Tag Archives: teaching abroad

Teaching English in Vietnam: A Guide

2 Oct
Students in Vietnam

Students in Vietnam

Teaching English in Vietnam is fantastic and I would recommend it without hesitation. There are an abundance of jobs and the standard hourly rate is $20 per hour, often higher. In a country with such low living costs, this sort of wage can provide you with an excellent standard of living.

Despite this, when first arriving in Vietnam, I was worried that it wasn’t for me. Being honest, it can be a bit of a culture shock initially and despite loving the country, I was skeptical about actually setting up a life here. It seemed unthinkable that I would be able to find a job, flat and new friends, all in a culture so very different from home.

I can now honestly say that I have fallen in love with the place, warts and all. There are so many different opportunities that I truly believe there is something to suit everyone. Whether you are looking for short term work to extend your travel in South East Asia, or want to set up a long term career in teaching, you should definitely consider Vietnam as a location.

Practising for the school show!

Practising for the school show!

Interested, but still not sure if it’s for you? Have a read of this guide I wrote, for TEFL Jobs World.

http://www.tefljobsworld.com/country-guides-and-advice/asia/vietnam/everything-you-need-to-know-about-teaching-english-in-vietnam/

If you have any questions, please do leave a comment.

Has anyone reading taught English in Vietnam? Have you had a similar experience? Would you recommend it to others contemplating taking the plunge in to South East Asia life?

Me with one of my cute students

Me with one of my cute students

How Much is that Doggy in the Window?

12 Aug

dog meat

As a Westerner moving to Vietnam, I was very apprehensive about arriving to the country and being confronted with caged dogs on every street corner, awaiting slaughter. I also had a fear of being served dog meat by mistake or, even worse, as a cruel substitute to whichever meat I thought I was eating. While it remains popular, it is not as prevalent in day to day life as I had envisaged before arriving here. And there is certainly no chance of being served the meat ‘by accident’ or eating it unknowingly, as it is arguably the most expensive meat in Vietnam, with one kilo costing at least $10.

It isn’t illegal to eat dog in Vietnam and, actually, traditionally it is believed to bring good luck and virility to men if eaten at the end of the lunar month. In order to live in a different culture, it is imperative to accept alternative traditions and beliefs. I do understand that.

What is difficult to comprehend is the popularity of dogs as pets here in Hanoi. Throughout the city there are vast amounts of families with healthy, well looked after dogs. A popular choice is the Chihuahua – they are everywhere and can often be spotted perched proudly on the back of a speeding Honda Win. It is extremely unnerving when restaurants selling ‘Thit cho’ have three little pink-collared Chihuahuas running around on site.

dog

As a Westerner, it feels morally wrong to mix your pets with your dinner and I can’t help but shudder every time I pass a restaurant displaying barbequed dog carcass, with teeth and features still intact. However, while I won’t personally be chowing down on hind leg of dog any time soon, it is something that I must learn to co-exist alongside while living in a different culture.

That said, there is unfortunately a more pressing issue than my personal beliefs that dogs are ‘mans best friend’ – the supposedly booming trade in illegal dog smuggling, coming across the border from Thailand into Vietnam. Animal rights activists say as many as 200,000 live dogs are smuggled per year, each destined to end up on a plate in a Vietnamese restaurant.

caged dogs

Reportedly the dogs are held in inhumane conditions with up to 1,000 at a time squeezed on to the backs of lorries. Even more horrifically, a common belief suggests that fear stimulates a hormone in the dogs which improves the taste of their meat, meaning they are often intentionally held in stress cages with restricted movement. Often the dogs are bludgeoned to death and even skinned alive.

This news makes me feel significantly more justified in my feelings of physical repulsion every time I see a dead doggy for sale. It is no longer about my sheltered Western beliefs and whether it is wrong or right to eat dog meat. This is a brutal and illegal trade worth millions of dollars per year and something must be done to stop it.

Sources:
CNN World News
Soi Dog Foundation
Aljazeera News

Earning a Living in Vietnam

4 Aug

Last week, I was offered a job at a Vietnamese television production company. As I work in TV at home, I was obviously thrilled by this prospect. I hadn’t considered that there may be alternative ways to earn a living in Vietnam, other than teaching English, and was hopeful that this would open up new doors for me. Upon receiving the good news, I was very excited to accept the offer. It almost seemed too good to be true…

Then came the bad news:

‘First we need to talk to you about money…’ the production manager had said, in a leveling manner that made my heart sink a little.

Aware that the average wage in Vietnam is reported to be $185 per month (that’s around 120 English pounds) I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation regarding salary.

DONG

Explaining that all of their current staff are Vietnamese, the PM tried to soften the blow of their pending offer by padding it out with lots of explanation about pay rates in Vietnam. They made it clear that their proposal was very much a compromise – I was being presented a greatly inflated rate as a Westerner with native English speaking skills.

$300 (approx. 190 pounds) per month to work 8.30 – 5.30, 6 days a week.

That was the offer. Genuinely, it was a generous one when you consider that it is probably almost twice as much as some of their current staff. But, I couldn’t afford to accept a job that would equate to working for around $1.50 per hour (that’s around 90 pence); no matter how interesting it would sound on my CV.

