I’ve just got back from the Paid TEFL Vietnam Internship and it truly was an eye-opener. My fellow interns and I experienced a whole lot and balanced our days with teaching some of the smiliest pupils around with exploring this amazing country together.
Here’s my top 10 list of what you need to know about life as a TEFL teacher in Vietnam.
1. The locals are the friendliest bunch you’ll come across
Vietnam is a country with a long, rich history – and in more recent years, it’s experienced some of the most astonishing tragedies. A lot of people lost family, friends and homes in the 2006 and 2006 typhoons, which swept the country. Climate change is suspected to be the cause of the increased frequency of typhoons, as well as floods.
The people here are resilient though, and are keen to look to the future. Community and hospitality are very important in Vietnamese culture so wherever you go, you’ll be welcomed like a friend. Make the most of this and find friends amongst the locals as well as your fellow travellers. It’s amazing what language barriers can be overcome with a smile!
2. When it rains, it pours!
And we mean that literally. As a country with a tropical climate, Vietnam is lush and green – but it only stays that way because of the regular torrential downpours the country experiences. A word to the wise: invest in one of the cheap-as-chips waterproof ponchos you’ll see on offer at roadside sellers. These hooded sheets cover your whole body and will keep a backpack dry, too.
3. You’ll be a minor celebrity
In many places in Vietnam (particularly rural locations), tourists and western travellers draw a lot of attention. You’ll hear calls of ‘hello, how are you?’ from old and young alike wanting to test out their English skills – so why not join in? A friendly smile and a hello will be really appreciated even if you don’t fancy a full-blown chat – and for extra brownie points, why not take the chance to pick up a few key Vietnamese phrases? Start with xin chao (that’s hello).
4. Be prepared to throw the schedule out of the window
As in many Asian countries, the Vietnamese have a relaxed approach to timekeeping and scheduling. It’s highly likely that at least once, you’ll turn up to school at 7am only to find out there and then that your lessons are cancelled.
Don’t get frustrated, just follow my fellow intern Vicky’s advice:
‘I jumped straight back in my taxi at 7.10, and was back in bed for a bonus lie-in at 7.30!’.
5. The traffic is not playing ball
The best way to sum up Vietnamese roads is: total chaos. There are no lanes as such, traffic lights are more suggestions than rules, and pavements aren’t necessarily off-limits to scooters. We advise our interns against travelling on scooters because of the high incidence of traffic accidents in Vietnam, and good luck getting insurance to cover you without a Vietnamese license.
All that said, you’ll quickly get used to navigating the roads safely – just follow these invaluable tips from our Vietnamese intern support coordinator, Yen:
‘Be cautious, look both ways and never stop moving!’.
Cars will slow and scooters will weave around you, but always keep your eyes peeled.
6. Bartering is expected!
Grabbing some souvenirs at the market is a must! Fragrant incense, a painted rice bowl, patterned fisherman’s trousers, a hand-made notebook, a hand-printed silk scarf… the list goes on. You’ll notice a lack of price labels, though – which is a signal to get your bartering hat on.
It can feel strange at first to westerners, but just start with a shake of the head and a counter-offer of around half the price stated – you’ll usually be able to meet somewhere in the middle. Just remember to keep currency in perspective – the amount you’re haggling over likely won’t be worth that much to you, but to the local person who relies on selling, it means much more.
7. The ‘traveller’s hump’: the struggle is real
And no, it’s nothing rude! Many interns (including myself) admitted to, at certain times, feeling out of their depth and overwhelmed with culture shock – even wanting to turn tail and go home at times. It’s natural to experience homesickness, but don’t let the traveller’s hump ruin this amazing experience for you. Some coping tips from our teachers:
• Share your feelings with others
• Speak to family and friends back home
• Catch up on your favourite shows on Netflix
• Treat yourself to your favourite western food
Rest up, be kind to yourself and you’ll be ready for bia hoi again in no time!
8. Expect to pay a little more than locals
Even in salons and cafes where a price list is present, you may find yourself faced with a larger bill than you expected. This discrepancy will usually only be a few thousand dong more, and is informally known as a ‘westerner tax’.
The Vietnamese are aware of how astonishingly cheap everything seems to western travellers, so are taking the opportunity to make a quick buck from those who can afford it. Unfair? Maybe. But again, ask yourself if it’s worth fighting over the equivalent of a few pence. Probably not.
9. It may seem overcast… but that sun is HOT
Your intrepid writer is penning this, shame-faced, in a Hoi An coffee shop with a stomach the colour of beetroot – and it hurts! The sun in Vietnam is sneakier than back home – it’ll seem like a grey, cloudy day in the morning, but that doesn’t mean that’s how the weather is going to stay.
Always, always slather on that sun cream, and try to avoid the sun or keep well covered in the hottest hours around noon. Nobody wants to have to miss lessons or exploring because of easily avoided sunburn.
Overall, teaching English in Vietnam is an amazing way to experience the local community first hand, make a real difference in the lives of your students, and gain some stellar professional teaching experience that’ll stay with you forever.
As teaching destinations go, Vietnam can’t be beaten – so what are you waiting for? Grab our inspiring Vietnam TEFL Internship guide here.