New kid on the block for teach abroad destinations, Vietnam is rapidly drawing a lot of interest and it’s easy to see why! I had the privilege of visiting this exciting city to experience it for myself and to chat to a few foreigners teaching English here to hear how life has been for them too. Here’s what I found out:
The locals are totally underrated
Vietnam has a reputation for not being as friendly as its two-doors-down neighbor, Thailand, but it’s a hard comparison to make. Smiling is deeply embedded in Thai culture, it’s expected by routine that you smile when dealing with people, particularly if you’re ‘serving’ them. While it’s immediately endearing to westerners, it can at times feel forced.
Many English teachers in Vietnam speak a lot of how warm and hospitable their Vietnamese coworkers and friends are. Many have been invited on local holidays, to countless dinners and karaoke sessions with their local friends too. And believe you me, a Vietnamese karaoke bar is something to be experienced, though be prepared to sing your lungs out (badly) to My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion when they pass the mic and say “we found western song for you!” It helps, as I did, to have a few Saigon Special beers in your belly at this point!
From my own experience in Ho Chi Minh City, I can vouch for the fact that Vietnamese people love showing off their city and including you in their social gatherings – even if you sit there and smile as everyone cracks unintelligible jokes with one another. The food will flow, as will the insanely cheap beers and you’ll be surprised at how much you can convey with just a smile and pointing.
Food is life
Food and eating is deeply engrained in Vietnamese society, in fact the casual phrase equivalent to “Hey, what’s up!” translates directly to “Have you eaten rice yet?”. One thing that immediately struck me is that, despite the relative poverty of especially the older folk in the city, come lunch time (around 11:30am), you’ll see poor lottery ticket hawkers all sitting down on the sidewalk with a delicious bowl of steamy broth filled with all sorts of nutritious meats and vegetables. From high society to the down and outs, eating good food is as fundamental as breathing.
How does the food compare to say Thai food? Well, let me put it this way, the Vietnamese regard Thai food as overly complicated, almost garish in it’s hedonistic and over-the-top attitude to ingredients. A local once said to me of Thai food: “Why so many ingredients? It’s crazy, we make the same thing better with just 3!” Whether it’s truly the same and truly better is something for hot debate, but one thing is sure, Vietnamese food has a uniqueness to it. It’s understated, subtle, plentiful and cheep!
On the beer-swilling karaoke evening I mentioned before, myself and a bunch of local guys sat ourselves down at a popular street-corner restaurant, the kind with low tables and tiny kid-sized plastic chairs which spill out onto the sidewalk. We’d all just eaten dinner somewhere else (amazing I might add), but the menus arrive and they say “you want to eat?” I never pass up food. And then it began to arrive, one plate at a time, in between cold beers served in chilled glasses with big blocks of ice in them, dish after dish of incredible food.
Blood cockles (don’t let the name put you off), cooked in their shells in garlic until it caramelizes, clams in a lemongrass broth, chicken of all kinds from drumsticks to knuckles, shredded pork, marinated deep-fried tofu, frogs legs and even century egg – that black preserved duck egg which is a delicacy for the not-so-squeamish locals. Everything, with the exception of that egg and maybe the avocado and durian smoothie I was fed one day (durian, you are my sweet, custardy, rotten-stinking nemesis) was incredible!
High pay – low cost of living = big savings
Teaching English in Vietnam will usually see you being placed at top-end private language centers, with corresponding pay I might add! This usually means the choice of a western-style luxury apartment or a more traditional house, depending on where you end up and what you want to spend – you could easily afford either. Teachers in Vietnam can afford a gym membership and a few good nights on the town every month without any issue while still putting away plenty of cash in the bank for travels or student loans. One teacher I met up with was even paying her law degree off from her time in Vietnam.
A meal out at a local street-side restaurant will set you back only a couple of dollars, a beer less than a buck (American) and a whole night out on the town with your mates could easily cost less than $20. Getting around without your own motorbike is not only easily possible but unbelievably affordable; both Uber and Asian competitor Grab offer bike taxis where you order on the app and hop on the back of a stranger’s bike to be taken a mile or two down the road at around a dollar for that experience. Both companies do car ‘taxis’ too like back home with the option to hire an actual taxi through Grab also, a ride to the airport from the heart of District 1 (downtown Ho Chi Minh) of about 5 miles will set you back less than $4.
On an aside here though: try not bragging to the locals you meet about your great salary (even though, shockingly they’ll likely ask you outright how much you earn) or about how cheap you find everything. Salaries in Vietnam for locals are often heartbreakingly low, every single local person I met had 3 jobs to make ends meet, most still lived with their families even though they desperately wanted independence. I quickly noticed that while they didn’t say anything explicitly, they clearly found it more than a little offensive to hear drunk foreigners crowing about how affordable they found it there. So just be considerate and mindful and you’ll get on fine!
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