Living in Vietnam
While Vietnam may not be the first country that you think about when considering teaching in Southeast Asia, it probably should be. With a population of over 80 million, it’s the second-biggest in ASEAN behind Indonesia. Teaching jobs are plentiful, and they’re often better-paid than in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and even Thailand.
Vietnamese, Bahasa (Indonesia and Malaysia) and Tagalog (Philippines) are the only languages in Southeast Asia that are written with the Roman alphabet. Long ago Vietnamese was written in characters, just as Chinese and Japanese still are. However the French instituted a switch to the Roman alphabet, and literacy rates spiked as a result.
Written Vietnamese is thus easy to pick up. A few vowels are modified with extra marks to indicate how they are pronounced, and tone marks are written directly above the word. This is unlike, Thai, Lao and Burmese, in which the tone of a word must be determined following a variety of rules.
Unfortunately, Vietnamese is a tonal language. Five tones are used in southern Vietnamese, while yet an extra one is employed in northern Vietnamese.
One fortunate part of learning Vietnamese is that there are a few good books for foreigners to learn Vietnamese, and there are also a variety of apps for iPod, iPad and Android devices. These can also be found for the languages of larger and more-developed countries like Thai and Bahasa, but they can’t bet be found for languages like Khmer, Lao and Burmese.
Eating in Vietnam
In large cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City you’ll be able to find a fair selection of foreign food, with big clusters of restaurants near backpacker areas as well as some more scattered around the city. It’s easier to find international cuisine than in Vientiane, but unfortunately not as easy as in Phnom Penh. However, Vietnam makes up for it with a wide variety of local food shops, restaurants and sidewalk stalls.
Vietnam has an unrivaled cafe culture as well. Cafes seem to be the default social gathering spot, and Vietnamese coffee is cheap, strong and delicious. While some cafes are run as serious businesses, many other cafes are simply run by housewives who section off the half of their house that faces the street and open up a cafe, so that they have something to do while looking after their children. In these cafes you can usually relax in a lawn chair, listen to some pop music and read a book while watching the traffic go by, all for under 50 cents per cup of coffee.
Shopping for food is also rather easier than in Cambodia and Laos, as most cities in Vietnam will have some kind of supermarket where you can buy packaged food, fresh fruits and vegetables (though they’re cheaper at the market!), and cold items as well. You’ll also find the usual markets and small food shops, just as in every other country in the region.
Compared with Cambodia and Laos, Vietnamese people tend to be a bit more outgoing. This means you’ll soon find yourself with more invitations to drink coffee and sing karaoke than you can accept. I’ve even had people pull up next to me while I was riding my bicycle and try to strike up a conversation! You’ll find as much social interaction as you want in Vietnam, and sometimes more.
Cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang have sizable expat populations as well. The first two are major cultural, economic and tourism centers, so they have a range of activities you can get involved in, including recreational sports teams, art groups, language classes, dance clubs and more. As one teacher there observed, almost everyone comes abroad alone, so expats seem to make lots of effort to meet new people and welcome them to the city.
There are stories that Ho Chi Minh City’s metro will be finished by 2020, but no one’s holding their breath for it. In the meantime, you will be able to use intra-city public buses in most of the larger cities in Vietnam, but they are rather slow, packed with people, and often non-air-conditioned. As in Laos and Cambodia, nearly all expats end up buying their own vehicle.
However, in contrast with Vientiane and Phnom Penh, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are large enough that getting around on bicycle isn’t a good option. Second-tier cities like Can Tho, Da Nang and Hai Phong are small enough for bicycles though. In any case, you’ll likely need a motorbike if you want to live in Vietnam’s two largest cities, and the traffic in both places is some of the most hectic in Southeast Asia. You’ll need to spend a good amount of time getting used to driving, and you should always take it slow and keep to the right side of the road.
Also, unlike Vientiane and Phnom Penh, you can find car taxis without too much trouble in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Fares are modest at under $1 per kilometer. You can also take motorbike taxis for cheaper, but they sometimes feel more dangerous than driving on your own. Most expats still prefer to learn to ride their own motorbikes.
Teaching in Vietnam
You can get an idea of the kinds of work available in Vietnam by checking out the jobs board at The New Hanoian, but remember that there are far more jobs available throughout the rest of the country, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, even though you won’t find them posted on that site. While you can check out the jobs from abroad, as always its best to be in the country when you’re looking for work.
There’s currently a strong demand for English teachers in Vietnam, so it’s a good place to look!
With such a large population, there is a very large market for English instruction. Larger cities will have hundreds of private elementary and high schools, language centers and universities. There are hundreds if not thousands of teachers in Vietnam’s two largest cities, so there’s always a significant amount of turnover with new jobs opening up constantly.
For the most comprehensive list of schools in Vietnam that you can find (short of spending hours upon hours of your own time scouring the internet), check out my eBook Teaching English in Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Check out my article on my year teaching in Vietnam at Transitionsabroad.com.