He’s off traveling Spain now, but before the Iberian Peninsula Will Peach could be found traipsing ‘round Vietnam. Here, he tells us of the hype surrounding Vietnamese tailors, why to leave the money belt at home, the business of saving face, and more about teaching English in Vietnam.
Hi Will! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to pick your brain about your Vietnamese Adventure. Knowing you, you kept things interesting by talking to strangers and getting to know the country inside and out any way you could. Why did you decide to teach English in Vietnam? Did you know a soul in the country before you left?
Gee Cassandra what a question to start with! Let’s see. I decided to teach English in Vietnam just as I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in rainy old England. I came to the conclusion that a) I couldn’t stand the weather any more, b) I wanted to do something a bit different and c) I didn’t want to hang around back home and wait for things to happen. Vietnam was always a lure since it seemed so exotic. I grew up watching war movies and reading about its history both in school and University. Not the best motivations for a trip I know right? We all have to start somewhere!
I didn’t know a soul going out there but I was travelling with my girlfriend at the time so I didn’t get to experience the sense of loneliness I’ve felt out here all by myself in Spain. In hindsight I could have done with that. It would have made me stronger!
How easy is it to travel, find work, snag an apartment, etc if you show up in the country with only a rudimentary knowledge of Vietnamese?
Ha! Simple answer. Incredibly easy. Not having the language is almost a given for any foreigner showing up in Vietnam (except Viet Kieu of course) so everyone goes through the same process. A lot of people–even long-term residents –lived out of hostels full-time because they are so cheap!
When I arrived I was already set up with a school to train for the CELTA so they arranged accommodation for the first night and then we just stayed on for a fortnight after that. When it came down to finding an apartment we just browsed on the Internet for nice looking places, sent an email and then an estate agent with English showed up and arranged everything. Very easy!
Finding work is a no-brainer too. As a native English speaker I was in high demand—especially in Ho Cho Minh City where it appears that there is an English school on every street. The simple act of walking down a street can sometimes lead to a world of opportunities.
As for travel, Vietnam has become a prime location on the backpacker trail (and now more for luxury travel) so it has a fairly decent infrastructure that allows you to get around easily and cheaply. You can take a bus to Cambodia, Thailand, or Laos and also fly with Air Asia for very cheap too. It’s a great base to see the rest of Southeast Asia.
Sand dunes on Mui Ne Beach
I remember that people gave me all sorts of advice when I was packing for Spain. What advice were you given that later turned out to be laughable? What helpful suggestions did pals throw your way?
Hmm. I’d say the money-belt—it’s ALWAYS in the guidebook—is a waste of time. Wearing that thing in the humidity of Vietnam? Forget about it.
For Vietnam I’d say less is better. Forget about a coat – it never gets cold enough. I ended up buying T-shirts and having formal wear made over there for a lot cheaper than I’d ever get it back home. Listen to what people tell you about Vietnamese tailors—they’re the shit!
Don’t listen to the people who tell you to pack loads. The lighter the better.
But then I am experimenting with minimalism so appreciate some people might need more!
A fair amount of minimalism in the mud baths in Nha Trang
What is the general attitude toward learning English in Vietnam?
Feverish. Crazed. Desperate. Vietnamese people all want to learn it—the demand is absolutely huge.
The culture might still be fairly traditional but Western elements are definitely creeping in (some might even say commonplace). Teens think of speaking English as fashionable.
As far as students go I found the Vietnamese to be very diligent and respectful. They were always very punctual. Sometimes they would be very tired—they have crazy school hours and are forever in some class or another—but they still would try their best.
I have very fond memories of joking around with them, luckily they don’t take themselves too seriously either!
Eating fro-yo with a student
Private English classes are very much in demand in Spain—can the same be said for Vietnam? Give us the scoop on private lessons—what to expect to be paid, how to find and keep ‘em, etc.
Private lessons are indeed in demand yet unlike in Spain—where conversation is generally the only thing wanted—the Vietnamese want the whole lot. They want private tutors to give them tests, to drill them and to give them tonnes of worksheets.
You can make a very comfortable living as a private teacher in Vietnam just by cutting out the institutions. Although it’s not as well-developed as Spain economically, you can still expect to make at least $10 an hour depending on your student. If you snag business people or even Korean people working there you could potentially make a lot more.
