Teaching English in Vietnam is something that you’ve always wanted to do and now the time has arrived where you can live that long-held dream. How lucky are you? Very lucky indeed! Here’s some background information that might be handy to know before you set foot on Vietnamese soil for the first time.
Tip: If history is a passion, there’s a good chance you’ll be impressed with the War Remnants (Vietnam War) Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s best to check the hours that it’s open on the day you intend to visit, rather than just turning up.
Archaeological artifacts indicate that humans were living in northern Vietnam 500,000 years ago, but primitive agriculture didn’t arrive until around 7,000 BC (+/-). It took a further 6,600 years (+/-) for the sophisticated Bronze Age ‘Dong Son’ culture, famed for its drums, to make an appearance.
The Chinese played a huge role in early Vietnamese history and it could be argued that in one way or another, they’ve continued to do so to this very day. The history books tell us that Vietnam has had more than its fair share of uprisings, rebellion, and occupation. From 1861 through to 1957 (apart from a relatively short period of Japanese occupation), Vietnam as we know it today was occupied by the French.
Shortly after the French decided that they’d had enough, Vietnam was split into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. War erupted between the north and the south and tragically millions of people died, including many civilians. The war in Vietnam came to an end on 30 April 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army overwhelmed the South with a massive offensive, peace was finally achieved and the country started on the path to reunification.
While the end of the war in 1975 brought a level of peace that Vietnam hadn’t known for decades, it also heralded 11 plus years of economic and political isolation from the outside world, other than a few like-minded communist states. Food shortages were commonplace. Medical equipment was scarce. Medical treatment was primitive. Tragically, people died in high numbers. How many? Nobody knows.
What we see in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and elsewhere in this wonderful country today, is a stark contrast to the reality of life in Vietnam just over 30 years ago. The transformation from a ‘lost cause’ to an economic powerhouse within three decades is miraculous. I’d like to think that those of us who chose to embark on a career teaching English in Vietnam during this period, played a part, no matter how small, in the transformation that has occurred.
Tip: You’d be well-advised to take plenty of insect repellant on a trip to the Mekong Delta. There’s no doubt in my mind that the nastiest mosquitos in the whole world live down that way.
Vietnam’s total land area is 331,211 square kilometres. The country has land borders with Cambodia, Laos and China.
Crudely, Vietnam can be divided into three distinct segments: 1. the highlands and Red River Delta in the north; 2. the central mountains and costal lowlands in the middle; and 3. the Mekong Delta in the south. Interestingly, more than 10,000 square kilometres of the Mekong Delta is dedicated to rice farming, making the area one of the top rice-growing regions in the world.
The coastline of Vietnam with its stunning beaches is surely one of the country’s best kept secrets. Development has taken hold in coastal cities such as Nha Trang, Danang and Vung Tau, but there are still plenty of small fishing towns and hamlets on the coast that provide insight to the ‘real’ Vietnam. Certainly, Danang and Nha Trang are popular work and tourism destinations for folks teaching English in Vietnam. There are teaching jobs available on the coast, but competition is intense because of the lifestyle afforded by beachside living, especially in a country with a tropical climate. If beaches are your thing, don’t let my ‘competition’ comment deter you. Who knows? You might be in the right place at the right time.
Tip: With 97 plus million people living on a relatively small tract of land, in a developing country, it’s no surprise that traffic congestion is a huge problem in cities and towns across Vietnam. When you need to be somewhere at a specified time, a teaching practice class for example, make sure you allow time for traffic-related delays.
The population of Vietnam is expected to reach 97.3 million people in 2021, making it the fifteenth most populous country in the world. ‘Kinh’ is the largest ethnic group in Vietnam (85% plus of the total population) with the remaining 15% consisting of people from 53 distinct communities.
With every year that goes by we are seeing more Vietnamese migrate from rural areas to larger cities, especially to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Anecdotally, the lack of employment opportunities for local people and access to services such as medical care and education (government schools and tertiary education institutions) are key push factors. Presently, around 40% of Vietnamese people live in urban areas, more than 9% in Ho Chi Minh City alone. While statistics show us that local people are gravitating to the cities, if it happens that you prefer a slower pace of life, you’ll be pleased to know that there are still plenty of jobs teaching English in Vietnam in regional and rural areas.
Interestingly, over the past 20 years the gap between the number of Vietnamese people who choose to move abroad, year-on-year, compared to the number of foreigners who take up residence, has narrowed considerably to the extent that it’s negligible. While opportunities to pursue a career path teaching English in Vietnam is a pull factor for many foreigners, history tells us that when a booming economy is coupled with a ‘Welcome Mat’, people respond.
Tip: Vietnam is a hardline Communist State and officially atheist. For those reasons and others, folks who are teaching English in Vietnam and other visitors would be well-advised to avoid any discussion about religion.
As a Communist State, Vietnam is officially atheist, but the reality is that religion plays a part in the lives of many Vietnamese people. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are the three most prominent religions in Vietnam. It’s not uncommon for those three religions to be grouped together as one religion named ‘Tam giao’ (in Vietnamese) or ‘the three teachings’.
Here’s a question for you. What percentage of the Vietnamese population is Catholic? Have a guess if you’re not sure and I’ll provide an answer further on.
In the meantime, you might be surprised to learn, as I was, that:
- there are more than 2,200 Catholic parishes the length and breadth of Vietnam that are collectively serviced by 2,600+ ordained priests; and
- it took the French colonists 17 years (1863 to 1880) to build the Notre Dame Cathedral in the downtown area of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). It remains a popular tourist destination to this day.
So, getting back to my question, ‘what percentage of the Vietnamese population is Catholic’? The answer is 7%. Did you know the answer? If not, was your guess close to the mark?