This experience caused great reflection on my part about the huge pay divides between Westerners (working for Western companies or working here as native English teachers) and local Vietnamese. As I had been offered a job at a Vietnamese company, the offer was reflective of their salary budgets for the local workers. Thus, the reason why Westerners are generally not employed by local companies. Ever.

Native English teachers in Vietnam are paid a minimum wage of $20 per hour. It is no secret that foreign teachers are paid generously, earning up to ten times that of Vietnamese teachers. As the country becomes increasingly globalized, English is in huge demand and work is plentiful for foreign teachers with a face that fits. By this, I essentially mean a Caucasian face. I have seen numerous job adverts in Vietnam which state in no uncertain terms that the applicant must be of ‘European appearance’. 9 times out of 10 you are asked to submit a photograph along with your application. In fact, when offered my current teaching job, the employer was not shy about admitting they ‘liked my appearance.’ I don’t think they meant my outfit.

When I consider that I am working alongside teachers who are being paid up to 10 times less than me for their time, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. In fairness, it’s not just my white face, I am a native English speaker which is a specialist skill in this country. Nevertheless, there is just something that doesn’t feel right about the set up. It is also a concern that this obvious pay divide strengthens the preconceptions that Vietnamese have about ‘rich foreigners’ and leads to a lot of resentment from Vietnamese teachers towards foreign teachers. In fact, I fear it leads to resentment from locals towards foreigners in general.

money

Even the best paid jobs in Vietnam still barely cover what a Westerner will pay for rent here. Workers in the finance and insurance industries have the highest average salary, at around $260 per month. Admittedly these are averages,and CEO’s of some Vietnamese companies are reported to earn around $900, but this is barely even representative of a minority of the workforce and is a very unusual salary to earn. Interestingly, large pay divides can also be found within these companies and while the CEO earns this respectable wage, administration staff in the same company will often be paid around $100-125 per month.

These low averages raise questions about how the local people afford to live. I am at a loss to understand how they fund their brand new Vespas and smart clothes. What I am perhaps not grasping, is the extent of the hugely inflated prices that we, as foreigners, pay for everything.

market

This ‘foreigner tax’ is one of my main gripes about living in Vietnam (and most who visit the country, I suspect). Westerners are charged grossly increased prices for most things here including food, taxi fares and accommodation. While I can’t help feeling cheated knowing that I have been a victim of severely hiked prices, considering the huge pay gap between Westerners and locals does soften the blow somewhat. Despite this blatant over charging, the cost of living to pay ratio still sits well in our favour. You can rent a nice room in an apartment for 200 dollars per month and a bowl of delicious street food will set you back two dollars, where it might cost a local one dollar.

Another consideration is that most young Vietnamese will stay in the family home long after they are married and have children of their own so, in actual fact, living expenses are fairly low. In no way am I advocating the huge gap in salaries, as I’m sure that living with 10 people in one home isn’t an ideal situation, just trying to get my head around it. Low living costs combined with largely deflated prices obviously serves to make living on these low wages feasible. Unfortunately feasible does not always equal comfortable.

Perhaps I am giving it too much thought. Society here has always been more focused on family than material goods. Vietnam was recently voted the second happiest country on the planet while the UK came in 41st, so something must be working. It only goes to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Fishing by the lake - a nice way to earn a living

Fishing by the lake – there are worse ways to earn a living

Sources:
CNN
Report by Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs
Thanh Nien News
Happy Planet Index, New Economics Foundation

Understanding Fashion in Vietnam – Pyjamas, Ponchos and Pale Skin

26 Jul

Apart from the obvious family, friends and scampi fries; there are many other things that I very much miss about home.

I miss fashion. I miss the physical act of going shopping for clothes. I have been wearing the same six outfits for the last five months and I am beyond sick of them. I will admit that there is something enjoyable about not having to decide what to wear when you get up in the morning – at the moment, it’s a case of whatever is clean will do. But my email inbox is constantly updating with newsletters from Topshop, Urban Outfitters and ASOS and while I find it’s easier not to open them, I can’t resist torturing myself by having a look.

While trying to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to trends back home, I couldn’t help but notice that two piece printed items are in fashion this summer. I love this look and if I were at home, this style would be a definite addition to my wardrobe.

2 piece
It turns out, however, if patterned two pieces are my thing then I have most certainly come to the right place. The Vietnamese actually have their own long-established version of this trend. The infamous Vietnamese Pyjamas.

Vietnamese PJs - Often teamed with conical hat

Vietnamese PJs – Often teamed with conical hat

Except here, it really cannot be described as a trend. Residents of most Vietnamese cities and towns have been rocking the pyjama look for years. And I’m sure they will continue to do so for many more. It is a strange sight when you first arrive to the country and the majority of women are going about their daily business, clad in what is clearly a pair of pyjamas. Admittedly, they do come in varying styles ranging from full length ‘button ups’ to matching shorts and T-shirt sets but there is no denying they are all very obviously pyjamas. Curious as to why the style is so popular, I asked a local friend and she informed me that these sets aren’t really considered to be bed wear and fall more in to the lounge wear category. I suppose they are almost the equivalent of a ‘Juicy Couture’ tracksuit back home. Oh, but wait – they DO actually sleep in them as well? So they are pyjamas? No. I’m confused.

