Out of the Frying Pan

Weeks later and I have finally gotten round to writing an update Re: Teaching. You’ll see why it took me so long:

The fourth week of teaching has drawn to a close and I can’t believe it. I feel as though I’ve been in Hanoi for yonks. To think that it was only six weeks ago since I was embarking on the plane journey. So, what’s life as an English teacher in a foreign land like? It would be difficult for me to sum it up really, as I seem to go through about a million emotions every day. Most days I’ve felt tired, nervous, frustrated, chilled, silly and content before I’ve even got home in the evening. Probably explains why I seem to be at the local every evening. And to think, I didn’t even like beer before I came to Vietnam.

Teaching here has certainly been a challenge, and whilst I’m still very glad to be here, I definitely think many of us hit the middle stages of The Four Stages Of Travel. (This was hammered home a fair bit during training, hence the doom-and-gloom majuscule.) It goes something like this: wonder, frustration, depression and acceptance. Fear not, I think I’m mostly in the fourth category now, but I shall endeavour to explain how I came to reach this point.

Disclaimer: This is not just me having a good old whinge. Ok, I am a bit, but I hope you can see the humour in all of these scenarios. I actually find most of it hilarious, albeit in retrospect. Plus I’ve great things to tell you too.

‘Twas the night before week 2 that I was wondering how I was going to get through 19 teaching weeks (without a half term I might add). In the taxi on the way to school each morning, I did find myself thinking about all those little things you miss about home: tea, chocolate bourbons, Question Time, University Challenge, a mattress… Only short, sporadic intervals of home sickness, but my goodness did I want tea, bourbons and QT on my home sofa that first week. It was an intense induction week even though I had a day off due to being ill. Slightly embarrassing story – stop reading now if you’re squeamish – it was my third day of teaching and I felt the teensiest bit queasy after lunch. Water, food poisoning or caffeine overdose, who knows (coffee here is strong enough to make me shake, even though I like a stronger brew). I began my afternoon at a new school but by the end of the second lesson I felt very strange indeed. 5 minutes into break and I was slumped on the dirty bathroom floor with my head in a reeking toilet. To make matters worse, another teacher happened to be powdering her nose at the same time and probably witnessed the whole ordeal. My cubicle door wouldn’t close, let alone lock.

‘Im fine! Just a funny turn!’ I told my TA. But half way into my final lesson I had to go and sit outside again. For once, my taxi was on time that afternoon, and the driver clearly knew some English, which often isn’t the case. The poor fellow launched into a conversation about me being an English teacher but within 30 seconds I was yanking a plastic bag out of my rucksack for Round 2. Couldn’t help sobbing ‘so sorry’ in between retches. Whilst I managed to catch most of it, I have to confess that not all of the miserable stomach contents made it into the carrier bag. To top if off, I had the joy of trying to sign the taxi receipt with my left hand so I could keep hold of the bag of doom and was then seen by fellow teachers walking down my road in soiled clothes and carry the bag. Vietnam, y u no have public bins!? So yes, it was a rather trying week, and even though there’s no way I would have thrown in the towel I did question why I was here on a number of occasions.

That little episode was probably one of the most exciting events of week. Pretty much anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, and usually several times over. In fact, I may as well use bullet points to summarise for that reason. Here goes:

1. Taxis

They come super early, super late, get lost, or just don’t turn up at all. Yep, transport has been chaotic to say the least, although things are beginning to become slightly more regular. Just two days in I missed almost two lessons. After rising at some ungodly hour, we were waiting for taxis at 7 am. Thanks to a spell of torrential rain the roads were flooded and the taxi company had cancelled all of their cabs. We stood around clueless as to what was going on for the best part of 45 minutes before the taxi coordinator moved us to the main road. By 8 am we were shoved into taxis (or xe om motorbikes for some!) and began the long trek through flooded, gridlocked streets. I was with my house mate, and we were both a little shocked when our taxi driver started furiously yelling at another driver. Apparently, losing face, or your temper, here is a no-no, so something must have riled him right up. Never mind, we made it eventually.

2. Long Days

Of course, work days at home are usually long and stressful, but the main difference here is there is much more time spent…well, doing nothing. I wonder why I’m not enthused by this. I often found I was rushed off my feet in my last job, and break and lunch times were a rush (assuming I wasn’t on duty/running a club etc). I wonder if this is a symptom of the pace we live our lives back home. Rather than running around like headless chickens, the average school day looks something like this:

7:00. Get taxi

8:00. Lesson 1

8:40. Lesson 2

9:20. Break

9:40. Lesson 3

10:20. Lesson 4

11:00. Lunchtime

2:00. Lesson 5

2:40. Lesson 6

3:20. Break

3:40. Lesson 7

4:20. Lesson 8

5:00. Home time!

