Crash Course: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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What brought me to Vietnam? Quite simply I was told it was the place to be. I had been teaching English in my hometown of Orlando, Florida in the USA for several months and grew mixed feelings about continuing teaching in the States when I saw that most of my fellow teachers didn’t enjoy it for one reason or another such as low-salaries, regular overtime hours, or poor treatment. So I sought out options for something more where I could combine my passions of English, teaching, and traveling with my more outgoing and unorthodox teaching style. I loathe teachers who do everything textbook and seldom do games or activities, in my opinion that is the whole point of being a teacher – to make learning fun.

It took me little time before I found a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in a language school in Prague, Czech Republic. I signed up, parted ways with my current schools, sold a fair amount of my more valuable possessions such as my PlayStation 3, and brought just a suitcase and a backpack. I wasn’t happy with my performance during the month long, on-site course but passed and became certified to teach English as a foreign language. Then I came to the realization that I really was all in and had to either return home with my tail between my legs or find a place to build a new life from scratch.

My entire plan was to live and teach in Prague but something about it just didn’t quite excite me. I liked Europe but I didn’t love it, it just simply didn’t give me that spark that you either have instantly or don’t have at all. I was more keen towards Africa, the Middle East, and Asia because for some weird reason I thought there was more there for me. None were necessarily better but I felt I would find more purpose there and I intentionally and intently looked for cities in countries which were poorer or had more problems on a social or economic level. I didn’t want a permanent vacation, I wanted a real insight to life in a country where it wasn’t all glamour and sunshine and rainbows. Vietnam was that diamond in the rough for me.

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Vietnam is unlike any country I’ve ever visited in North America, Europe, and Asia. Out of all of the several cities I visited, very few had anything in common with a developing third world country like Vietnam. Vietnam mostly practices a blend of ancestral religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, is a communist country, and straddles a blend of third world and luxury. So much that you can be at a cocktail bar in a skyscraper enforcing a strict dress code one moment, cross the street and be eating pho and drinking Tiger beer outside in a plastic chair the next.

Cockfights: It’s all too common to see roosters in cages such as this. It’s a common form of entertainment throughout Vietnam but obviously seen as cruel and inhumane to many.

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The water is unsafe to drink in Vietnam due to the high metal content and the absurd amount of littering and pollution. All water must be store brought or boiled before using for drinking or cooking.

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Saigon Sports Club:

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Eating dog is a real thing in Vietnam but is more common in the northside where the locals are much more old-fashioned. I’ve thought long and hard about eating dog as an argument can be made that some people treat cows as holy but Americans see them as little more than livestock who are typically treated horribly. My main issue is that several believe that animals like dogs must suffer before killing them to eat because the adrenaline and hormones triggered by pain and fear cause the meat to become more flavorful and nutritious. Therefore dogs being skinned or boiled alive is not uncommon to hear about although I have been fortunate enough to not see it firsthand during my short time in Ho Chi Minh City.

Another issue that is common in Vietnam is dog-napping where pet dogs are stolen and then ransomed, resold, or killed for dog meat. As a result seeing dog parks or dogs being walked casually is not very common in HCMC.

On the other hand, you can eat just about anything in Vietnam, squid, stingray, eel, frog, snail, duck – almost any kind of meat you can buy from a commercial market like a Co.opmart, a specialty market, or a street market.

Fresh coconuts are definitely one of my favorite things to have in Vietnam:

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Nearly born chicken eggs, pretty much a fetus that I eat with peppers and lime. (Left) Fresh stingray at the market. (Right)

Vietnam boasts many odd fruits such as pomelo, jackfruit, and green oranges that I am slowly encountering and learning about over time. Many locals eat their fruit with either chili salt or white sugar.

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Teaching in Vietnam I teach toddlers as young as three to teenagers as old as seventeen. Ho Chi Minh City is divided into several districts mostly by number. The center where I began working is district one which is considered the city center. I now live in district seven but work in Tan Phu district, around a thirty minute drive on a motorbike with typical traffic.

The districts of Saigon:

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Some of my views from my center in district one.

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Turtle Lake: Most believe this structure was intended to be a torch but it is in fact meant to be an upside down sword plunged into the tail of the dragon of South Vietnam that needed to be controlled.

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Notre Dame Cathedral (yes, like in Paris):

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Ben Thanh Market: Street food, haggling central, and just about anything you can find from coffee beans to jewelry.

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One of my favorite pastimes in Vietnam is to shoot pool, drink beer, and practice my Vietnamese with local girls. This particular place, Clb Angel Billiards off of Le Lai, is the perfect place for this on top of great food, cheap beer, and free roaming puppies.