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

The appeal of the Vietnamese pyjama set is fairly widespread but it is an even more more common sight in rural areas. The cities in Vietnam, are globalizing and developing at a fast rate and the fashion sense of the inhabitants is modernizing with it. That said, it is still very popular here in Hanoi. Generally, it is women in the ‘over 35’ age bracket that can be seen sporting a pair of jazzy nylons but it is not uncommon for younger Vietnamese to be spotted running a quick errand in a pair. The main area of difference is apparent in the socio-economic divide. Street hawkers and women working in typically lower paid jobs wear these pyjamas almost as if it were a uniform. One obvious selling point is that they are practical and comfortable and actually, the longer I spend here, the more tempted I am to indulge in a pair…

lady

Another common style favoured by Vietnamese women is the floral ‘sun jacket’, worn to shield skin and prevent it from being exposed to the sun. Since arriving here, I have learned that the most insulting thing you can say to a Vietnamese woman is that she has a nice tan (oops, made that mistake… did NOT go down well). Pale skin is considered to be of the utmost beauty and I often have people stopping me in the street to tell me how lovely my white skin is. (‘White?! How dare you. I have been working on my golden tan for weeks!’) Before buying any sort of beauty products, shower gels or face creams, you should check that they don’t have whitening agents in them. These products are everywhere. Pale skin has long standing connotations of coming from a poor background and so, women go to great lengths to avoid developing any sort of a tan. The distinguishable ‘sun jackets’ provide a capped hood and sleeve that cover the lengths of your hands, to minimize any expose to UV rays. This look is always teamed with the mandatory face mask and sunglasses. On a sunny day, literally every woman you see will be wearing a variation of this combination. How they can bear the heat is a question that begs to be asked.

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

Clothing and fashion customs in Vietnam can be difficult to get your head around. As the country modernizes and takes increasing influence from the West, a lot of the younger women have started to dress in very revealing outfits. They can often be seen riding around on a shiny Vespa, in patent leather stilettos and figure hugging shift dresses. Hot pants, body con mini-dresses and chiffon shirts are very common. Yet, traditionally, to wear something which reveals the tops of your shoulders is often perceived as disrespectful and this custom is often still adhered to. Confusing.

The shopping scene in Hanoi is actually becoming quite stylish but the physical act of buying clothes can be difficult. I tend to find the feeling of the sales staff literally ‘sizing you up’ to be particularly off-putting. Entering a shop to be welcomed by several employees shouting at you encouragingly – “we have big sizes!” – is not my idea of an enjoyable shopping experience. (I have also made the mistake of venturing in to a ‘locals only’ clothes shop where the owner point blank refused to serve me but more on this attitude later). The shops themselves vary in quality and style. There are some very cool boutique shops with vintage style clothes in the window but when you actually pluck up the courage to go in to the shop, the garments inside often don’t quite live up to those on the mannequins. Or even if they do, they usually only have one size available in each item – tiny size. This all leads to a fairly stressful shopping experience and therefore, I have been avoiding a big shopping trip since I got here.

The traditional 'Ao Dai' are often worn by Vietnamese women on special occasions, particularly weddings


/>Despite the modernization of fashions in Vietnam, it is still a common sight to see women wearing the traditional ‘Ao Dai’, usually for special occasions such as weddings and family parties.

Difficulties aside, it is interesting to observe how women dress in different cultures and the way in which perceptions of beauty can vary wildly from country to country. In the West, it is considered far more provocative to expose your legs in a mini skirt than your shoulders in a sleeveless T-Shirt. Similarly, while I am desperate for a tan, the women here suffer the sweltering heat in extra layers rather than have their skin go even a slight shade darker. Vietnamese women are beautiful and I wish that they would embrace the lovely skin tone that they have, rather than focusing on trying to lighten it.

One fashion item that we do agree on is that of the Poncho. It’s an essential item for RS 2013 (that’s Rainy Season 2013) and a look that, as you can see, I have embraced with open arms.

Poncho and bike helmet - It's a strong look

Poncho and bike helmet – It’s a strong look

At Home in Hanoi

20 Jul

Hanoi is an exciting place. It has a lovely old age charm to it and feels like a quintessentially Asian city, full of Pagodas and street-side vendors. This traditional setting combined with the modern buzz of an emerging youth culture who are increasingly influenced by Western societies, creates a marvelous juxtaposition of old meets new. It is currently a city undergoing change and caught between two opposing generations.

flower lady 2

The older cohort are traditionalists, clinging on to their Soviet values and supporting the 11.30pm curfew (which is enforced reasonably rigorously by the local police – don’t worry, there are ways around it). Then there are the young Vietnamese, with their iPhones, skinny jeans and K-POP inspired haircuts. With a love of anything Western, they insist on eating KFC and any other kind of fried food in favour of traditional dishes such as ‘pho ga’ and ‘bun cha’.

young vietnam

It is an interesting time to be here, for sure. Over the last five years, most bicycles have been replaced by motorized Honda Waves and shiny new Vespas. There is increasing artistic freedom, with an emerging music and arts scene that is beginning to take off and become recognized out with the confines of Hanoi. There is more foreign investment in the country and new businesses pop up frequently. This has, in turn, led to a gradually wealthier population, an increased cost of living and subsequent changing values. The city now has an ALDO and a Louis Vuitton, something that would have been completely out of place a few years ago. Slowly catching up with neighbouring countries, the demand to learn English in Vietnam is currently massive and it is a fantastic time to be a teacher here.