Tip: If possible, try and structure your routine so that you’re under an air conditioner or a fan during the hottest part of the day as distinct from being out and about. Heat related illness including dehydration in Vietnam is commonplace.
Vietnam’s climate varies from north to south, with the north having the conventional four seasons and the south having only two seasons, wet and dry.
It is hot and wet in the northern part of the country including Hanoi during the summer months and cold and dry in the winter months. High humidity and sunlight are weather characteristics in the north of Vietnam regardless of the time of year. Although the north of the country is either very wet or very dry, the transition months provide for the conventional four seasons.
The weather in the south of Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City is oppressively hot and humid 12 months of the year. During the wet season you can almost set your clock by the daily downpour of rain. The rain typically lasts for only an hour or so, but long enough to cause local flooding. Usually, the flood water disappears within 30 minutes or so after the rain stops. During the dry season, as the term suggests, it’s highly likely you won’t see a drop of rain in the south of Vietnam. No rain means lots of dust and poor air quality so it’s a good idea to have a supply of surgical masks in your kit bag.
Regardless of whether you settle on teaching English in Vietnam up north or down south, I’d encourage you not to wear your work shoes to and from school during the wet season. Wear sandals or similar and carry your work shoes in a bag. Why? There’s a high chance you’ll have to wade through water to get from point A to point B at one time or another. Doing a teaching shift in saturated socks and shoes from trudging through ‘pooey’ water will be unpleasant for you – and your students.
Tip: Occupiers rarely add value to a country, but give credit where it’s due. The French baguettes that are found the length and breadth of Vietnam are simply divine. Throw in a bit of salad, meat of some sort and a drop of soya sauce and you’ve got a perfect Banh Mi for breakfast or lunch.
Putting aside some of the more exotic ‘food items’ that a lot Vietnamese people swear by, you’d have to say that the local cuisine is right up there with the healthiest on offer anywhere in the world. Pretty much every meal contains ‘farm-fresh’ ingredients including lean meat, vegetables, herbs and spices. Most Vietnamese dishes are testament that ‘cheap’ can also taste good. You’ll have ample opportunity while teaching English in Vietnam to make up your own mind. Here’s a random selection of everyday food items in Vietnam that you should try at least once:
Pho: a soup-like dish with rice-noodles, meat of one kind or another, bean sprouts, a sprinkling of various herbs and spices and a splash of lemon. Most Vietnamese will add soya sauce and chili to a bowl of Pho in quantities that would leave the average westerner aghast.
Bo Kho: a braised beef and vegetable stew with lemongrass and other spices. The stew is typically left to simmer for at least a couple of hours. Make sure you’ve got a French baguette to scrape the bowl clean.
Bun Cha: is a pork-meatball (looks like a rissole) dish that’s typically eaten with salad and bread. It’s a popular ‘street food’, especially with young children in Hanoi and elsewhere in the north of Vietnam.
Banh Mi: is basically a French baguette that’s stuffed with meat, salad and vegetables of your choosing. How quirky is this? The iconic Travel Book, Rough Guides, has ranked Banh Mi right up there with the World’s best street foods.
Tip: If you go with the ‘Visa on Arrival’ option, make sure you’ve got the Approval Letter with you at your port of entry.
To enter Vietnam, you will need a passport that has at least 6 months remaining and a valid visa. These days most people who travel to Vietnam opt for a Tourist Visa on arrival, which can be finalised online from the comfort of your own living room in less than 10 minutes. You will find information about the Tourist Visa on arrival option here.
Assuming you plan to complete the Australian Government accredited TESOL/TEFL course at AVSE-TESOL in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City with the idea of teaching English in Vietnam after your training finishes, you’d be well-advised to opt for a 3-month Tourist Visa on arrival. Why? It will cover you for the period of the TESOL/TEFL course, your initial employment and the transition to an employer sponsored visa. Keep in mind that Vietnam is one of those countries where the visa that’s available to be purchased today, may not be available tomorrow. The same principle applies to eligibility requirements. Visas are a moving feast in Vietnam.
Tip: If you plan on teaching English in Vietnam after your TESOL/TEFL course at AVSE-TESOL, your employer (a school) will almost certainly pay you once a month with a wad of Vietnam Dong notes. It’s best to open a bank account at the earliest opportunity and deposit spare funds, rather than storing money under your bed or similar.
Vietnam’s official currency is the Vietnam Dong (vnd). Yes, I agree, it’s a funny name for a currency! Prices are typically quoted and advertised in Vietnam Dong. ATM machines only dispense Vietnam Dong.
Sending money out of Vietnam is complicated and the rules change without notice. Such is life in a Communist State. If you have bills to pay in your home-country, you may wish to seek advice from other expats on how to send money abroad. In stark contrast, sending money to Vietnam is a breeze with the assistance of entities like TransferWise, Western Union, MoneyGram and alike.
In this ‘Country Profile’ blog post I’ve provided a snapshot of Vietnam based on my own experience. I have touched on matters pertaining to history, population, cuisine and other areas that I thought would be useful for a ‘rookie’ to at least reflect upon in a quiet moment. If you take nothing else from this blog post, be careful with those nasty mosquitos in the Mekong Delta (Geography) and please, please, please do not store your hard-earnt money from teaching English in Vietnam under your bed (Currency).
About the writer: Peter Goudge has been teaching English in Vietnam since 2006. Originally from Australia, Peter now calls Ho Chi Minh City home. Peter is the owner of AVSE-TESOL in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. AVSE’s core business is delivering an Australian Government accredited TESOL programme for prospective ESL teachers. Check out the AVSE website: www.avse.edu.vn