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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Teaching English Haphazzardly in Hanoi - Part I

The beautiful Dragon Fruit
I don't think when I hailed the GRAB moto-taxi (similar to Uber) that the driver expected I'd take the company name so literally. Freshly new to Hanoi, I clung tightly to the driver's waist as he zipped and dodged his motor bike through heavy rush-hour traffic along Hanoi's buzzing streets and highways. At a noisy traffic jam, he hesitated only briefly before veering up over the hump of a curb and speeding down the sidewalk as unsurprised pedestrians stepped out of his way. No one shook their fist at us. No one yelled obscenities. The rebel in me couldn't stop smiling as I reminded myself to keep my knees and elbows close to the bike as we brushed dangerously close to trees and light poles.

Caroyne's Colorful New Friend

The Dragon Fruit with Red Flesh Tastes Better than the White
The gray of dusk settled. I was too afraid to let go of the driver to check my phone for the time. But, I worried I'd be late. He suddenly jerked up a dark alley. If I'd wanted, I could've touch the cracked walls of old buildings on either side, so pulled my thighs in tighter across the bike's padded seat. I hoped I wasn't sending off some moto-taxi sexual message when my knee caps vice-gripped the driver's hips. None of the locals riding on the back of motos seemed to hang onto their drivers for dear life, enveloping them like a desperate hotdog bun.

We turned at high speed from the narrow alley into a lane. Women cooked beside the street on either side of us, crouched down stirring delicious recipes that filled the air with tummy-rumbling smells. Men chatted together, smoking long wooden meter-long pipes that gurgled gently as they sucked nicotine into their lungs. A woman on a bicycle selling flowers took off her conical hat and wiped her deeply-lined cheeks with a cloth, staring into my foreign face with her brows furrowed. We darted up a narrow drive and stopped. I paid the driver 22,000 Vietnamese dong for my thrill ride - exactly $1US.
Selling tea cups, plates and tupperware

A plastic passenger

Hoan Kiem Lake at night
I stared at the ancient house- partially crumbled, adorned with fierce dragons racing across its rooftop with pointed corners that curled up like the tips of Aladdin's shoes. The lovely pagoda was in the oldest Hanoian neighborhood where proud descendants still lived in their family homes. Little shoes lined up along the wall told me where to find the entrance, a large black door left wide open in expectation of my arrival. A 40ish-year-old Vietnamese man greeted me and invited me into his home. After serving me a glass of water, he sat down in front of me - ready to conduct the interview. I asked myself what I was doing.
At night.
In a dark alley.
At a stranger's house.
Interviewing to teach English.

Our whole purpose of spending three months in Hanoi was so I could explore the teaching possibilities. We'd heard teaching English was BIG in Vietnam. And what we discovered was...
it's bigger.

But when we arrived...
I had no leads.
I had no friends.
I had little clue. Okay, I had virtually NO clue.

Fan dancers in the park

Before we left our sailboat, Hotspur, in Fiji and leapt into Asia, we'd read several blog sites from travelers who had done what we were considering doing. I say "we", but Jim wasn't (and still isn't) considering teaching. And Carolyne is a wee bit young yet... (however we're thinking of seriously sending her through a CELTA course for certification. Seriously.) But, I came to Hanoi prepared for job hunting. I'd read up on what employers wanted. And I fit the bill... except for the 20-40 age guideline, which I'd hoped no one would notice.

My credentials were in order, referred to in Vietnam as a "Curriculum Vitae" or "CV" for short. They include:
A cover letter
A resume geared toward teaching
A scanned copy of my University transcript
My TEFL online certificate completed August 2016 (Four weeks before arriving in Hanoi, I signed up for an online ESL teaching certificate to boost my chances of getting hired. I signed up with Uni Prep,a 120-hour course for $250... which I finished in less than 48 hours. Some of the more serious international schools don't accept this type of credential.)

In addition, I included a photo of me teaching students in American Samoa, a letter of recommendation from a previous school where I taught and a one page scanned copy of a magazine article I had published in March... to show off my writing and grammar skills.

First, if you are from a country where "discrimination" is a dirty word, then coming to Vietnam might shake you up. Get ready - there is nothing wrong with an employer asking your age and if you get upset about that, you lessen your chances of getting hired. In fact, your CV should include a headshot (or professional-ish photo of your face) and probably should include your age (though I left my age off and hoped my Porcelana skin would radiate "forever youth" through my photo). That's another thing about discrimination in Vietnam - lighter skin is revered. Is that wrong? It just is what it is. Maybe a woman is preferred over a man and the ad might say so. Maybe Russian English is secondary to New Zealand, Canadian or American English. Maybe "beauty" is preferred to superb teaching skills. Here, no one hides under a pretense of "fair hiring practices". Fairness doesn't exist.

Before dinner with our friends, Joe and Marilyn, as Jim
goes for the fluffy-hair-in-the-fan look

Then, there was a problem of dodging the "scammers". It wasn't that there weren't any leads... there were tons. But who is honest and wonderful to work for? And who's a liar and thief? So, before hitting the pavement I joined several Facebook groups talking about teaching and hiring teachers and about Hanoi in general. You get a great feel for credible employers.... and ones you might want to avoid:
Hanoi Massive Jobs
Hanoi English Teaching Jobs
Hanoi Teachers
English Teachers in Hanoi
School and Center Rating
and I'm still awaiting a response from a group I'm interested in joining because I can't wait to read about skanks and their devious ploys to entrap unsuspecting teaching hopefuls:
Hanoi English Teacher Bad Experiences Exchange.
Carolyne strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, 
close to where we're living

It was through one of these Facebook groups I met Daren, a rockin' good teacher from New York City who needed to go home for a couple months and wanted to recruit a substitute teacher to cover his block of classes until he returned. He wanted to make a decision quickly, so I agreed to meet him at a cafe to discuss the details only four days after we arrived in Hanoi (and I'd had time to recoup from a nasty respiratory and gut flu). I ordered a coffee and waited. I was pleasantly surprised when a tall, handsome black man with long dreds gently salted with smidgens of gray walked through the door. We introduced ourselves and he sat down, removing his folding reading glasses from his pocket as he ticked off his teaching schedule. In the end, I was the perfect fit. I agreed to commit to his schedule and hold it sacred until his return in October.
Pokemon Go just started in Vietnam this week
Transport isn't always motorized - or safe
$1 Beer Corner attracts more locals than tourists
Daren is living proof that no matter what you hear the odds are against (more melanin, more gray hair, wrinkles, a Bohemian vibe v.s. Armani...) if you're a good teacher and a likable person, then the odds are favorable.

But sadly, my block of classes didn't quite work out as I expected. Before Daren left Vietnam, over half his classes I'd been promised were gifted to someone else by the director at the school to some whiny baby who threatened to quit without notice if he didn't inherit more hours. Daren is way cooler than Whiny Baby and will get his classes back upon his return in October, I'm sure of it.  But for me - since Whiny Baby didn't take all Daren's classes (which would have been preferable)- I found myself juggling a jigsaw puzzle of higgledy-piggledy open and closed slots... which is how I found myself at an interview.
At night.
In a dark alley.
At a stranger's house.
Thank you, Whiny Baby.
Really. I mean it.
Thank you.

Part II To Come...


  1. You had me at, "enveloping them like a desperate hotdog bun." Can't wait for Part 2.

  2. I would definitely encourage new teachers to get one job that provides 20ish hours a week with an online teaching. I don't understand teachers who try to make up the hours by juggling 'contracts' with 6 different companies.