As with any foreign country that you may choose to teach English in, Vietnam has its own rules, habits and expectations. As a Westerner, I find I discover new and surprising things about this Asian culture every day. More often than not, I find myself backtracking on some of my rules a few weeks later too.
I began to teach English in Vietnam about one year ago and it has been a memorable experience, to say the least thus far. However, these are a few pieces of advice that I have discovered and stuck to throughout my experience teaching in Vietnam. Here are some tips to follow if you are going to live and teach English in Vietnam.
1. Do be picky about what school you sign up with
As with many emerging contending countries to teach English, there are a lot of language centres and schools that are ‘just about the money’ in Vietnam. English classes are becoming more and more popular, and business people have unfortunately realized the potential profit they can make. A few tell-tale signs of these kinds of companies are; giving their full attention to whether the parents are happy, rather than whether the students are, asking you to look or act ‘more Western’ and wanting you to speed through material even if the students do not understand it.
Do not fret though, there are plenty of places that are genuinely interested in teaching their students English. These places are absolutely worth the extra effort of wading through the bad places. Don’t even think about uttering the words ‘how bad can it be?’ Trust me, really bad! Save yourself the hassle and be picky. Research the schools you interview for online, ask around the expat community to see if anyone has worked there before and do not sign up for anywhere you haven’t visited in person.
2. Don’t assume getting a working visa is easy
If you’re not willing to do a visa run every three months, Vietnam may not be the best country for you to teach English in. It is definitely not easy to get a working visa, it’s not even easy to find any information on it. Visa requirements and documents are constantly changing, so be prepared for surprises!
It is by no means impossible though, if you’re determined, you can get your hands on that pesky working visa. Vietnam’s visa requirements are also beginning to get easier to navigate, for the moment, at least. Visa extension prices have dramatically dropped recently and the government is planning on extending the US tourist visa validity from 3 months to 1 year.
3. Do share facts about your home country
Most students learning English will be somewhat interested in Western culture but I’ve found Vietnamese students to be particularly intrigued by it. They are mind-boggled by the fact that my home country doesn’t have a two-hour nap in the middle of the school day, they can’t understand my fashion sense and they love hearing Cockney rhyming slang. If you get a chance to share a few pieces of general knowledge about where you’re from, you’ll find most of your students will find it very interesting.
4. Don’t be offended by people asking your age
There are a few standard questions that you will be repeatedly asked when you start a teaching job in Vietnam. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Are you married?’ and ‘How much is your rent?’ were the frequent ones in my case. I must admit, I still don’t appreciate being asked my marital status and I feel a bit uncomfortable about sharing the price of my rent, but I’m getting used to it.
In terms of asking your age, though, it has a much less invasive reason than you’d think. The Vietnamese language uses various terms to refer to people depending on their age. It’s actually all about respect, not just being nosy.
5. Do pay attention to the sounds your students struggle with
For anyone who has taught abroad before, or learned a second language themselves, you will be aware of the ‘impossible sounds’ each country has. For example, the French struggle with the short ‘i’ sound, the Germans struggle with ‘w’ and the Chinese struggle with ‘r’. During my teaching experience here, I’ve noticed the Vietnamese students mainly struggle with saying ‘th’, ‘ee’ and ‘l’.
As if it isn’t obvious, you must do whatever you can to help them practice these sounds. Pronunciation seems to be the biggest issue for students learning English here. However, as a teacher, it’s easy to stop noticing the problem as almost every Vietnamese person you meet will speak with the same mistakes (including many teaching assistants and friends you make).
For a little while, I started to think my students were getting much better at pronunciation with little effort, then I realised I was just getting really good at understanding ‘Viet-lish’ or ‘Engla-mese’ – whatever you want to call it. My advice is to be extremely vigilant with pronunciation while teaching English in Vietnam.
6. Don’t say ‘maybe’ unless you mean it
Whereas ‘maybe’ generally implies a polite no or a tentative yes, in the Western world, it seems to mean a definite yes in Vietnam. I first came across this tip when reading a blog about dealing with street sellers in tourism towns.
However, I have found this a good piece of advice in all situations in Vietnam, especially teaching. If you say you might have time to do some reports in the evening, you can bet your boss will expect them on their desk the next morning.
7. Do share your snacks in the staff room
It took me a little while to make friends at work. This is not because people were unfriendly, I think it was because I was not sending the right cultural signals to say I wanted to be friends. After a little while of trying out different compliments and conversation starters, I found the best way to make friends is sharing snacks!
The table with the snacks on in the staff room seems to be the social hub of Vietnamese schools and language centres. Your Vietnamese colleagues will especially appreciate it if you bring treats back from places you’ve visited during your time off.
8. Don’t try speaking Vietnamese in class unless you really can
There are a few reasons I avoid speaking Vietnamese in my lessons. The primary reason is that my Vietnamese is pretty much non-existent, and what I can say is generally incomprehensible. However, for those of you who are determined and talented enough to take on the tricky, Vietnamese language, I would also recommend you avoid using it in class.
The reason being is that it really distracts from the lesson. Every word you try to say in Vietnamese, you will lose three minutes of the lesson due to giggling, having your pronunciation corrected and students seeing if you understand other words.
On the other hand, if you have some Vietnamese phrases up your sleeve that you’re confident about, it’s great to drop these into conversations a few weeks through the course. The look of terror that crosses the students’ faces as they wonder if you’ve heard all the stuff they’ve said about you is priceless.
9. Do ask for specifics if you are going to teach English in Vietnam
In my experience, the Vietnamese have a knack for being very blunt. You can generally trust a Vietnamese person to say exactly what they mean. There’s no skirting around issues or unnecessary fluff and, for your information, there’s usually no intention of offending you either.
So, when a Vietnamese employer has been unusually vague with me, I have known something isn’t right. For example, if an employer says ‘you will get about 15 hours a week’ or ‘the school is around one hour away’… it’s probably not.
After being messed around numerous times, I don’t even bother accepting work unless I’m given a clear-cut answer. I would recommend any new teachers in Vietnam doing the same, though, at the same time, it’s always good to find these things out for yourself too!
10. Don’t argue with the parents
You can’t win. Much like the saying ‘the customer is always right’ in the Western world, the parents are always right in Vietnam. Blame is often landed on the teacher, both foreign and local, whatever the circumstances. In some cases, this is fair enough, if the student is struggling, the teacher may need to work harder to help them. However, in the cases where your student refuses to say a word of English during the class or draws throughout the lesson, the parents usually aren’t interested in hearing about it. All they want to hear is, ‘I’m very sorry, it won’t happen again’.
As with any advice about teaching abroad, the above should all be taken with a pinch of salt. There will be exceptions to every one of my rules, plenty of Vietnamese people who don’t fit the stereotype that I have painted and various other rules you discover for yourself. I think the best thing to do, for anyone who decides to teach English in Vietnam, is to go there with an open mind. My motto here is: “Expect the worst and hope for the best!”