Coming to Vietnam to teach English is, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done. However, whilst it is a powerful, interesting and character-forming experience, it isn’t all fun and games. Teaching abroad isn’t the same as travelling through a country and merely glimpsing its best bits; it’s doing the same thing, day-in, day-out and taking the rough with the smooth. Life in Saigon is fun, vibrant and varied; it can also be frustrating and hectic. So here is my extensive but by no means exhaustive pros and cons list about life in HCMC.
- Teaching is the best. I guess this is actually a matter of opinion, but for me one of the best things about living in Ho Chi Minh City is being able to do a job that I absolutely love and have a real passion for. It’s amazing being able to do something that has a positive impact on others, and I think it really gives me a sense of purpose that I was lacking after I graduated from university. Teaching isn’t a job that causes you to think “Oh, what’s the point?” because “the point” is sitting right in front of you. I’ve become very attached to my students and seeing them progress and improve is a wonderful feeling. Teaching can also be a bit of an ego boost. Whilst I’m aware that, at this point, the main requirement to be a teacher in the UK is probably a bloody thick skin, teaching here can make you feel like a rockstar. It might sound smug and conceited, but how can you not smile when you walk into a room and hear shouts of “Yay! Cô Hannah! Cô Hannah!” Students here will automatically be interested in you because of your status as a foreigner, as well as the simple fact that education is more highly valued in Vietnam. Here, it’s still a privilege and not a right. Respect for your elders is also part of Vietnamese culture and so students are, on the whole, more polite and willing to learn.
- Experiencing a new culture. Even though I’ve probably only scratched the surface, I know so much more about Vietnamese culture than I would if I just travelled here for a few weeks. Granted, I live in Saigon, where life has been modernised and traditions diluted, but it’s still a world away from the UK. Living here has been a huge learning experience for me and I would like to think that it’s left me more open-minded and resilient.
- The people. Vietnamese people are unbelievably warm, friendly and generous. At home, I think often our instincts are not to trust strangers, but here people will go out of their way to help someone they barely know. Kindness and consideration seem to be ingrained in Vietnamese society, and it truly is one of the best things about the country.
- Few working hours. Ha. I actually opted for a job with in-office time that means I work 44 hours per week, when I could make the same money for half of that. Don’t ask me why. However, the vast majority of teachers here will work between 15-30 hours per week. If you work for a public school, this will be mornings and afternoons Monday to Friday, and evenings and weekends if you work for a private language centre like me. Although the hours are on the antisocial side, many teachers will have a similar schedule to you so having a social life shouldn’t be impossible; things just adjust. Sunday night is the new Friday night!
- High salary. Native English teachers in Vietnam earn a very high wage compared to the cost of living, meaning that despite working relatively few hours, you can make enough money to live very comfortably on and save some money every month. (Of course, how much you save does depend on your lifestyle, habits and budgeting ability). If you’re a native speaker, you can expect to earn between $17-22 per hour, depending on experience and whether or not you hold a degree.
- Low cost of living. Vietnam is an insanely cheap country to live in which, combined with my relative high salary, enables me to live in a way I would never be able to afford at home. I live in a luxury apartment building with a gym and a beautiful pool, and it only costs me $350 (£260) per month; I wouldn’t even be able to rent a room Monday-Friday in Cambridge for that much. In addition, I can go out to nicer bars and restaurants a lot more frequently than I would do at home, without feeling anywhere near a similar-sized dent in my bank account.
- The food. When I first arrived, I was absolutely obsessed with Vietnamese food. My passion definitely cooled somewhat as time went by; I still enjoy the local cuisine but my preferences definitely returned to western somewhere along the line. Luckily, there is an abundance of really good western food here too, so, much like Hannah Montana, you get the best of both worlds.
- Teaching can be exhausting. Whilst I absolutely love it, there’s no denying that teaching requires energy and patience. At first, it felt really hard at times. Teaching is a kind of performance art, in truth; it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling that day, because your students need to be educated and entertained. I remember crying on the back of a Grab bike on the way to work, exhausted and frustrated by my hapless driver and wondering how on earth I was going to act cheerful to a room full of eight-year-olds in twenty five minutes’ time and yet somehow… I did it. It gets a lot easier and you get used to it, but teaching is a job that will always challenge you in one way or another, and it’s something to be aware of.
- Antisocial hours. I would love to be more involved in the expat community here, but the events all seem to be in the evenings and at weekends. Currently, I get home from work at 10.30pm, which is late even for a teacher, so I can’t go to the gym, out for dinner or even to the supermarket after work. Most of my friends also only have one day off per week, and it’s a different day for everyone, so trying to arrange a group trip somewhere is pretty much out.
- The language barrier. I know this one is entirely my fault for not making more of an effort to learn Vietnamese (in my defence the pronunciation is very difficult) but the language barrier is an inevitable source of frustration, as it would be in any country.
- The traffic situation. Bikes, bikes, everywhere. Getting stuck in a traffic jam is a sweaty, exhaust-fume-filled nightmare. Uber and Grab bike drivers seem to have no sense of direction at all, and sometimes it feels like they’re purposefully trying to kill you. That being said, getting my own motorbike really helped me to embrace the chaos!
- Questionable manners. Whilst this in no way outweighs every good thing I have just said about Vietnamese loveliness, a lot of the men (and some of the women) like to pick their nose in public and spit very loudly and animatedly. It still makes me flinch every single time. Worst of all, I also saw one man very energetically shaking what I can only describe as a snot snake from his nose. Just. Not. Ok.
- Saigon is dirty. I love this city; it’s energetic and endless fun, but it’s a long way from clean and picturesque. As I’ve said before, you learn to love it. Living here is amazing, but I could do without the rats and roaches, just sayin’.
- Sending money out of the country is difficult. For everything I’ve said about saving money, sending money home has proved really difficult for me because Vietnamese Dong is a closed currency. I don’t have a work permit, so I’m not allowed to transfer money home either through banks or PayPal. There are ways around it (i.e. sending money home with a visitor or selling dong to visiting friends) but it’s not a regular and reliable thing. It’s no reason not to come here, but just something to be aware of, because it came as quite an unpleasant surprise to me.
- Clothing sizes. Finding clothes, shoes and bras in my size is a lot more difficult here. Possible, of course, but you walk into many shops knowing it’s unlikely they’ll have anything to fit you. I kept a pair of cheap black pumps loooooong after they reached an unacceptable condition purely because it was too hard to find anything else closed-toe. H&M opened recently which is a bit of a blessing, but I do miss how much easier shopping was at home. On the plus side, getting clothes made is as cheap as chips!
So there you have my (rather lengthy) pros and cons list. As is the case with anything, there are drawbacks to living and working in Ho Chi Minh City but I don’t think anything on my ‘cons’ list is reason enough not to come here. Like anything in life, a move abroad requires some adjustment but now it feels so normal to me that I can’t help but wonder if I’ll get a mini culture shock when I return to the UK…