Back to Vietnam: Life in Ho Chi Minh City

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Even though we didn’t enjoy our time in Hanoi, we decided to give Vietnam one more try. We had heard that Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, as the locals call it) was much different than the North end of the country, so we booked a ticket and tried this whole teaching English thing one more time from March until this July. As of this post, we’re just getting ready to leave again after four awesome months here.

Saigon really is a lot different than Hanoi. Perhaps it’s just the fact that the South is much different than the North, but it seems that everything from the traffic, to the food, to the locals is much better. 

The traffic

The roads are better for riding a motorbike since they’re set up with bike lanes and one ways, creating a lot less congestion than Hanoi. The roads are wider, with many of the major arteries being 3 or 4 lanes in each direction, separated by medians. In Hanoi, it was often two cramped lanes only. The craziness level is (a bit) lower and it’s way easier to get around. It took us only about two weeks before we no longer needed Google Maps.

The food

While Hanoi was amazing for traditional pho and bun cha, Saigon has so many more options, and all for incredibly cheap. We eat for about $5-7 a day, and that’s eating out for every meal. For breakfast, we grab noodles with spring rolls anIMG_7957d pork for 75¢. For lunch, I usually get an omlette with pork on noodles for $1 and a bubble tea (my favorite) for $1. Then for dinner, we get a buffet style chicken, pork, or beef dish with rice and veggies for $1.50. Luke often gets a large meat and rice lunch for $1-2.

You can also get banh mi sandwiches at any street stall for 50¢-$1, and different kinds of soups and noodles are everywhere. I really love the ‘pho Hue’ in the alley near our house, which we get for $1.50. It’s a special pho with a red broth and rare beef. There are also juice ladies everywhere that will sell you a mango smoothie for $1, and/or a freshly juiced fruit or veggie drink.

I could go on and on about the food, but that’s for another post!

The people

The locals have a much different attitude towards foreigners here, and I’m not sure why exactly that is. We are greeted with warm smiles and people who chatter away at us in Vietnamese, always excited to meet us. When we’re eating, people are so helpful and really want to make sure we enjoy their food (which we do!). Even at the gas station when my bike got blocked in, a guy jumped off his bike to back mine out for me.

IMG_8124We have a tea lady in the front of our apartment and she’s always smiling and chatting away at us, even though we have no idea what she says. It’s nice to try charades-type conversation with her. She’s like having a watchdog grandmother always looking out for us. Another lady down our alley has the cheapest tra tac (a lemon oolong ice tea) for 25¢, and she loves asking me where Luke is when I’m alone. She makes sure to always smile and wave at us when we drive by. It’s very charming, and a refreshing change from the cold stares of the North.

It’s been nice to really settle in here. We have a lady who mends our clothes for us (and gets stains out of Luke’s clothes), usually for about 50¢ or so. We have friendly ladies who run a vegetarian restaurant, where they sell buffet style imitation meat and rice at $1 a box. We have mechanics that laugh at us every time we come in but never overcharge us, and we have a smiley doorman named Lin who watches over us. We also have three friendly neighbourhood ‘So dogs’ (alley dogs) that we love to pet and feed. The locals judge Luke a little for being so hands on, but he just washes his hands immediately after. It has really begun to feel like home.

The expat community in Saigon is also much different. Here, everyone hangs out and goes to the same few places. There’s more of a nightlife and community feel here. In Hanoi, everything shut down at around 11pm, whereas here, there’s no time limit. We’ve made friends easily, enjoyed the kind of music we liked, and we get to hit up events all the time.

Our life

We’ve been living in a small one-bedroom furnished apartment in Binh Thanh district, which is outside of the main District 1. We pay about $290 (not including electricity) for our place, which has washer/dryer, Internet, and cleaners who comes 3x a week (they do our sheets too!). It’s on a nice quiet alley and we have Lin, who provides 24-hour security and helps me take myIMG_8378 motorbike out in the morning. We never have to worry about our bikes being stolen, as they’re under lock and key, and there are about three locked doors and a doorman between our apartment and the city. It’s nice to not have to worry about break-ins or theft, which is a very real reality in Asia.

We bought second hand motorbikes for very cheap. My Honda Wave was $150 off some backpacker with a flight the next day, and Luke got his Yamaha Nouvo for $230. Gas is about $2.50 a week for me, and $5 a week for Luke (he pays extra for a little horsepower).

It took us both about a week to find good jobs. We work down the street from one another at Korean language schools in District 7. We’ve been very happy with both places, and I have a second job at night that I love as well.

All in all, I’m really happy we gave Vietnam another chance. The country is a little rough around the edges, but has such a soft side to it. We’re working a ton to save up for the next leg of our journey but for the last four months, this has been our happy home.

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Tea time in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

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Upon arriving in Malaysia, we realized we really had no idea where to head off to next. We had arrived here on a fairly spur-of-the-moment decision, so we hadn’t planned our next stops. After browsing a few tourist agencies, we noticed several posters for Cameron Highlands, and decided to buy a $5 bus ticket.

No one had warned us about the twists and turns on the last hour of the drive. We also didn’t know it would be up the side of a mountain. The massive bus was careening around corners back and forth, and both of us quickly popped a Gravol to settle our stomachs. The views were nice, but I’m surprised we made it in one piece.

We had scored a quaint guesthouse for $10 a night. It was basic, but we had a private room and they served cheap (and good) food, so we were happy.