Crossroads in Hanoi

Crossroads in Hanoi

Having identified Vietnam as our chosen destination to teach English before actually visiting the country, I was anxious as to how we would find it. Having heard mixed reports from fellow travellers and claims that the country can be very racist and unfriendly, I was on edge as we took our taxi from Noi Ba airport into Hanoi. I needn’t have worried and after our first few hours in the Northern capital, I began to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the craziness (or perhaps because of it?), we loved it here as soon as we arrived. The people of the North are reputed to be less welcoming than those of the South. In my experience, this is true to a certain extent. Saigon has flung open its arms to tourism and Western development while Hanoi is keen to maintain its identity. This can make the residents tougher nuts to crack and less accepting of foreigners.

Local vendors - as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a 'tourist' tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Local vendors – as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a ‘tourist’ tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Hanoi is a continual flurry of fruit vendors, bicycles, flower sellers, pyjama wearing women in conical hats, dirt cheap beer (bia hoi), street food, rickshaws, motos, street hawkers, helium balloons, windmills, bird cages and motorbike fumes.

Bia Hoi in the O

Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter

The legendary Old Quarter is a winding maze of 36 streets, intrinsically linked together and impossible to get your head around in less than a few weeks. Each street has a specialty. My particular favourites are aptly named ‘shoe street’ and ‘jewelry street’. These streets do what they say on the tin and you will find shop-front after shop-front all displaying identical wares. This theme continues throughout the city and venturing out of the Old Quarter, you can find ‘chicken street’. Yes, you guessed it – a whole street dedicated to selling barbequed chicken. All glazed with the exact same sauce and served with the exact same side of potatoes and ‘ban my’ (delicious honey glazed bread). Welcome to Asia. Whole streets of shops and stalls, steadfastly selling the exact same product. Other streets in Hanoi include guitar street, bathroom street, phone street, book street… I could go on…

Quiet Hanoi Street!

Quiet Hanoi Street!

After a couple of weeks living in a hostel in the Old Quarter, we realized that this is essentially the tourist part of town. There is so much more to Hanoi! If you come here for a limited period of a couple of days, I guess this is the place to be. But on exploration, the city just has so much more to offer. There are an abundance of lakes, parks, museums and art galleries. Each district offers something a little different to the residents.

sleepy flower

We are currently living off a main street called Au Co, in Tay Ho district. A five minute walk takes us to an array of lovely shops, delis, street food places, bia hoi stalls (organically brewed beer selling for 10p a glass) and the biggest lake in Hanoi, West Lake. When it’s not too hot, you can cycle round the lake, stopping off for lots of tra da (iced tea) on the way round. It’s about 16km in circumference and showcases a lovely side to the city.

West lake

West lake

It is difficult to find peace and quiet in Hanoi – impossible some will tell you. West Lake offers a fairly relaxed setting, in a city where it can be difficult to hear yourself think. Although, even beside the more relaxed setting of the lake, there’s no getting away from the incessant beeping of motorbike horns. It is deafening at times and I still find myself losing my temper at the occasional innocent passers-by.

Sometimes it is necessary to escape the constant craziness, the threat of death from oncoming vehicles and simply breathe air that isn’t thick with motorbike fumes. The beauty of Hanoi is that it is possible to do this quite easily. There are lots of national parks and areas of outstanding beauty within a couple of hours drive out of the city. Recommended trips include Mai Chau and Ba Vi National Park, both of which can be reached in a few hours.

Road trip to Ba Vi

Road trip to Ba Vi

There are lots of things about Hanoi and its people that I don’t understand and probably never will. But, I am OK with that and have learned to accept the city for what it is. I have even managed to master crossing the road which basically requires you to walk in front of oncoming traffic at an even pace and watch them miraculously shape shift around you. I still can’t help but shudder when I pass ‘Thit Cho stalls’ (barbequed dog meat) and I shake my head in disbelief every time I see a family of five whizz past me on a motorbike at break neck speed, with only the children wearing no helmets. But this is Hanoi, and the longer I spend here, the more I grow to love it… the more it feels like home.

Hanoi Photographs

Our street

Our street

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hoan Kiem Lake (or 'sword lake') by night

Hoan Kiem Lake (or ‘sword lake’) by night

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Trip to Mai Chau

Trip to Mai Chau

Old Quarter

Old Quarter

M

New friends!

Highlights of our Travels Round South East Asia

13 Jul

This trip has paved the way to so many amazing experiences and so, in truly original fashion, I have decided to put together a ‘Top 12’ list of the highlights of our travels round South East Asia.

1. Bangkok

City that never sleeps!

City that never sleeps!

First stop, Bangkok! It all seemed quite surreal until we arrived here. We had booked our tickets a few months in advance, arranged accommodation for arriving, read all about it in our Lonely Planet guide and done lots of fantasizing… but no amount of day dreaming or research could have prepared us for the overwhelming, full on assault of buzzing Bangkok. Arriving off the plane, you step outside into the wall of sauna-like heat and instantly, you are surrounded by overeager taxi drivers, on the hunt for ‘fresh meat’. Our glaring white skin and squeaky clean backpacks gave us away at the first hurdle. Remembering the advice read online about touts and scams, we managed to fight off the hordes and head to the official rank to book a car there.

