Teaching English abroad is one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s also been one of the most challenging experiences in my life. Nearly a year has passed since I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As a 22 year-old young woman from a small Canadian city, the heat, noise and population of this place initially left me so shocked that I wasn’t sure about the length of time I would stay here. After 10 months, I look back on the person I was when I first arrived and can’t help but chuckle a little; I had so much to learn.
So here’s 5 things I learned while living and teaching in Vietnam.
1: Practicing the art of patience
Vietnam is completely different from anything I’ve ever known. Aside from the obvious things like a change in climate, food, and language, adjusting to the cultural differences posed a unique challenge. Despite the fast-paced nature of Ho Chi Minh City — crazy traffic, insistent honking and to-go meals on every corner— it’s actually a relaxed city culturally. For the most part, no one seems to be in a rush. For example, almost all shops, banks, restaurants, airports, etc. are over staffed, but this seems to make no difference with regards to efficiency. One time at the bank, I watched four people help one person for 20 minutes while I waited in line. When my turn finally came, they informed me that actually the bank would now be closing for the next two hours on lunch break.
If this had happened in Canada, I would have put up a fuss. I would have gotten angry and demanded to be served. But after several frustrating instances like this, I began to realize that this kind of behaviour gets you absolutely nowhere in Vietnam. Respect is a huge part of the culture here, as is the concept of “saving face,” which essentially means keeping your cool in public. I soon learned that getting angry and losing my patience would not only ruin my day, but it would actually set me back in achieving my task. Patience is a skill and it must be practiced — Vietnam taught me that.
2. A new sense of community
Vietnamese people put a value on community that I haven’t seen before. For one, Ho Chi Minh City is so populated that people must live in extremely close quarters. Therefore, it’s a necessity to respect those around you and to not make loud noise at night. But beyond that, I’m struck by how people go out of their way to help others, offering what little they have (some soup, tea or a stool to sit on) to complete strangers. This outlook is pretty opposite from the Western world, where capitalism has instilled an emphasis on looking out for yourself.
This value of community is even reflected in the language: in Vietnamese, you should refer to someone by a certain pronoun depending on their age in relation to yours. For example, if I said hello to a woman around my age I would say “chào chị” which translates to “hello sister.” If I said hello to my neighbour who is a middle-aged man, I would say “chào chú,” which means “hello uncle.” I spoke to a Vietnamese teaching assistant about this observation one time. In response, she smiled and said, “yup, we’re like a big happy family!”
3. Living without personal space
According to an article by local news media outlet Saigoneer, Ho Chi Minh City’s population officially reached 13 million people this year. The article says that, “this official statistic places Saigon among the world's densest cities with 6,200 people per square kilometer, slightly more than Tokyo's figure of 6,158 people per square kilometer.” For those who might not know, Tokyo is the world’s most populated city. The fact that HCMC has a density larger than Tokyo does is pretty shocking.
But at the same time, it isn’t. One of the most accurate adjectives I’d use to describe this city would be crowded. There’s just not enough space for the population: not on the roads, not in the grocery stores, and not within the infrastructure.
I remember speaking to a Vietnamese man on one of my flights over here, and he said that a big difference between our cultures is that the Vietnamese don’t value personal space like those from the West do. He was right. It’s very normal for generations of a family to live together in the same house: cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, elders, and kids. It’s also typical for people to invade your personal space by reaching across your body at a restaurant, to touch you in order to get your attention, or to nudge you at the airport if you’re in their way. That sounds very negative but it’s the truth! This is another cultural difference that took me quite some time to adjust to.
However, I can say that now I appreciate the crowds. You’re never alone and you’re certainly never bored. It’s always exciting, interesting and there’s always something to do. I feel comforted when a stranger joins me for coffee, intrigued by my foreign features and hoping to practice their English. I don’t mind when someone I don’t know grabs my hand or shoulder during a conversation; I’ve learned that it’s an affectionate gesture and quite normal to do here. These things were difficult to understand at first, but I know when I eventually go home to Canada I’ll miss them. It’s all part of the experience.
4. Communicating despite the language barrier
English isn’t widely spoken in Vietnam, hence why there are so many teaching jobs here! And unfortunately, learning Vietnamese is difficult because it’s a tonal language. This means that if you pronounce something slightly wrong, it can have a completely different meaning from what you intended to say. That’s intimidating, for me at least. Ultimately you can get by here without knowing Vietnamese, especially when your job doesn’t require that skill. (I also got lazy and I’m not proud of that).
Instead, I learned to get by on some simple phrases, such as greetings, apologies, and asking for a price. The most useful thing I’ve learned in Vietnamese has been numbers. With numbers, you can order food, ask and understand costs, say addresses, your age, and communicate how much petrol you need (important!). Although I do really struggle with Vietnamese, the phrases that I manage to retain go a long way. People here appreciate the effort, and will respect you more for trying. It’s also a signal to them that you’re living here, and not just a tourist.
I’ve discovered how far body language can go, too. One of the things I love about Vietnam is how people are always smiling. It’s as much a part of the language as knowing how to speak it. If you can master some simple greetings and flash a genuine smile, you will be welcomed in Vietnam.
5. How to ride a motorbike!
The main method of transportation in Vietnam is motorbike. In the major cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, this means crazy traffic, but commuters aren’t left with much of a choice other than to join in on the madness. Most people, myself included, drive automatic or semi-automatic scooters from makers like Honda or Yamaha. Luckily rental companies are abundant with prices as low as $40 USD per month, or if you opt for purchasing your own, prices start around $250 USD.
Scooting around the city by motorbike is one of the most defining and unique experiences of living here. My favourite time to go for a joy ride is at night, when traffic dies down and the temperature is breezy. But even during the busy and congested drives, it’s pretty interesting to see what is typically hidden behind tinted car windows out on display – couples, families of 3 or 4, busy delivery workers and even huge dogs are among the sights you see on motorbikes here.
Additionally, learning how to drive a scooter in the city means you can also drive one when you travel – through mountains, in the countryside or around islands. And travelling is a big reason many of us teach abroad, isn’t it?!
To conclude… Moving abroad isn’t exactly easy. It’s difficult, it’s frustrating and it’s overwhelming. That being said, it’s also wonderful, exciting, fun, rewarding, unbelievable, and the best kind of rollercoaster. If you are thinking of teaching English but you’re not sure if the risks will outweigh the rewards, I can almost guarantee they will. Go into the experience with an open mind and a willingness to learn about your host country’s culture, and you will thank yourself a few months after the big move! It gets easier and more enjoyable as time passes. Trust your gut and go for it.
If you’d like to follow my teaching journey and travels along the way, read more posts on my blog: www.storiesafar.com, or find me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ashley_corb/. Thanks for reading!
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