Cameron Highlands is a really small town nestled in the mountains and surrounded by the biggest tea plantations in Malaysia. The plantations in this region actually produce enough tea to supply all of Malaysia, although they do export much of it.
On our first day, we walked to the Cameron Valley Tea plantation. Taking about an hour, it was surreal to finally get to the top of the plantation and look down at all of the tea leaves. They explained to us that tea trees can grow endlessly, and we saw some of the massive trees that had never been pruned. The fields were filled with tea trees that were just as old, except they were constantly cut back to a size and shape that is easy to work with. We got to try some of their delicious tea and explore the plantation on our own after.

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On our way back, we decided to try and skip the hour-long walk (uphill this time) and stuck out our thumbs. Cameron Highlands is such a small town and the people of Malaysia are so incredibly kind, our guesthouse had actually recommended hitch hiking here. A guy and a girl our age pulled over in their work van and talked our ears off on the ride back. They were grinning ear-to-ear after having met us and we were so thankful to have a break for our feet, so the feeling was mutual.

The next day, we bought a packaged tour that would drive us to the top of Gunung Brinchang Mountain, followed by the Boh Tea plantation, and finish with a tour through the Mossy Forest. It was $15 for the whole excursion and it lasted all day.

The view from Gunung Brinchang was beautiful, although a bit crowded. We had to battle our way up an old iron lookout post to get a picture, but it was nice to see the entire view of Cameron Highlands.

After snapping a few pictures atop the mountain, we took our jeep to the Boh Tea plantation where we saw where Southeast Asia’s largest tea company. They took us on a tour of their tea fields, and we got to see them harvesting the leaves. We also went through their factory and were shown the process by which tea leaves are sorted, withered, rolled, aged and then dried. It was interesting to learn, and really made us appreciate the tea we got to try at the end!

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Last in the tour, we got to see the Mossy Forest, which looked like a scene from Avatar. The overgrown jungle was full covered in moss, hence the name. As this jungle was perched on the side of the mountain, the views were incredible. Our guide showed us massive pitcher plants and told us all kinds of cool facts about the forest. It was really interesting, as well as pretty.

In the evenings, we spent our time relaxing. We enjoyed some incredible and authentic Indian food, met some other travellers, and went to bed early to the sounds of crickets and frogs chirping.

Cameron Highlands may not have a ton to do, but if you want peace, quiet, and beautiful nature then it’s not to be missed.

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Teaching English in Vietnam

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We originally moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to try our hand at teaching English. It’s had it’s ups and downs, but overall it’s been a rewarding experience. Here are the basic pointers we’ve learned from teaching English in Vietnam. We’re by no means experts, but we learned a few lessons pretty quickly from being over here!

Getting a job

To get a job, we simply made a concise resume with our education, experience, and we emphasized our tutoring/teaching time with ESL students. If you have a degree and a TEFL/TESOL/CELTA, then you’ll have your pick of the jobs. If you lack either, you can definitely still find work, you’ll just have to hunt a little bit harder. Teachers in Vietnam make on average $18-20 an hour. Make sure you include a professional picture on your CV, as ‘looking the part’ is just as important as your qualifications. Jobs are posted daily on Hanoi Massive and Expats in Ho Chi Minh City (Facebook groups), as well as The New Hanoian.

Part-Time vs Full-Time

Don’t assume that you’ll be working a 9-5 schedule as soon as you arrive. This is a IMG_4066large city, and a lot of employers are offering teachers individual classes in the evenings and weekends. Classes are often littered throughout the day or evening andweekends only. Also, be wary of the amount of driving you’ll have to do. At first, we snapped up a bunch of classes but soon realized we were driving an hour to teach for an hour — definitely not worth it. Try to focus on jobs that are close by, or especially on jobs that offer large block chunks of teaching hours.

Contracts

We had some serious frustrations as a result of signing contracts when we shouldn’t have, and most of our friends have experienced this at some point as well. The contracts in this industry often seem to work one way – if you sign the contract and then break it (quitting early, showing up late, etc), they’ll keep your pay. As such, never sign a contract on the spot, and delay signing it for as long as you can until you’ve  gotten a feel for the job. Delaying by a week or two might be the difference between being stuck in a bad job and being free to go with pay. Also, be mindful that jobs try to lure you in with the promise of a work visa. They’ll either never follow through on this promise, continue to put it off, or get you one and you’ll be locked in with them for a year (or at risk of losing the money they put out to get you the visa). If you’re serious about staying here, make sure to get a company that will follow through. If you’re unsure about staying here, put off getting a work permit.

When to arrive

Every year, the entire country slows down for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. This year Tet falls on Feb 15-23, but you can check it online here. Less money gets spent in anticipation for the celebration, so there are fewer people hiring, and fewer hours being given to teachers. If you arrive in January or February, prepare yourself for a very slow start. That being said, all other times are consistently good. May/June is perfect to get hired for the summer term (students are out of school, and hours are high), or November/December to replace all the teachers leaving for Christmas.

Type of schools/classes

Be picky about where you work and try to find somewhere you enjoy. Teaching at a public school can be very rewarding if you enjoy children, but classes can range from 30-50 students with little to no help from teaching assistants and terrible organization. We often hear that teaching these classes are quite challenging. We’ve always opted for language centres for this10881514_10203484982632457_1604608478411638350_n very reason. This leaves us working mostly evenings and weekends, but the class sizes are smaller and we were lucky to get mostly adult/teenage classes. Teaching older students is awesome, as they’re more eager to learn and teaching conversational English is more enjoyable. On the other hand, kids classes are a lot of fun if you like playing games. Vietnamese children are always so happy and hilarious to spend time with.

Excellent way to travel

All in all, teaching English has proved to be an incredibly easy way to work while traveling. The low cost of living means that saving up for your next leg of traveling is not hard at all. We definitely made our moneys worth teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam. If you browse Dave’s ESL Cafe, the salaries for Korea, China and the Middle East all seem to leave room for quick savings, as well.