It took us a few days, weeks even, to get in to this ‘Asia mindset’ of always being on your guard. It sounds awful but do not trust the kindness of strangers, not in Bangkok. Be aware of your personal belongings and if a smiling man approaches you in the street with any sightseeing advice, run the other way. It’s probably a scam. We learned this the hard way.

Warts and all, an infectious energy permeates this lively city. There is almost too much going on to take it all in. The streets positively pulsate with people. Walking around it is impossible to escape the cry of ‘ping pong show, *pop pop*’ and the strange allure of exotic looking lady boys. The mayhem is non-stop with cheap beer on tap, stray animals roaming the streets, a constant threat of being run over by passing tuk tuks, countless stalls selling scorpions on sticks and street food vendors on every corner. It’s mind blowing.

Our first tuk tuk journey

Our first tuk tuk journey

From the moment you arrive, until the moment you leave, there is an ongoing battle between the city and your senses. In fact, for the first couple of days, John had to walk around with something covering his nose, for fear of being sick. The smell of drains and damp mixed with a million different types of food, animals and body odours is overpowering at best, plain disgusting at worst. I was in love.

Khao San Road is the inevitable starting point for visitors to Bangkok. The backpacker district of the city, it is aptly described as ‘a decompression chamber between East and West’ by Richard, the adventuring protagonist of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. While still completely alien and exciting to us, the large number of tourists and pubs blaring familiar Western music prevents you from completely losing your footing in this strange environment. It’s where you learn to wave away the touts, brave the street food you’ve been warned against and inhale tropical air for the first time.

Khao San Road by day

Khao San Road by day

As a city, Bangkok has everything: great shopping, spectacular temples, 24/7 nightlife, all the karaoke you could ever want (and more…), an abundance of delicious food and a beautiful river. (As John was soon to find out, I am obsessed with locating the river in every place we travel to. I find it comforting, almost like we have found the central point of our location. It’s like the beating pulse of any city.) Skyscrapers, shanty towns and traditional pagodas all line the same horizon, illustrating the many faces of Bangkok perfectly.

royal palace

It was the perfect way to begin our travels in Asia and a city that I’ll never forget.

2. Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Approximately half way down the Vietnamese coast, Hoi An is a quaint old town with an appealing charm that gets under your skin, making it hard to ever leave. We had only planned on staying there for two days but ended up being there for almost a week. The combination of colourful lanterns lining most streets and incredible local food played a huge part in this. Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the old town remains relatively untouched by the war and exudes historical appeal.

hoi an st

Hoi An is famous for its tailors. There are approximately 500 tailors here, making the industry impossible to escape whilst in town. You will find row upon row of shops all offering an affordable made-to-measure service, with next day pick-up. I had two pairs of sandals made here and after handpicking the exact leather I wanted and having my feet measured, I came back the next day to find two perfect pairs of shoes waiting for me.

The food here is some of the best in Vietnam. Hoi An specializes in a few unique dishes that can’t be found anywhere else, including the delicious ‘White Rose’ (shrimp dumplings) and ‘Cao Lau’ (regional pork dish with secret noodle recipe). From the bustling Central Market Hall where street vendors ply their wares, to the high end Western standard restaurants, it is all equally delicious and definitely not to be missed.

Street food in Hoi An

Street food in Hoi An

3. War Remnants Museum, Saigon

war museum

The War Remnants Museum is an essential for any itinerary when visiting Saigon. It is a stark reminder of the effect that the Vietnam War had, and still has, on the country. Saigon is an international city full of bright lights, shopping malls and 24 hour parties, making it easy to arrive as a tourist and forget the adversities that its people have faced. A trip to this museum will remind you of these hardships, in no uncertain terms, and will leave the images imprinted in your mind. I was moved to tears viewing the aftermath of Agent Orange exhibition. There are still people affected by horrendous disfigurement and deformity to this day, due to the poisonous toxins relentlessly unleashed on the region during the war.

Originally named “Museum of American War Crimes”, the museum is, admittedly, a very one-sided account of atrocities committed during the war. It is, however, a necessary sight for any self-respecting tourist.

4. Elephant Trek and overnight jungle stay, Chiang Mai

Friend for life

Friend for life

Thailand and elephant trek are almost synonymous with one another. They go together like Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Despite this, I was somewhat dubious about it. I had read a lot of reports stating that the elephants were often mistreated and even sometimes drugged to keep them working for longer.

However, after shunning any doubts we decided to sign ourselves up and it turned out to be a memorable experience that I would definitely recommend. Our trek took place in the Mae Taeng Valley, about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The elephants were amazing and all had different personalities and characteristics. They seemed well looked after and you could sense the close bond that the staff had with them. After spending some time with the elephants and feeding them bamboo shoots, we set off on our trek. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this could be a scary experience but it turned in to a fairly bumpy ride! We ended up with the black sheep of the family – a mischievous male elephant who repeatedly stumbled off into the bushes to snack on leaves and other greens. Although we did have to hold on for dear life, it was reassuring that the rider was happy to let him do this, laughing explaining to us that he was always hungry.