It’s not horrendous, but even on a full day, you’re only delivering lessons for approx. 5.5 hours, but effectively at work for 10. Three hour lunch breaks were the biggest shock for me initially, but I’m getting into the swing of these lunchtime naps. You feel like death once you’ve woken up, but they are often necessary given the late nights (our fault) and early mornings (theirs 😉 !)


Stick a few chairs together – there’s your bed!


One of the ‘Teacher Rooms’ – the obligatory bust of Uncle Ho, but no Lenin or Marx portraits in this one.

3. Timetable Changes

By the end of the first week my original timetable had already changed, and has another two times since then. Changes in themselves haven’t been so bad, but we were too scared go to sleep during week 1, for fear that more emails detailing alterations would start coming through at midnight. If not that, it would be us messaging them back to correct their mistakes. All rather last minute and stressful.

There’s also the issue of cover which I thought I’d long since escaped after finishing at Stratford. However, even that isn’t straight forward. I was asked to cover three lessons one afternoon. Fair enough, I thought. However, after a good 45 minute drive, I was given a puzzled look by a TA who mumbled something about me not teaching until period 7. Great. 1 hour 45 mins to kill with nothing to do but play Snake on my little Nokia. Period 5 and 6 passed, break passed, and period 7 began. And no one came to meet me. I walked around the school to see if I could find anyone. Nothing. I phoned my employees to find out what was going on:

Them: ‘Oh, uh, that’s very strange, let me find out.’

*20 minutes later – phone rings again*

Them: ‘Hello, Sophie, has your TA come to meet you?’

Me: ‘No sorry. I’m in the staff room but no one is here. And we’re now halfway through the lesson.’

Them: ‘Oh. That’s very strange….um. I’m sorry……uh’

*Call ended*

Got back in a taxi at 4:30 and went home again. Wonderful. Note to self: always take your book, for goodness sake!


You rushed me. Now you pay the price of my terrible art work. #sorrynotsorry!!!

4. Culture Clash

You’d expect this of course, but a few things take a bit of getting used to. For example, I’m only teaching primary students and no secondary, as are most female teachers here. Here, it’s considered inappropriate for men to teach the younger children (except for PE), so even girls who requested to teach secondary are in primary schools. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes male and female norms here. I wonder how the locals regard the women in our group, seeing as ‘Vietnamese women do not drink or smoke’. There’s plenty of both going on down our local every evening.

Without wishing to sound condescending, schools here are what you’d expect British schools would have looked like in the 1960s. The children have to write in a very particular hand that’s almost like calligraphy. I don’t think many teachers have been impressed with my wobbly scrawling on the board. No one’s said anything, but I’ve noticed some TAs go over the dots on my ‘i’s when I’m not looking. Other teachers have had much blunter comments about their handwriting and one of my housemates was even asked not to write with her left hand because it would ‘set a bad example’ to the students. In fact, I asked one student to write the letter ‘C’ on the board for me and I’m pretty certain he was naturally left handed, judging by the way he held the chalk in his left hand first, and then switched to his right to wrote a tiny, wobbly ‘c’. Poor guy.

There’s also the issue of corporal punishment. I think I was more scared than the kids when I first heard ‘hoc sinh!’ (class) and the ruler slam on the desk during my first lesson! Most of our TAs work for the same company as us and are instructed not to hit students. However, sometimes if you have a TA who works directly for your school, you find they are more inclined to slap the children. Luckily, I’ve only witnessed a few taps and ear-pulls, but I’ve heard of much harsher punishments. It’s tricky; it’s your lesson, but then you are also the outsiders in their culture…

5. You Just Don’t Ever Really Know What’s Going On!

40 minute lesson suddenly becomes an hour long? Sure. Why? Who the hell knows? Just carry on until you here the big drum (school bell equivalent) go off.

Lessons are cancelled for exams? We’ll let you know once you’re about to start making your way to class. Splendid.

I think I’ll be horizontal once I’m back home.


Despite all this craziness I am still alive and well AND enjoying myself. Sure, the Sunday-night feeling has followed me to Vietnam, but I think that’s just life to some degree. The kids are (mostly) wonderful. I’m sure they think English lessons are just a chance to be silly, but I shan’t lie, going into a classroom of children screaming and shouting ‘Hello teacher! High five!’ every morning is great. (Ego rub? Yes, I know…). A few of the naughtier ones are so cute that I’m probably too soft with them, and some of the “monitors” are simply brilliant. I crack up every lesson watching one of my eight-year old boys wave a metre stick around and start barking orders at the class to ‘STAND UP!’ and say ‘HEL-LO TEA-CHER SO-PHIE!’. There’s also the benefit of not being fixed at any one school. You can go in, teach your lessons, and then leave without all the extra crap you get with other jobs. Evening and weekends are great too, of course. I may be developing some alcohol dependency, but I love always having people to talk to, and there are so many things to keep us entertained at the weekends. I’ll report more on that later.


Awwww…yep, I became that ‘I’m down with the kids’ person.

Off to bed now, week 5 begins tomorrow.


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