I waffled (fun word!) for several months before finally picking a place to go teach English, and even then I was unsure and lacked confidence in my decision. It was only once I’d been here for a while that I could say for sure that I made the correct choice – this is an amazing, electric city in a rapidly modernizing & developing country, and, in 2013, it’s a fascinating place to live and work.
While I was still finishing my TEFL certification course, I had basically no idea where I wanted to go, or why. I kind of sorta was thinking Thailand, but, also, maybe Costa Rica? Korea, perhaps, or Chile? It was a mess, and it took me longer than I cared to admit to work it out. Much research was conducted and many travel blogs consulted.
Eventually, I figured out that one place I definitely wanted to travel to at some point was Argentina. I set about learning more about one of the biggest countries in South America, and learned that it was a little difficult to get a job unless you were in-country – a situation I didn’t want to deal with on my first time traveling abroad. My focus shifted to SE Asia, and I soon discovered Vietnam.
1. …And Now for Something Completely Different
I went traveling expecting my notions challenged, to put it mildly. Never having done the culture shock thing, I figured I might as well rip off the band-aid! As I honed in on Vietnam, I discovered that the Asian cultures of the region were vastly different than my expectations. The region was either modern or modernizing rapidly, while still keeping a foot in the developing world. The weather is tropical in the south, another thing I’d never experienced, although the northern part has four seasons (which was why I originally started by considering Hanoi).
These points, as well as my desire to live in a friendly, vital city, eventually brought my attention to Vietnam, and eventually to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s an amazing study in contrasts. These, plus the contrasts with my own experiences, intrigued me.
2. 40 Years of Peace
Perhaps Korea would have been interesting, but I wanted somewhere where I could check out something new and economically stable without an insane neighbor country. Vietnam fit the bill – not only was it at peace with everyone (for 40 years!), but they have a new-to-me system of government and are developing at an amazing rate. Vietnamese people are quite mobile, unlike many of their SE Asian neighbors, and are regularly traveling all over their country and the region.
Much of the country has benefited from the ongoing modernization of the economy and industry, and the burgeoning middle class has an enormous appetite for teaching their children English. Government regulations make it relatively easy and safe for foreigners to live in Vietnam, which has led to a sustained influx of tourists and expat workers (advantageous to the State when income taxes are considered), with an especially large English-speaking population in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam has been in a slow-motion but steady economic renaissance for over 20 years now. This is a place in the midst of massive, sustained development, and with so many barriers to the outside world falling (it must drive the government insane that they can’t truly regulate the internet), young people are angling for any kind of advantage in the job market, domestically and overseas.
English is considered an essential skill for interborder businesspeople, and the language is everywhere around the city. Anyone who knows a little bit of English will want to use it on you. A recent student went as far as to tell me that he really was in class to absorb an American accent. English teachers are in high demand because of these desires.
It also doesn’t stop at public and international schools: there’s a huge after-university market for adult learners that want to improve their speaking/listening skills. There’s money everywhere at the moment.
The country’s topography and climate are varied – you can experience almost any kind of weather here. From the differences in types of seasons to the opportunity to live in a place with a ‘monsoon season’, to in-country visits to beaches, mountains, and watery deltas, Vietnam is truly a see-it-all type of place. Initially I had wanted to go to Argentina in the hopes of backpacking Patagonia – I’m positive I’ll get an equally interesting adventure here in Vietnam.
Food. Everywhere. All kinds. Fresh, delicious, mostly healthy, cheap – there’s no denying that the food here completely rules. Case closed.
While there are funny things that my expat friends and I bitch about and bond over (Where the hell can we find real chocolate?! Why is the maid asleep on the couch?! Was the guy telling me to park my bike or move it?! Why is this lesson about colors photocopied in black and white?!), Vietnam is working out pretty amazingly for me so far. I’m so happy with my choice. It’s a hub of activity at almost all hours of the day, and I’ve found both the Vietnamese and resident expats an interesting change of pace.
As a city with insanely ambitious goals, HCMC is also the place to be at the moment in SE Asia. There is visible, high-profile public and private development everywhere I turn – ‘big government’ is seeming to work for the Vietnamese. (Did you see the new flyover only goes one way from February 3rd Street?!) I’m welcoming the chance to consider and reflect on the projects as I see a small part of the steady transformation of Saigon. I’m also slowly understanding how the city and State got to its current place – I learn more about my host country every day. This is a land rich with history and stories.
The effects of such a headlong dash into the future reverberate across the city and region, in ways large and small. Most are positive, some are negative – I hope to learn more about both as I live, travel, and write here. More than anything, I can’t wait to visit this city in 10 or 15 years – my gut tells me that it will be much different than it is currently. I observe more cars on the street every month, only one visible indicator of the rapid ascension of the middle class and economic progress. (Why is there ever only one person in each car?!)
The hardest parts to get to used to were the non-verbal culture shock and the weather. Both were things that my brain and body almost rejected outright. It took a long time to not become very frustrated with common interpersonal communication! These have largely subsided – I feel almost as comfortable here as I did in Chicago. I think I’m even getting used to the heat! (Are you serious?!)
Although I love HCMC, I also ache to travel more – something that’s currently hard to do with my six day workweek. I’ve got to get out of the city! My perspective might be broader than it was, but it’s still woefully narrow. To learn more I must travel and absorb even more.
Stay tuned for more intermittent updates on my journey through space, time, and Vietnamese culture!