Making it back to the elephant camp in one piece, our group was then sent off with ‘Lan’, our guide for the next two days. After lunch in a hill tribe village, we trekked on foot through the jungle to our camp for the night, stopping off to look at various plants, insects and waterfalls along the way.

me and john jungle

Our sleeping quarters were… more ‘basic’ than I had expected. I don’t really know what standard I was expecting in the depths of the jungle with nothing surrounding us for miles. (What?! No electricity?!) Consisting of a bamboo roof and a bamboo platform raised off of the jungle floor, it provided shelter for the evening, if nothing else. There was certainly no protection from insects and other wildlife. One thing the trip taught me is that I am definitely not ‘at one with nature’…

Lan had warned that the temperatures drop during the night but it had been around 30 degrees during the day so we didn’t really take his advice seriously. Huge mistake. It was absolutely freezing during the night. Our campfire only kept us warm for so long and despite sinking quite a few Tiger beers, we still felt the cold. It was like being back camping in Scotland!

chiang mai view

Despite the cold, we had a brilliant night with an amazing Thai Massaman curry cooked by Lan, a campfire, beers on tap and a group of interesting people from every corner of the world to hang out with. I spent the majority of the night with one eye open and it definitely wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had but the waterfalls, mountains and wildlife in the jungle made it all worthwhile.

5. Sailing down the Mekong River, Si Phan Don, Laos

si phan don

‘Si Phan Don’ translates to 4000 islands in English and while this may be a slight exaggeration, this description conjures up an appropriate image of this lazy and winding section of the Mekong river. The area is made up of a few larger islands and the surrounding river is strewn with hundreds of smaller ‘islands’ and mounds of land. The effect of this is simply stunning.

We stayed on one of the three largest islands, Don Det. The motto of the island is to ‘do nothing’ and with its relaxed atmosphere, plentiful hammock spots and unusual tolerance of marijuana, it is widely known as being a stoner’s paradise.

While here, we decided to use our time effectively and so chartered a boat with a local fisherman, on a mission to spot some Irrawaddy dolphins. These pink dolphins are unique to the surrounding area and Si Phan Don is locally hailed as the best place to sight them from. From the section of the river that we stopped at, we were within touching distance of land belonging to Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, which was pretty amazing to see. We did manage to spot some dolphins in the distance but in the end it was the combination of the sunset, our drunken local sailor, the idyllic scenery and lap of the river against the boat that resulted in one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.

1622

6. Full Moon Party sunrise, Koh Phangan

me and john

After hearing the news that a young British guy had been shot at the December 2012 full moon party on Koh Phangan, we were undecided as to whether we should go. After reading Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, I was feeling disillusioned by something that has spiraled in popularity over the last 20 years, leaving a bad taste in a lot of travellers mouths and putting it in to the “used to be great but we ruined it” category. It was, however, something I had always wanted to do. It’s no secret, I love a good rave. I really do. And where better to do it than on the beach of a tropical Thai island.

Legend has it that it all began in 1987 with a small group of backpackers and hippies having a party on Haad Rin beach, Koh Phangan. They enjoyed it so much that it became an annual event. Growing in popularity it became more and more frequent until it was happening every month. Word began to spread and enterprising Thais took advantage of the hype, bringing more and more people, eventually starting to sell tickets for the event. Many people complained that this ruined the essence of what began as a gathering of like-minded people, simply seeking to have a party.

Buckets

Buckets

Despite the commercialization of the event, it completely lived up to my expectations. Exceeded them even. The atmosphere was electric. The whole island comes alive for the full moon party. A whole beach of people united in their mission to have the best night of their lives. The white sand is lined with vendors selling buckets of alcohol, helium balloons for a quick legal high, fire shows, face painters and children selling glow sticks and trinkets. From the ‘pre-drinks’ at the bungalows we were staying at, to our trip up ‘Mushroom Mountain’ the whole night was one of the best I’ve ever had.

We stayed until around 10am the next morning, leaving as the crowds began to disperse. Watching the sunrise that morning, I am positive I was not alone in the wave of euphoria washing over me.

Loving life

Loving life

7. COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos

uxo

Did you know that Laos PDR is the most bombed country throughout history, in the world, per capita? Me neither. I really had no idea. Which is why I am so glad that we took the time to visit the COPE Center in Vientiane (Laos Capital).

In between 1964 and 2008, 50,000 Laos people were killed or seriously injured as a result of unexploded ordnance (UXO). UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’. 25% of villages in Laos are still affected to this day by UXO and it results in over 300 casualties per year. COPE Centre is a charity that provides provincial rehabilitation centres providing access to both prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy and peadiatric services to people with disabilities. It truly is a fantastic charity and a worthy cause.

Whilst in Laos, we saw many beggars on the street with missing limbs, or even worse, no limbs at all. The centre really opened my eyes to the harrowing truth behind these deformities. If you are visiting Laos, please take the time to stop by the centre, show your respects and make a donation. It’s a really worthwhile cause.

8. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sometimes described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, it would be very unwise to travel to Cambodia and not visit the temples of Angkor. We did actually meet a few different young ‘uns on their ‘gap year’ that had got so drunk the night before, they had missed their one chance to visit. More fool them.

Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat sunrise

The largest religious complex in the world, it is an awe inspiring sight. The whole area stretches out over 400km squared and includes the famous temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. The location where Tomb Raider was filmed, it felt strangely familiar but seeing the constructions on screen doesn’t come close to the magnificent real life presence that the temples hold. Artistically and architecturally stunning, the complex is huge. One day is enough to see the most famous temples if you go by car or tuk tuk but you could spend a full seven days and still not have ticked everything off of the list. The temple walls are coated with intricate Khmer carvings and it would be easy to spend a day alone taking these in.

me and john angkor wat

We decided to rise early so to see the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat and while I am never one to endorse an early morning, it was worth the bleary eyes. I can’t quite decide if the huge amount of tourists with the same idea as us added or detracted from the experience. While it is never desirable that any sight feels over crowded with tourists, there was something strangely exciting about waiting in the dark with hundreds of strangers. Apart from the whirring and clicking of photographers setting up their cameras, everyone was silent and waiting in anticipation. As the light began to carve out the silhouette of Angkor Wat, you could feel the appreciation from the crowd building. The iconic profile of Angkor set against a pink and purple morning sky was a sight to soothe even the sleepiest early-morning eyes.

9. Halong Bay, Vietnam

halong rock

Halong Bay is magnificent. The sight of karst limestone rocks jutting out of jewel green water is a natural wonder that I will never forget. However, a word of advice: go and visit the bay before tourism destroys it. There is no denying that it was hard to ignore the piles of rubbish floating in the water at certain points. There is no system to cope with the ever increasing stream of tourist boats and I fear that, if nothing is done soon, we may ruin one of Earth’s natural wonders.

Handspan Indochina Travel run an annual Clean Up program where tourists are taken out in kayaks to collect as much of the litter and debris floating in the water as possible. It is positive that people have started to recognize that something needs to be done but it is apparent that this annual trip is not even scratching the surface of the problem. As a UNESCO world heritage site, I am surprised at the lack of efforts to clear the bay and sincerely hope something is done soon.

me halong

Despite this, kayaking through the karst rocks, being within spitting distance of hundreds of monkeys in their natural environment and visiting the aptly titled ‘amazing cave’ made Halong Bay a definite highlight of our trip. The whole area has a certain ethereal quality to it, particularly in the spring time as the misty air adds an element of mystery and wonder to the scenery. We stayed overnight on a Junk boat where we watched the sun set before being given a cooking class and a wonderful Vietnamese feast. All in all, a brilliant experience.

10. Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Twin Towers - view from the Sky Bar

Petronas Twin Towers – view from the Sky Bar

My favourite things about Kuala Lumpur? Easy. Topshop and ‘Ladies Night.’

I am well aware that this is a shallow and uncultured answer but my week long trip to Kuala Lumpur mainly served in quenching my thirst for shopping and free cocktails. It was just what I needed. Alongside the famous Petronas Twin Towers, the main features of the city are basically centred around the shopping, which is of an international standard. There are shops to suit everyone and selling everything. They range all the way from Louis Vuitton to local vendors in market halls. After weeks without any serious retail therapy, I was weak at the knees when I spotted my beloved Topshop. This might sound ridiculous but sometimes when you are travelling, all you need to put you back on track is a small taste of home.

Before visiting KL, I was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Ladies Night’. By the time I left, it is fair to say that I was somewhat overfamiliar with it. Ladies Night is basically a night where all ladies drink for free, all night. They can be found in different bars on every night of the week around the city and there is no scrimping with the drinks. The bar staff seem only too happy to top up your drink relentlessly (which did actually lead me to question their motives… but by that point, I was too drunk to care!)

KL is a beautiful city with lots going on. As well as the shopping and drinking, we visited the Batu Caves, checked out the city’s museums, took a trip to ‘Little India’ and admired the Petronas Twin Towers’ from the famous Sky Bar. The food is amazing with Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine available on every street. However, Topshop and the free cocktails were a definite highlight. A taste of the high life was just what I needed before I returned to Hanoi to begin working as a teacher.

Little India

Little India


11. Night Train,Thailand

After a very dubious night bus adventure upon first arriving in Thailand, we decided that taking the train was the only option for our trip down South to Surat Thani. From here, we were heading off to go island hopping and we wanted to arrive well rested – or as well rested as you can ever be when backpacking round Thailand.

train

The train itself was surprisingly clean and John and I had a set of bunk beds to share. In the evening, the train is essentially a social gathering with a ‘bar’ serving lukewarm beer and overpriced Pringles. It’s a lot of fun and we met other travellers to share a few beers with…

The train track was fairly bumpy but we both slept fairly well and actually found the swaying of the carriage to be quite soothing, rocking us off to sleep like a couple of babies. We were woken at around 6am for breakfast; even though we weren’t due to arrive until 10am. Not a fan of an early start, this would usually go down very badly with me. However, the sun had risen and the scenery passing by outside was spectacular at points. We passed by shanty towns, mountains, fields of palm trees and some karst rock scenery.

The safety standards on the train are fairly relaxed and passengers are able to open the carriage doors to watch the world go by. We sat for an hour or so, just taking in the countryside as it sped past us. It was amazing. It’s difficult to describe the feeling but the combination of the early morning sun, tropical air, swaying palm trees and rumble of the train tracks all created a beautiful moment and at that point, I felt like we were ‘real travellers’ on our own exciting adventure.

Taking in the scenery

Taking in the scenery

12. Motorbike trip to Mai Chau, North Vietnam

Motorbiking through the rugged mountains of Northwest Vietnam is now one of my all-time favourite experiences, not just from this trip alone. The scenery up here is absolutely breathtaking and the views stretch out for miles. Coupled with passing through several indigenous Vietnamese villages, it makes for an amazing journey. Taking over four hours on motorbike from Hanoi, it did leave us with rather sore bums but it was completely worth it.

