Enlgish Teacheing in Saigon – Part One

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Last year, jaded with life in Sydney and wanting a bit of adventure I enrolled in an English teacher course in Ho Chi Minh City – or Saigon as it’s still known. I bought a one-way-ticket to Vietnam and within weeks I had my TESOL certification and had found work as an English teacher in a private kindergarten. The gorgeous little kids couldn’t always answer correctly when I asked them, ‘how are you?’, but they did know how to clearly shout, ‘what the fuck?’ while we were playing games. (It wasn’t me that taught them that, I swear!).

The demand for English teachers here in Vietnam is huge and the pay compared to the cost of living makes it a pretty sweet gig. Since arriving in Vietnam I have had the opportunity to teach kindy kids, primary school kids and adults and many times, I too have wanted to shout, ‘what the fuck?’.  I have felt completely out of my depth, had my grammar corrected by 11-year-olds and I’ve been asked by an (adult) student to explain the difference between, ‘sex’ and ‘fucking’. I’ve had to quickly learn grammar and I always need to make sure I have my phone close by to check words because I can’t spell for shit.

I have been an avid reader since I was a kid and I topped English at school but I have never been able to spell. I also mix up left and right and have a bit of a hard time working out which knob turns on which burner a stove top. My sister is exactly the same, so we must have inherited some kind of faulty brain wiring somewhere. I am sure people that can spell words like, ‘February’, ‘restaurant’ and ‘necessarily’ without spell-check must be using some kind of black-magic because I don’t know how else you could do that?

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I completed my TESOL in my first few weeks in Saigon. Here I am with fellow students. No matter where I go, or what I do, I am utterly incapable of opening my eyes in photos.

For extra cash, I’ve taken on work covering English classes when the regular teacher is away. The first class I ever covered I walked into a room full of manic pre-schoolers, was handed a microphone and was told to,  ‘go on, teach’. No guidance, no resources, no idea what to do. Teaching in Vietnam can be completely chaotic at times and there have been a few cover classes where the school doesn’t seem to have any curriculum or plan at all and they just tell me to just ‘teach anything’. When this happens, I talk with the kids or I’ll draw some deformed looking animals on the blackboard and we all practice saying their names.

Sometimes the kids have maths or science class taught in English here and one day I was asked to sub for a maths class. It was older primary and they were doing long division. I dead-set have not done long-division without a calculator since 1992. I had no idea. None. I asked for volunteers to come and show the working out on the board while I secretly used my phone to check that the answer was correct. Next in their books, was a grid with numbers that I was supposed to explain. I started at the page, blankly. The lovely Vietnamese teacher who was in the room with me explained it to me. I still didn’t understand. In the end, she explained to the kids in Vietnamese while I stood there and felt like a bit of a dill.

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My feelings when they ask me to teach the children basic maths.

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Once again, incapable of opening my eyes in photos.

ESL teaching can be a lot of fun though, and if you are thinking about teaching English in Vietnam, all I can say is come over and give it a go. Vietnam is booming. It is a land of opportunity right now and Saigon feels like a city where anything can happen. I enjoy teaching English here in Saigon, but what I really like is that I don’t have to work a lot of hours to cover my living costs – leaving me a lot of time to focus on my writing and volunteer with a children’s charity. Dollar for dollar, I earn a lot less than I did in Australia, but time is such a precious resource and Saigon is just so much fun, I’m happy to make the trade right now.

 

Daily life around my neighbourhood in District Three, Saigon.

An early mid-life crisis – From Sydney to Saigon.

How I went from working as baby health nurse in Sydney to an English teacher in Vietnam.

 It began with a sort of early mid-life crisis.

At the beginning of 2018, I was 35 years old, living in Sydney and feeling like something just wasn’t right. Nothing was particularly awful about my life. I had my health, I had a pleasant enough job that paid alright and I am lucky to have wonderful friends and family. Sure, I was single, but I was out there dating, which was fun most of the time. And when it wasn’t fun, at least it was funny. But something wasn’t right.

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I have a cousin in Vietnam and I kept seeing photos of his come up on my Facebook. It looked like he was having a good time, so I sent him a message to find out a bit more. The decision to pick up and move to Saigon followed an exchange over Facebook that went a bit like this-

“Hey cuz, how is Vietnam? I am getting bored with my life in Sydney and feel like a change”.

“It’s great. You should move here”.

“Righto then, see you in a month”.

I handed in my notice at work, booked a one-way ticket to Saigon, then embarked on the special kind of hell known as, “selling your things on Gumtree”.

Do you enjoy receiving messages from strangers who will bargain with you over the cost of an old chair only to disappear into the ether once you agree on a price with them? Do you like getting ridiculous requests from entitled twats who think because they are buying something second hand for $10 from you, you should drive across the city to deliver it to them personally? If this sounds like you, then you too should try selling your goods online.

Anyway.

Moving to Vietnam, I had absolutely no idea what to expect and even less of an idea of what I was going to do next if it didn’t work out. Back in 2012, I went for a two week holiday to Vietnam with some mates. My main memory of Saigon is of partying all night only to come back to the hostel and throw up in a bin.

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Here I am in Halong Bay in 2012, oblivious to the fact that I was going to be calling Vietnam home 6 years later.

From the moment I arrived, it didn’t take long for this city to draw me in with its chaotic energy.  Saigon might not be the prettiest city in the world, but it’s vibrant streets heave with life. Food stalls spill onto the pavements, traffic is bedlam, the nightlife can be wild and the heat is exhausting. This city is at once captivating and maddening but the warmth of the people and the food culture by far and away makes up for any faults.

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Off to work we go.

 

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Dinner and beers with friends.

 

In just decades Saigon has gone from being one of the poorest places in the world to a boomtown where sky-scrapers are going up at a rapid pace. Change is in the air and maybe in 5 or 10 or 15 years, increasing gentrification will take away some of the city’s untamed charms, but right now, it’s a place that feels like anything can happen, and there is no place I’d rather be.

 

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eating outside

Food is basically my main hobby here.

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Never in a million years did I think I’d wind up working as a teacher in Vietnam, but here I am.

Moving to another country isn’t without its challenges and for me the biggest one has been the language. When I first arrived, I was sure I was going to learn to speak Vietnamese no worries. After all, I’d previously learnt to speak Spanish. Sort of.

Learning Vietnamese though is a whole different kettle of pho. The smattering I have learnt is usually met with that Vietnamese hand wiggle gesture or a shake of the head.

Out to dinner one night,, I tried to order a beer. The Vietnamese word for beer is ‘bia’, so surely this one at least wasn’t going to be too difficult.

“Bia”, I said smiling at one of the staff.

He looked at me.

“Bia”. I tried again. “Beeee-a. Biiiiia. Bi-ah.” I tried some variations on pronunciation while making a ‘drink’ hand gesture, only to be met with a look something like this-

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He walked off and came back and handed me a glass of some kind of green juice.

“No, no”, I said. “Bia”.

A Vietnamese person sitting close by me said something which I can only assume was along the lines of, “she’s asking for a bia”.

The man laughed, “Ha ha ha oh, bia!” he said.

Suffice to say I don’t think I will be having deep and meaningful conversations in Vietnamese any time soon, but I am taking classes and trying.

The last 10 months have been a wild ride and while it hasn’t always been perfect, it has been pretty wonderful, so I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere any time soon.