Teaching in Saigon: what's all the hype?
Since moving to Vietnam to teach English, many friends, family members and visiting backpackers have asked me about my experience. They've asked how it's going, if I love it, if it is challenging, if I've combated the stomach bugs yet, what my students are like, etc. MANY questions have come at me like a tidal wave and all I can think is that I've so far been too overwhelmed to decide these answers for myself.
The truth is, teaching here is a sweet gig for many reasons, but it's also a big life step that comes with substantial challenges. A popular choice for people of many ages and walks of life, teaching English as a second language is an amazing opportunity to make money while travelling, and experience a new culture. I've now been living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for two months, and am beginning to wrap my head around what I've been up to. Here's the low-down.
Teaching English as a Second Language in Saigon
How I did it
I went through a UK based organization called TEFL Heaven, which connects its clients to TEFL schools in their country of choice. Once I made the choice to work in Vietnam, they connected me with a school here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Most high paying language centres will require their teachers to have a TEFL, CELTA, TESOL or alike certification (and a bachelor’s degree from your home country). I’m happy with the choice to do a certification here before looking for a job, not only because it rendered me more qualified but also because I met a community of friends through that experience. I think I would have felt isolated otherwise!
Why I did it
Teaching English as a second language is a unique opportunity to sustain yourself financially while abroad. You can save up for maybe 6 months to a year for a big trip you're planning, travel on time off, or just purely enjoy the experience of living in a different country. I chose Vietnam for two main reasons. Firstly, there is an insane amount of teaching jobs here. After finishing my TEFL course, I had four interviews within the span of a week; this demand gave me the freedom to hold out for a job I wanted. Andddd, the pay is high. It’s typical to be paid anywhere between $18-25 USD an hour, depending on your qualifications, and whether or not you’re a native speaker. Secondly, I wanted to avoid the cold weather. Currently, it’s a humid 28 degrees in December, and I can’t say I’m missing the snow. The tropical climate was a big draw for me, and it's still a factor that I appreciate on a daily basis.
- Saigon is a bustling city with tons of personality: I’m told it’s much more modern and Westernized than Hanoi, but I’ve not been there yet. Generally, travellers I've met like Hanoi better than Saigon, and I’ve found myself defending the city a lot because I have grown to love it. My theory is that travellers just stay in the touristy backpacker area, (specifically on party central Bùi Viện street). In a city of 10 million people and 24 districts, sticking to a few streets and tourist attractions does not do Saigon justice. Perhaps it’s a better city to live in than to visit, because it's one that gets friendlier once you get to know it. I live in Phu Nhuan District, about a 20-minute drive from the city centre. It’s rich in culture, and has a slower pace of life than the downtown core does. I wish more tourists would venture off of the backpacker's street! Culture is abundant here! It might be cliché, but you really do have to venture out of your comfort zone to find the interesting stuff, especially when in a huge city like Saigon.
- Cheap street food permeates every corner: If you’re adventurous and willing to risk a possible upset stomach, there will be plenty of local dishes for you to try. I don’t eat street food every day, but it’s a fun option to have. One of my favourite things to buy on the street is sugar cane juice. Vendors will press the sweet yellow juice from sugar cane stocks right in front of you, and it costs about 5,000 Dong ($0.20 USD).
- Saigon has some Western amenities: I can satisfy a pizza craving, see a movie in English, or go to a nice doctor’s office if need be. These comforts were pretty crucial to my decision to stay in a city.
- The people are very friendly: I have yet to go anywhere in the North, but the Southern Vietnamese have a reputation for being extremely friendly. The rumours are very true: wide toothy grins are abundant here, especially once you venture out of the touristy areas. Learning even just a few words in Vietnamese will turn a stern or confused local into a beaming gleeful one; I recommend doing so!
- Saigon isn't made for walking: It was not until I arrived here that I began to think about how most cities I’ve spent time in are designed for both pedestrians and cars. In Canada, we have wide sidewalks that vehicles are prohibited from driving on. Here, it’s pretty much the opposite. Motorbikes rule the roads and pedestrians should always been watching out for them. If you’re walking on a sidewalk during peak traffic hours, you’ll be greeted by a sea of bikes honking at you from behind; they’ll want you to move out of the way so that they can pass you…. ON THE SIDEWALK. And even if it’s not rush hour, the sidewalks are clogged with parked motorbikes, street food stalls, and store fronts spilling out onto the road, meaning pedestrians have to weave through the maze or walk on the street itself. This really annoyed me when I first got here, and I know when I go home I’ll appreciate being able to stroll around with my iPod in, rather than constantly worry that a bike is going to run over my toes. But until then, I’ve come to accept that I just need to join in the madness in order to adapt. So tomorrow I’m getting a motorbike. Wish me luck.
- Pollution woes: The poor air quality is really a shame. A combination of motorbike exhaust, the burning of coal, concentration of dust, and other environmental factors makes for some smelly, dusty air. I’m asthmatic, so this was a significant concern for me, and the main reason I didn’t move to Hanoi to teach (where the pollution indexes often double Saigon’s). Getting a good quality pollution mask is key to staying healthy. Most Vietnamese people wear a mask while driving, but the common masks here are essentially a piece of cloth. They might help with the smells, but it’s better to get a mask with a filter. The less exhaust and dust you breathe in, the better off you'll be.
- The culture shock: I don’t think of it as a con now, but upon arrival I was not fully prepared for the shock I would experience. Moving from Canada to Vietnam is a HUGE adjustment. Most teachers say they have the “honeymoon faze” when they first get here, but I think I’m only entering mine after two months. Now that I finally know how to feed myself, have a sense for the city and how to best get around, I’m feeling so much more comfortable. My advice for this is purely just to keep an open mind, and know it’s normal to feel anxious when you first get here. It will get better.
With any new life step comes challenges and triumphs, and moving to Saigon has been no different. There have been some amazing days where everything is going just right, and I've likely eaten a damn good banh mí. There have also been brutal moments, like the time I sat in Starbucks with a sinus infection and listened to the Christmas music playing, letting a huge wave of homesickness settle in. These emotional surges are ultimately what make living abroad exciting, and overcoming difficulties will always be a part of the experience. My advice to anyone who is considering teaching English would be to take the plunge; it probably won't be easy, but it definetly won't be boring.