TRAVEL, Vietnam

My Experience Living And Teaching In Vietnam

I would like to preface this post by recommending Ho Chi Minh City to anyone who is thinking about teaching here. It is a vibrant city with so much opportunity. As with anywhere in the world, a series of unfortunate events can taint your experience of a place but I do not see it as a reflection of the place itself. Now that we are happier, I look upon our negative experiences as a basket of life lessons!

My boyfriend and I arrived in HCMC bang on New Years Eve 2016. Neither of us had really done much research about the country during our super busy departure from Korea so we soon found ourselves feeling pretty lost and overwhelmed. I had also arrived with a horrendous chest infection and so couldn’t go to interviews or see apartments for almost two weeks. We immediately felt homesick for Korea, which was worsened by the fact we had chosen to get a hotel on Bui Vien street. This is Saigon’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San road and isn’t exactly the prettiest view of the city we had decided to call home for the indefinite future…

After contacting several estate agents, we finally got a response from one who helped us to find the apartment we lived in until August. It was at the top end of our budget ($600, not including bills) but it had gorgeous high ceilings and the biggest kitchen we’d seen in years. We hastily signed a contract, feeling relieved to be leaving Bui Vien street.
We don’t fully regret that apartment as we have some great memories of house parties and stunning sunsets from our little balcony. We did come to realize though just how terribly situated it was. We were living on the busiest street in District 3 with barely any pavement and serious congestion at rush hour. The inability to go out and just walk around led to a lot of frustration and cabin fever!

View from our balcony
(photo courtesy of David Stewart)

We had moved to HCMC with the idea that we would save some extra money while experiencing a new country but the work we found ended up being quite inconsistent. Some months we had disposable income but other months the majority of our paychecks went towards rent.

Our first jobs were at language centers, mostly teaching adults and teenagers on evenings and weekends. My boyfriend worked for a more prestigious language center and so earned more than I did. They also made it compulsory for employees to get bank accounts and work permits and so were much more ‘official’ than my cash-in-hand job. My language center was great towards me and my adult students were lovely but the lesson planning was quite stressful. I was given a text book that focused on grammar, vocabulary, and reading but was then told my students only wanted to learn conversational skills and so I should use the book as little as possible! My boyfriend was given the exact same instruction at his center. So, we basically found ourselves having to construct 2-3 hour entertaining lessons from scratch with no other materials or guidance. Our weekends were tied to our laptops and even when we weren’t planning we were worrying about planning!

With the pressure of teaching adults, I realised how much I missed teaching kindergarten and the sheer joy those kids would show at the simplest of things! I found another cash-in-hand job at an international kindergarten where I worked between the hours of 8.30-4.30 with a big break in the middle of the day. I continued my evening language center job as well which gave me a lot of disposable income but zero time to myself in the week. I know a lot of teachers in this city who work practically 24/7 which I really respect but personally, I would rather have less money and more of my sanity! Needless to say I left the language center. At this time my boyfriend was starting to get stressed due to his ever-changing teaching hours and non-existent weekend. Our complete opposite schedules meant that we NEVER saw each other! We were living in our lovely, large apartment as two separate individuals and our limited time together consisted of me watching him plan lessons.

This was not what we left Korea for!! So, in the spirit of seizing the day, and with our apartment lease coming to an end, we decided to both quit our jobs and go travel around Southeast Asia…because that’s what you do when the real world gets to be too much right?! We spent an unforgettable month and a half climbing over Angkorian temples, kayaking and zip-lining in Laos, and eating some of the best food we’ve ever had…

Stunning Laos

…and then it was time to return to HCMC to see if we could make another go of it! We arrived back around the middle of September, and now, at the end of October, I can honestly say I am having a completely opposite experience!

We had planned to book an Airbnb for a few months and then to reevaluate things at Christmas, however we left it too late to book and so all affordable places had been taken. We weren’t about to pay $600 again for a tiny studio in district 1 and so we scoured the internet for all other short-term accommodation options. Luckily, I found an awesome blog post that described two areas known for their abundance of cheap rooms for rent: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (the alley of 18A) and Le Thanh Ton (the alleys of 15A and 15B). We must have seen around twenty places over the course of a day and a half. All you have to do is walk up to any building with a ‘room for rent’ sign and either call the number or ring the doorbell. All the rooms we saw had private bathrooms and many also had small kitchenettes. We settled on a large studio on the top floor of a building in 18A, Le Thanh Ton, and that’s where we are still. The landlord is a super helpful guy who always greets us with a huge smile! We pay $360 a month and that includes all bills, daily cleaning, and laundry service.

We expected to be working in language centers again as we didn’t have tons of savings to wait around for the perfect job to come along. However, after a recommendation from a friend, we both applied for and landed jobs in the same company working Monday to Friday, 8.00-5.30. Finally the same schedule! We work in an office and are sent out twice a day to teach classes at different public schools. There are over a hundred foreign teachers working there so it is a very sociable environment. There is tons of academic support and materials provided, the kids are great, and the pay is almost double what we were earning before with our inconsistent jobs.

One of our public schools

Things finally feel stable. We go for evening walks in our neighborhood on the wide, tree-lined pavements; we are actually seeing our savings grow again after so many months of just breaking even, and I no longer get the Sunday blues! We still don’t know if we see ourselves here in 2017 but I feel pretty content right now.

To anyone considering living and teaching in this city I would urge you not to feel rushed when you arrive. if we had been more patient and thoughtful when setting ourselves up here, we would have been a lot happier and definitely a lot richer now!

How to avoid our two biggest mistakes:

1. Rent a cheap room on a month-to-month basis until you are more familiar with the districts and where you might like to live long-term.

2. Spend some time searching out the better-paid, more consistent jobs in international schools and in companies that provide teachers for the public school system. Language centers really weren’t our cup of tea but do make great ‘filler’ jobs should you want to make extra money alongside your main job. If you are a lesson planning wizard then this is a great option!

Feel free to comment with any additional questions about living or teaching in Saigon! 🙂

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