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Babylon Bar:

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Jolly Jocks Sports Bar:

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Bui Vien (pronounced like Spanish’s “muy bien”) is the infamous backpacker’s street where expats, backpackers, and foreigners go to party and meet locals who want to meet foreigners. It’s essentially downtown’s shit show where a lot of fun and bad things happen. You can find drugs, sex, and just about anything you can imagine here and you can get it all as long as you have the money.

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Little Chair Coffeeshop: One of Little Chair’s mascots.

I quite literally live off of a bridge across from RMIT University which straddles the invisible train tracks between luxury and poverty. I go one way on the bridge I will see skyscrapers, malls, and western bars. The other way and I will see street vendors, dirt roads, and rundown boat houses.

The luxury side of district seven from outside of my balcony.

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My backyard:

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Shopping areas like Crescent Mall and markets are a big hit in cities like Ho Chi Minh City as few other places can rival the convenience of one location boasting a supermarket, stores with international brands, a movie theater, and of course a variety of coffeeshops and foods to eat in the food court.

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Cau Anh Sao/Starlight Bridge: A light-up bridge that’s colors change frequently walking distance from Crescent Mall that is quite popular for couples wanting a late night stroll.

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Getting around in Vietnam there are two primary ways: buy or rent a motorbike OR use taxis such as the popular local Grabbike or well-known Uber. Cars aren’t uncommon in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) but the majority of locals and expats ride a motorbike as it is much cheaper and easier to drive in the city in some ways. Traffic in HCMC is on the level of No Man’s Land. You “can” drive on the sidewalk, the wrong side of the road, or run a red light no problem. It’s very intimidating driving, navigating, and even crossing the road initially. The main two concepts that helped me to adapt to driving a motorbike in Vietnam were these two simple facts of life: the bigger vehicle has the right of way and everyone drives like an idiot. As a foreigner you will always be at fault on the road so unfortunately it is heavily implied no matter who’s fault an accident is, it’s better to drive off.

One such incident occurred where I was easing into the left lane at a freshly turned red light but because red lights can be run in Vietnam without repercussion another biker decided to run it at full speed directly into the lane I was easing into. He honked and we caught it too late as he was going too fast to stop. I pulled my bike over to the right and he pulled his to his left. I was reluctant to not have much more than a scratch but he had fallen with a hard thud and the sound of shattered glass. As I said before the unfortunate truth is that in Vietnam, especially if you’re a foreigner, you are inclined to drive away from an accident because you will be put at fault no matter whose it actually was. I’m ashamed to say that’s what I did.

Another incident occurred to a friend who was on a Grabbike and her driver was an “old man with no teeth,” her words not mine. During rush hour traffic becomes bumper to bumper and as a result it’s hard to see potholes. He hit one and she got ejected. Thankfully she learned how to fall properly from training Brazilian jui-jitsu and had no serious injuries albeit the driver didn’t offer her much besides saying sorry.

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Literally the only unconditional law strictly enforced is to wear a helmet if you’re on a motorbike. You can see four people on a motorbike as long as they all have a helmet on no problem. You can potentially not have a driver’s license, be driving drunk, and not have your lights on, but as long as you have a helmet on the likeliness of getting pulled over is slim. (I may or may not be speaking from experience.)

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Police typically target foreigners to pull over and will threaten to take your motorbike, arrest you, and then some. Nine times out of ten they just want a bribe. The unspoken course of action is to speak very bad English, lock your bike, and give them 200.000 dong or around $8-9 US. Most experienced expats call it an unfortunate rite of passage in Vietnam, it’s just the reality for foreigners.

Safety: Taking pictures in Vietnam is the best worst idea because theft is the most common crime. Having your bag being pulled off by someone on a bike, being drugged and having your things taken, or having your phone snatched while being photogenic is a common sad tale in HCMC. This is why you will seldom see a selfie stick as well as a backpack or purse being carelessly strung over one shoulder in HCMC. Albeit, Vietnam is generally pretty safe as long as you stay aware and use your common sense, unfortunately common sense isn’t so common for a lot of people nowadays. At best you might lose a haggle at the market, at worst you could be on the wrong side of a machete. The thing about the Vietnamese is they are not cowards albeit being small. The worst weapon a local can have against you is their phone. You can beat one but when they have their phone you will soon be dealing with several more armed with pipes and machetes.

The language is not east to say the least. Vietnamese has eleven vowels as opposed to English’s five, Vietnamese does not have multiple syllables so every word will not have more than one, and Vietnamese is also all about pitch, so when you have a deep, American accent like me, it makes it that much harder to learn and especially speak. The best part about Vietnamese? The north and south have two different dialects. So you may become fluent in one part of Vietnam but can be utterly impossible to understand in the other. Luckily, HCMC is one of the most diverse cities in Vietnam so I get a mixture of both.

I firmly believe a sense of humor is necessary in teaching, without one you’re merely a robot. So I dress up like a Matrix or Men in Black character regularly.

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Some of my smart teens from one of my first classes in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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My super juniors:

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