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau itself is an amazing location. You can stay in a traditional stilt house, complete with bedding and mosquito net, for less than 2 pounds a night. The signature dish in the village is tasty barbequed pork skewers and rice, available absolutely everywhere.

MC

The views from the valley are some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced first-hand. The village is nestled between several imposing mountains and surrounded by emerald green rice paddies. The grass is the greenest I have ever seen. It is an idyllic, rural setting where it almost feels as though time stands still.

We went with a group of new friends and two nights of drinking local rice wine, corn whisky and countless beers led to some very good times – and a lot of very bad singing.

maichau

Becoming Teacher Sio…

3 Jul

After travelling down the coast to Saigon, we are back in Hanoi and a mere two days spent looking for a job in the capital city has proved fruitful. I made it through my first initial interview and have arrived at Popodoo School for my teaching ‘demo’. Despite this being standard procedure for most teaching jobs here, I am scared. The thought of, what is essentially, playing games with a group of 5 and 6 year olds should not instill this amount of sheer terror into anyone. Yet as I knock on the classroom door and tentatively push it open, my palms are sweating and my breathing is shallow. I feel faint. I peer round the door and the class stops in their tracks. They stare at me inquisitively. I gulp, loudly. I wonder who is going to break the silence first. After their initial pause, it begins: “Hello teacher!” they shout excitedly. The barrage of badly pronounced questions that follow floor me, for about an eighth of a second, before I pull myself together and attempt to switch into ‘Children’s TV Presenter’ mode. I would like to say effortlessly but that would be an absolute lie. To the untrained eye, perhaps it seems this way (doubtful) but the truth is; my voice is quivering and I am teetering on the verge of a full blown panic attack.

Image

It sounds ridiculous, I know. I have spent the last 6 months (intermittently, I’ll admit) studying for my TEFL qualification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and this is something I have been saying I’ve wanted to do for years. For so long, in fact, that I think it had gotten to the stage where nobody believed I would ever get round to actually doing it. Myself included, to a certain extent. After all the years of thinking about it and months of planning, I was finally here. And truthfully I wanted to run away. And never come back. From the moment I stepped in the front door of the school, it hit me. Shit. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. No amount of planning or TEFL training can really prepare you for walking into a Vietnamese school with non-existent teaching experience, no knowledge of the local language and very little idea of what is actually expected of you.

In general, I am quite guilty of planning things without actually considering the reality of it. Teaching English in Vietnam sounds pretty fun… OK, let’s do it! I had been too busy booking tickets, sending CVs, finding someplace to live (living in a hotel like Alan Partridge is only fun for so long, believe me) and navigating my way around the crazy place that is Hanoi to actually think about the reality of teaching. English. In an actual school. To Vietnamese kids. 

Image

In truth, children scare me a little. I’m not anti-child in any way but I am definitely no natural. I would love to be someone who can effortlessly meet someone’s 4 year old and form an instant bond with them. But I never know what to say. “Hello, how are you?” in a slightly sing-songy baby voice is about all I’ve got. And 4 year olds aren’t really into making that sort of polite conversation. It can get awkward.

So, I’m standing in this sweltering classroom with beads of sweat glistening on my forehead, twenty-or-so expectant Vietnamese children looking up at me… and I freeze. I have planned for this ‘demo’ lesson but it all goes straight out of my head and I forget everything. I turn to the Vietnamese teacher for help but she looks less than impressed and raises her eyebrows at me as if to say, “well..?”

I manage to snap out of it and introduce myself to the class. Even the teacher struggles to pronounce my name so we settle on ‘Teacher Sio’. Cute. I then spend the rest of the 20 minute demonstration bumbling my way through a poorly thought out flashcard game that is clearly too difficult for the children to understand, cringing the whole time and dying a little inside with every mishap.

The teacher looks on unimpressed and as I finish, I smile and thank her. She nods curtly at me and ushers me to the door. This is embarrassing. Feeling humiliated, all I can think about is getting out of there immediately. I am supposed to wait after the class for some feedback and a follow up chat but I can’t bear the thought of a Vietnamese-style dressing down so I do the only thing for it – run away. Literally. I sprint down the stairs, through the stuffy reception and straight out of the door, avoiding all eye contact on the way out. Stopping round the corner, I address the situation in disbelief. I’m not quite sure what I was thinking just disappearing like that but I console myself with the fact that I never have to see any of them again. Everyone is entitled to one little freak out when they have moved to a new country, surely. I take a minute to remind myself that I am here out of choice and that this is supposed to be fun! I decide to stop putting so much pressure on myself and start afresh looking for jobs tomorrow.

Later that evening, I receive a call from the teacher in charge of recruitment. I ignore her. She leaves a voicemail and I am too embarrassed to listen to it so I put it off for a few hours. I finally pluck up the courage to listen to the message and manage to decipher from her broken English that the school would like to offer me the job – starting in two days’ time. Seriously? I RAN AWAY from the trial lesson. Calling her back, mortified doesn’t cut it but I swallow my embarrassment, make my excuses and bashfully accept the job offer. (This doesn’t say a lot for the teaching standards over here, I’ll be the first to admit it…)

I can’t quite believe it but just like that, I have a job. It’s really happening; I am an English teacher in Hanoi! Then the dread sets in. I better get planning my first real lesson… 

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