Colleen in Vietnam – Interview with a Teacher

Colleen has been teaching English in Vietnam for the past 2.5 years, having grown weary of living the corporate life in Chicago. 

Where have you taught and how long have you been teaching for?

 I’ve been teaching for 4 years abroad. 2.5 in Vietnam and almost 1 in China (I spent just under 6 months back in the states when China didn’t work out, more advice about that later). I’ve taught at private schools, public schools and at language centers. My roommate teaches at the American international school. 

What made you decide to start? What were you doing beforehand?

I spent eight years in market research and four years at an ad agency in downtown Chicago. Basically, I felt like my soul was being drained by corporate America. 

What are some tips you’d give a newly graduated student interested in finding work in Vietnam? 

Find the expat page on Facebook page for the city you want to move to. If you don’t know where you want to go, look at (Dave’s ESL cafe – it’s a super dated website but has the best/most postings). Most cities have “teach in x” pages. It’s an excellent resource. You need to know why you are coming to decide where you want to live. 
Reputable companies with personal experience/knowledge: Apax (my previous company) ILA Language Link, St. Paul American School, UNIS Concordia.

What are some ways to maximize income and minimize expenses while you’re there? 

Bring necessities. You’ll pay import taxes on most things. Especially toiletries. For women bring hair products, makeup, tampons, underwear. You probably can’t find what you want or the correct size or at all. Spending more upfront to have on hand is worth it.

When it comes to getting a certification, what recommendations do you have? Do you need an in person, intensive certification?

It depends on where you want to work and the type of teaching you want to do. TEFL works in most countries and at most schools. Most places require a 120 hour TEFL as a minimum, usually a 70 hour online course and 50 hours in student teaching/observing.

CELTA can get you on a better pay scale, but is super expensive. I have a TEFL. 

What is the nature of the work like in Vietnam? 

Language centers – you are mostly going to work nights and weekends. I worked at Apax for a time and I moved on after 6 months. I’ve been told the schedule has been made better but at the time you only got 1 day off a week. And, taking time off (unpaid or not) was very difficult. It seems that is how many English centers are,  because you have to teach when the kids aren’t in regular school. 

Primary schools – I love working at the primary schools. It’s much more structured and I get to write the lesson plans. Ask if they split the classes, though. Some teach 60+ students at a time so if you care how the lessons go, this is not the way to go. 

Kindergarten – my company also has 60+ kindergartens around Hanoi that we work with. This is NOT real teaching. I mean, we are there as teachers but it’s a lot more playing and listening to pronunciation and dancing around like a monkey. It’s a nice break for me from primary school. 

Private lessons – I get solicited most times when I am in public by someone wanting private lessons. You can do this in your free time and make a good amount of extra money. The going rate is between $22-25 /hour. The class size, materials, etc are really different depending on the situation. But, this is a nice boost to your income. 

International schools – Best paying, best benefits. Most international schools have buses for teachers to take (many of them are kind of far from city centers) that usually leave from the Western part of town. But you need to have teaching certifications to teach at these schools and receive the benefits.

If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

I would have done it earlier. Honestly, living as an expat is really awesome if you are smart and responsible. If you’re not and you want to party, it’s still awesome but you’ll last a year or less. Which is fine but you can make really great money and see the world. And, if you’re responsible, you can make a lucrative career out of it.

I would also make sure my bank accounts were more aligned. Many places (even legit places) pay in cash. Some places are hard to deposit money or get cash out of the country. I’ve still not figured out a streamlined way to get money from here to the US or back. Also, plan for 3 months without pay. You aren’t paid for the first month…be responsible and make sure you have enough money for visas, work permits, rent, food, etc. planning is key. 

A friend lived in Hanoi and told me the process she went through. I had a friend that lived in Taiwan and was opening a school in China. It was the perfect storm. However, even knowing ALL of my connections, I found out I was illegal in China, not because I didn’t have my paperwork in order but because the school didn’t. I ended up having to leave very suddenly from China after the government came and we ran down the back stairs of the school twice. So we weren’t arrested for being illegal. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s when researching the school and processes. Don’t trust anyone’s word, find out if it’s legit. But also realize that it’s a totally different way to do things so…Google. It’s your friend.

What are some tips on avoiding culture shock once you get to a new country, are working, are living on your own?

Know that nothing will go as planned. I’ve lived in Asia for 4 years and I always think I know what’s happening but you never do. Be flexible. But firm in your expectations. My friends that have been open and accepting of different ways of doing things have been much more successful than those who come in and want it to be like the US. You’re not in the US. Be ready for planes, trains and automobiles to not leave at the time they say or look like the they do in the photos. And be ready to have a foreigners tax applied (not an official government thing…) just know you pay at least double what locals do. Always ask for a deal. Always. Even if they won’t give you a deal, they have more respect.

How do you deal with what would seem to be inevitable loneliness from being in a foreign country?

For ladies, most cities have a women’s group OR a Girl’s Gone International group. They set up monthly meetings. An awesome networking option!

Sorry dudes, idk what you do. 😬

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