The best way to find them? Talk. Never stop telling people what you do. Never stop telling locals (learn a bit of the language so that you can). It’s also a good idea to hang out where the locals go—there is a fair bit of separation between local and expat hangouts—and post notices with your phone number. Printing business cards helps too!
We’ve seen in other interviews that teaching materials are hard to come by. What unexpected resources did you have at your disposal, and what materials, if any, did you wish you had?
Luckily the school I was working at, ILA, had amazing resources and every teaching book imaginable. We also had mini-whiteboards, flashcards, balls, toy fishing rods—everything you could imagine. I lucked out big time in that regard!
I’ve worked at schools with nothing though and yes, it’s tough. I find myself wishing for mini-whiteboards more than anything. There’s so many games you can play with them and students like the whole individual/small team effort thing.
Of course I would have liked a superhuman movie projector too. That would have killed a few hours.
Posing with a friend, not a student
Will, you seem solidly entrenched in the online English-speaking community in Spain. Is there a similar expat enclave in Vietnam, and, if so, how did you take advantage of that?
Ha! I hope I’m not—I try my best to avoid any English-speaking community as it’s detrimental to my language goals. I actually don’t know any other native English-speakers in Granada apart from myself! I hardly knew many in Caceres either.
In Vietnam there’s a huge enclave. People going to the same bars, clubs, living in the same apartment blocks, going to the same gyms etc. Because it’s so easy to be part of that—and the language APPEARS so hard for people—most people remain in that bubble. Luckily I was working for a magazine as well as teaching so I got to mix with lots of different people.
I’m far more of a local in Spain however!
Sounds like you got to dig beneath the surface, but what cultural differences took the longest to get used to? What things, after two years, were still difficult to wrap your mind around?
Wow. There are so many different things about Asia and Europe I don’t know where to start.
I think the biggest thing was the idea of “face”, or rather “saving face”, which if you go to Southeast Asia you’ll no doubt experience. Vietnamese people will always tell you they CAN do something even when it’s seemingly impossible. If they make mistakes don’t expect them to admit it. If there are delays or hitches in a plan expect for them to cover it up or make excuses in whichever way they can. Irritating but, like all things, you get used to it.
Everything else is pretty crazy too, from the traffic to eating out (bringing out food at random times), from walking through a market (getting stared at) to asking for vegetarian food and being served meat (no different from Spain in that regard!).
I loved how different it was. I find myself missing that a lot.
Footballing with other teachers
You’re nostalgic! Now that you’re in Spain looking back on your years teaching in Vietnam, what do you wish you had done differently? What do you miss about the country?
I honestly say I don’t wish I’d have done a single thing differently except perhaps have committed to learning the language more and really made an effort to work on my skills. Perhaps I should have stayed out there and stuck with my magazine writing instead of coming back to England—that’s a slight regret.
I miss the country everyday. Especially the weather and the opportunity of going swimming in a pool in the middle of the day. Also the fact you can get anything you want there for dirt cheap!
Oh and the people’s smiles. Vietnamese people are really warm and welcoming. Not to mention funny.
Daytripping to froyo, of course
You make it sounds very appealing so far. In what ways did living in Vietnam help you when it came time to explore other countries and cultures?
I left England a boy, I left Vietnam a man. How’s that for drama? Ha! But honestly the whole experience just revolutionised my life. Standing in front of students everyday, watching them grow, turned me into a very confident and outgoing person. The experience has helped propel me forward in Spain and with Spanish to no end.
In terms of living abroad it was about as wild as you can get. Spain does seem tame in comparison. But a comfortable tame. Having the experience of living and working in Vietnam, being part of the upper middle class of society, all at the age of 22—well, that does weird things to your head. I can never go back home and settle into 9-5 life again. Nor do I ever want to.
Vietnam showed me there is a whole world of possibility out there and I’m hungry to keep moving forward.
Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year travel website for backpackers and young travellers. He is also the Associate Editor at the digital travel magazine Vagabundo. Keep up with Will—though I daresay it’s not an easy thing to do—on his blog, My Spanish Adventure, as well as his ever-busy twitter, @myspanishadv.