, at least in your head. These are the times when being in a place so far from your own home is a thing of immense excitement and beauty. When the delivery boy stares at me, I wave at him. If I hurry a little, I get to school in time to enjoy a hurried iced coffee, while I hunch over miniature plastic chairs, sharing lesson plans. Often though, my mood depends on traffic. There have been times when I have arrived hollow and dry, grimy and coughing, struggling to shake of the Hanoi rush hour. The sound made by 1,000 impatient motorbikes can be likened to an enormous waterfall. The traffic itself is not unlike a river, gathering momentum in little streets, picking up stray pieces along the way until it is a monstrous torrent, which does not stop to consider anything. I have seen riders go down, swallowed up, only to emerge shaken from the fray, minutes later.

Teaching and Playing

The first lesson is the hardest. I remember walking into the classroom and receiving a boisterous reception from 25 children, all of them eager to clutch pieces of my clothing and chat about English football. A support teacher sat in the corner marking homework. I went over to her, babbling nonsense about what my approach to this lesson was going to be. I had over-planned it by about two and 1/2 half hours--that is what new teachers tend to do. The support teacher did not understand a word I was saying and the  children all clambered around me: “What’s your name-how old are you-are you married-why aren’t you married-do you love Vietnamese-what is you girlfriends name-how old is she?” I learned more than the kids did. For a start, I suspected that I had found my passion--a strange mixture of improvisation, careful planning, and theater.

These days, I see new teachers arrive on the scene: eager faces, fresh off the plane, clutching their workboxes nervously as they wait for class to begin. Three years on the job and sometimes I feel like an old hack. Lessons, which once might have eluded me for hours now come together from memory, with a couple of exercises thrown in from the back-up kit, and perhaps something new that I am trying out. The kids manage to surprise me on a daily basis. As I walk into my first lesson today, a serious boy with a shaved head and a handful of Pokémon cards confronts me in the doorway. He wants to ask me why I would leave Australia in the first place. “They have kangaroos,” he says, with the authority of someone who has seen it firsthand. I cannot answer him right away. I am not sure if I can put into words the feeling when you have found something special, a calling perhaps, or a vision. Perhaps it is just an excitement that is nurtured with bits and pieces of everyday existence, like a shy smile from a pretty lady, or a grumpy acknowledgement from the man who sells me pho noodle soup. So perhaps I will just tell the little boy that I have found “Cuộc sống,” which in Vietnamese, means life.

For More Info

What qualifications do you need to teach?

The debate rages. Some people will insist you need proper qualifications while others wave you through an open door. Before you do anything, you should be aware of Vietnam’s visa requirements. A visa is necessary even for visit—it is easy to apply for a one or three month tourist visa in your own country. Officially, you need a working visa if you are going to work. Reputable schools should offer to sponsor you for a work visa, providing that you have the right qualifications. Generally, you need a bachelor’s degree in order for a school to sponsor you. When you are looking for work, it is desirable that you also possess a TEFL certificate, or a CELTA certificate. With these tools, you should not have any trouble finding classes. While it is possible to find work without these qualifications, it will be hard to find a school to sponsor your visa, which in turn will make it hard to legally work in Vietnam.

How will you find work?

There are two options: you can try to set up work before you go, or, like me, you can wait until you have are in the country before you approach employers. There are merits to both options. Consider the first one. Larger language schools recruit from overseas. Reputable schools like Apollo, British Council and Language link advertise internationally. It is possible to negotiate a contract, which may include bonus pay packets, and even return airfare. Proceeding in this way means that you have a steady job set up before you have even set foot in the country and that is a great way to hit the classroom on your feet. Language link hires internationally.

Hanoi is overwhelming and unique. This can sometimes translate as “very hard to deal with.” The city is a wonderful assortment of activity, and this is not always for everybody. If you are not sure if it is the place for you, come and visit the city for a while. Make some contacts and explore. If you set yourself up with a little bit of cash, you can approach employment gradually and this will offer you the chance to consider what you want to do.

The website

Before you come to Vietnam, go and visit www.thenewhanoian.com. I found the website to be is indispensable, covering many aspects of expat life in Vietnam, including housing, transportation, and  employment.

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