Wisdom is rarely intuitive, it’s through experience that we learn to make better decisions. On that note, here is my story, so that you can learn from my mistakes.

 

With bags packed and fraught nerves, my adventure to Hanoi began

 

After some hardcore TEFL course research, I decided upon and completed the internationally recognised CELTA qualification. It was a 120-hour, full-time, ‘intensive course’. And when they say ‘intensive’, they mean it. But after 30 days of hard work (and a few tears) I had my ticket to freedom. CELTA allowed me to find English teaching work anywhere in the world. This wasn’t a holiday I was signing up for, it was a whole new life; transience had become the new permanence.

 

It turns out that the tears and effort were worth it. For every ten people taking CELTA, statistically, eight of them will receive a Pass C, two will receive a Pass B, and none will receive a Pass A. I can proudly say that I received an A-. For the first time, I felt like I had found my calling.

 

Even armed with one of the most credible English teaching qualifications, a lot of hard-work, and thorough research, I still felt unprepared to take the jump and move, alone, halfway around the world to an unknown city where I didn’t speak the language.

 

My first big mistake

I needed some help!

So I decided to pay a well-known international company who would provide opportunities to go and teach abroad. Doing it alone isn’t for everyone and that’s OK. Yes, you can find everything on the internet nowadays but how do you decipher the fact from the fiction? It’s a minefield of information overload that was adding to my stress levels! I signed up for their Teach Abroad program which offered me a job, food and accommodation for the first six months. The relief of knowing I had somewhere to stay when I first arrived, already had a job lined up,a community of like-minded people and support on hand 24-7 made me feel much, much better.

I thought I had it all sorted, I thought I’d been smart, I thought I was prepared.

I was not prepared.

Before I had even left the UK, I ran into problems that a good adviser could have warned me about; Manchester Airport wouldn’t let me board the plane without a return flight! Having heard so many positive tales of life in Vietnam, I had decided to keep my options open for a longer stay. It turns out that that was an excellent decision, but Manchester Airport disagreed.

I tried to explain, I protested my ignorance, but I was faced with naught but an unsympathetic face. I rushed around, panicked, fighting back tears, trying to console myself. I weighed up my options, there weren’t many of them. It was go-home or splash-out a major chunk of my savings for a return flight. I was angry with myself, crying before I had even boarded, and full of doubts about my potential to survive abroad. Of course, I booked the return flight, but suddenly, even six months felt like a very long time.

Vietnam is a lot to get your head around.

 

Vietnam

When I finally made it to Hanoi, I was shocked by just how different everything was. The traffic was crazy, the roads were deadly, the hagglers were unnerving, and I was constantly being ripped off. Everything was new, the sights, the smells, the food, the environment. I stand by my initial assertion that nothing will ever prepare you for your first time in Asia!

My memories of that first day remain as vivid as if they were last week. I remember walking down the street in rush hour (and the Vietnamese take rush hour rather seriously), struggling to keep on the pavement as bikes pushed past (yes, they were driving on the pavement) and thinking, “I can’t do this”. Of course, I look back now and smile. I’ve come so far and learnt so much – hindsight is both wonderful and utterly useless!

If your program comes with ‘Free accommodation’ be sure to check it out first, as with many jobs and programs offering free accommodation, the dwellings may leave a lot to be desired and you may not get on with your flatmates. I was fortunate to end up living with two really great girls. However, one of my flat mates was the worst kind of people. It would have been nice to decide who I was going to spend the next six months living with… This is a definite consideration for any Teach Abroad program!

This situation made it difficult to meet friends, but when I did eventually meet them, I was further restricted by my schools 11pm curfew! This meant that I could never stay out late, even at weekends. I had come to Vietnam to experience true freedom and instead I’d found myself, for the first time in a long time, having an enforced bedtime! Make sure you choose your school wisely or enlist the help of someone who knows the market and has your best interests at heart.

 

You might not be surprised to hear that I ended up paying for an apartment much closer to the town centre. But my accommodation troubles didn’t end there, it had no road access, which meant when returning late at night I had to find my way down very dark, very concealed, alleyways which went against all my safety instincts. I had bought this apartment so I could socialise later into the night. But I was now too concerned to stay out late anyway, and ended up with a self-enforced curfew.

Your house-access may also leave a lot to be desired. Luckily, my first house through my Teach Aborad program has storage for parking and a nice easy access point. However, I was naive when renting my first accommodation! It was up a narrow, steep ramp – a surprisingly common feature in Vietnam. It’s no easy feat to push a motorbike heavier than your body-weight up there, especially when the alleyway behind you is full of busy locals trying to squeeze passed. I dropped the bike countless times (usually on my foot), smashed the wing mirrors, and blocked the entire alleyway full of angry Vietnamese people.

Then there was the teaching…what an experience!

When I first arrived at my designated school, I was asked to stand up in front of the students and sing. I must have missed the ‘singing’ lesson in my CELTA course. Luckily for me, I did drama and took it in my stride, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for shier teachers. The microphone was thrust into my hands and off I went. Well, the Vietnamese do love a bit of karaoke.

I was then ushered into a classroom of screaming children and left to my own devices. I was given a book and had to ask a student what page we were on. There was no training, no introduction. Nor were there any resources or materials to support me. What I really needed in a class of fifty 5-8 years old, was an assistant or three. This is why you really need to have access to someone with inside knowledge about schools in Vietnam! Five-year-olds had never looked so terrifying.

This was not even my biggest concern. I didn’t even have an up-to-date police clearance check (rooky mistake) and so had to wait for a Vietnamese one, which takes months to obtain. The school refused to pay my full salary until I had the documents for the work permit, and subsequently, I lost out on about $4000 US dollars. Oh, the places I could have seen and the things I could have done with that money

Moving onto my first motorbike, which cost me about five times too much money, had the wrong battery and consequently died three months later, never to see the light of day again. What was particularly annoying was that I had done a lot of research this time, but it still wasn’t enough. When people scam you, they, unfortunately, don’t come with red flashing lights above their heads saying “BEWARE- I’m going to take your hard-earned cash!”

Another helpful tip which no-one told me was that when buying a bike you should always check that the registration matches the accompanying “blue card”, and that the engine number matches the chassis number, and that they too are correctly recorded on the blue card (see, I’m a fountain of knowledge now). Without these, firstly you are probably being sold a dodgy bike and secondly it will make it much harder for you to sell. More money lost.

After my first month I felt stressed, I decided to treat myself to a holiday. I didn’t know many people so I went alone. Although I had an amazing time, I spent about 5 times too much as I didn’t know where to book, what to book in advance, what to do as a tour, and what was best done independently.

There goes my budget.

A whole $800 on a week-long trip. It was one of those moments when I walked out and did a double take, the full implications of what had just happened hitting me in the face… “But the lady was so nice!

You may be thinking that I was clueless, that I didn’t do my research, that I was naïve. Yes, I made mistakes, but I came with the best of intentions. Thank goodness I booked with an international teaching company who offered me help, support and guidance throughout my time in Vietnam. Without the ease and comfort of having everything sorted for me when I first arrived, not having to house or job hunt in an unknown city in an unknown language, I think I’d have gone crazy! Being able to ask the company every question under the sun, five times a day before my departure really helped to put me at ease and made me feel like I had someone to turn to when things went wrong! Without reliable, honest, information it’s all too easy to make mistakes. There really weren’t any solutions available. That’s why I created Teacher’s Friend – Vietnam. So that you can learn from my mistakes.

 

 

Written by Georgie Snape, edited by Alex Sinclair Lack, for Teacher’s Friend – Vietnam