Christmas Epiphany

From hard work to holidays

Teacher training ended just days before Christmas. There was a strange crop of Santa suits for sale hanging all over the old quarter. Instead of being red and white they were red, white and yellow. I assumed this is because the Vietnamese flag colors are red and yellow, so being a popular color theme in the country.

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

While most Vietnamese practice a variety of folk religions, about 16% are Buddhist and 8% are Christian (mostly Catholic, mostly in the south). When I asked my Vietnamese friends at my hotel what happened on Christmas. They replied, not very much, that sometimes they dress up and drive around to see the churches and the beautiful decorations. Business is not closed, but Christian people celebrate it more.

Come Christmas eve, I had a nice sit-down dinner with the staff and other guests at my hotel. It was a mix of Vietnamese cuisine as well as french fries and not very good wine.  I helped in the kitchen with the springs rolls, letting the staff have a laugh at my inexperience.

Travel tip: always say yes to any task or event when invited.  Be humble and allow your local acquaintances to have a laugh at your expense. Laughter and teasing are great friendship builders.

The busy street I lived on was even busier than usual, thick with people on their motorbikes. Every so often someone would be in one of the Santa suits that had been for sale the week before, mostly men, one woman and several adorable babies.  I had blast stopping people for a photo; the mood was celebratory and sweet.

Guess I’m going to church

There are a few beautiful old cathedrals in Hanoi, one of the more famous ones was just a few blocks away, so I thought why not join the noisy throngs and see what was happening there. When I arrived the crowd around the majestic cathedral was thick with hundreds of local people waiting to get in. I was just there to see what I could see and unconcerned with actually getting into the church (I’m not Catholic).  However, the crowd kept opening up in front of me and I was being gently ushered to the door. Because I was a westerner, they assumed I was meant to be there, and were eager to assist.

Once in, it was near the end of Mass. The attendees appeared to be about half Vietnamese and half foreigners. The Priest spoke in English, with a very strong accent. The choir sang some hymns in English and some in Vietnamese. The final “Hymn” was Jingle Bells. Every one was all smiles and warm greetings as the service ended. It was a truly joyful worship.

Then the doors were opened to the public that was patiently waiting outside. The non-Catholic locals filed in with total reverence and respect that such a church deserves. I myself was in awe.

I thought, how amazing if people of different religions could all be so warmly and innocently curious of others spiritual practices. What if Muslims, Jews and Christians all welcomed and all visited each other’s places of worship on their holy days just because it is beautiful?

Learning to Teach English in Hanoi

CELTA Training

I chose a CELTA accreditation for teaching English as a second language (ESL) because it is the highest level of its kind and is accepted all over the world. It is moderated by Cambridge University. You have to apply and have a skype interview, they only accept you if they think you can succeed. In my research I learned that it is a very challenging course that will take every ounce of your energy for the full month that it tIMG_3698akes to complete it. Those reviews were true. You start teaching on the very first day and the work load is intense. It’s also a lot of fun.  My class-mates were from all over the world and our students were eager, young locals that pay a deposit that is fully reimbursed, only if they complete the class.

 

I chose to do it in Hanoi, because wherever you do your training you can end up with some local connections and Vietnam was where I’d decided to start. That turned out to be a good strategy as I was able to land a job in Danang just 2 weeks after earning my CELTA. I took the training with, and later worked for, Apollo English. http://teachatapollo.com/IMG_3700

The days were full of lecture, tests, practice teaching and weekly papers due. Lunch break was fun, going out and finding new or favorite lunch spots. There was the tofu lady on the street, chicken at a very busy upstairs place and my favorite spring rolls, bahn mi and pho. You have to try hard to spend more than $2 on lunch in Vietnam.

After class, I would walk home via a bakery that had some delicious treats. My favorite were these perfect, tiny, just made eclairs. I’d have one and save a couple as reward for after homework was completed. I frequently had to work until I could not keep my eyes open any more to finish assignments and teaching plans. For the whole month I really only had about 1/2 of Sundays that I could just relax. Any more than a month would have been impossible, however it was rewarding time well spent.

The Students

One of the best things about teaching in Vietnam was the students. Young people are very respectful of adults, and teachers in particular. Vietnamese teachers are very strict so we foreigners with our games and songs could have a lot of fun with such attentive, well-behaved students. Kids go to scIMG_5428hool or tutoring all day, usually 6 days a week. I fell in love with our training students and in the pursuing months of teaching I had very few challenging students. It was so fun to get a group of teenagers to act out scenarios and practice their respective dialog in a way that most American teens would have refused to do. And all the kids love to sing!

 

ESL

If you are interested in teaching English as a second language I suggest you do a lot of research and self-education to find what might work for you. Are you already a teacher? Is this a career path or a shorter term life-experience? Do you need to get paid? What cultures do you want to explore? etc. I would suggest starting at Dave’s ESL Cafe http://www.eslcafe.com. It is full of forums, job listings, lesson ideas as well as living abroad information.

As a final note, I would say if you have the idea to try something like this, Do It! It won’t all be easy, but it will be worth it. Living and working abroad is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’ve got and adventurous spirit, an open mind and dash of tenacity, it will change your life for the better.

 

Hello Hanoi!

I arrived in Hanoi, mid November, 2009 with one week to get my bearings before my intensive teacher training started.  Hanoi is a busy, loud city full of endlessly interesting sights. I rented a cheap room in a hotel with a restaurant below which turned out to be a nice place to eat many of my meals and become friends with the staff for the month that I would reside there. It was located in the old quarter, just 2 blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake.

Turns out Hanoi can get a bit chilly in the winter. Like so many places in the world that are too hot most of the year, there are not a lot of heaters for when it does get cold. I had to go out and buy a couple of sweaters (at a couple of bucks each) and I searched out the cafes that had a heater or fireplace and served hot chocolate. The less chilly days were perfect.

Zen and the Art of Crossing the Street

You may have heard about the traffic in Vietnam being absolute chaos.  Well it is and it isn’t. Later in Danang, I had my own motorbike and really got the hang of it. It is just entirely different and counter intuitive to the western mind. Anyone’s first days in the country will terrify and confound them when trying to cross the street.

IMG_3956

The trick is that you have to stay slow and steady as you step into a steady stream of hundreds of motorbikes, a variety of cars, carts, cyclos, and the occasional truck. Darting about through traffic is a sure way to cause an accident. I started by shadowing local people.  I would find someone, (the older the better cause who’s gonna run over an elder?)  I’d stand beside and a little behind them and copy step by step.  Miraculously the oncoming traffic parts around you like a river around a rock. No matter how dense the traffic, you just step in and slowly walk through it. Yikes!

 

Exercise Around the Lake

My neighborhood was awesome! I was in the old quarter, which is a maze of ancient streets still named after the specialized trade guilds they represented dating back to the 13th century.

Then in the middle of all the noise and bustle is Hoan Kiem lake (return of theIMG_3689 sword lake). It is a smallish lake with a red, walking bridge to an island temple. It is lovely to perambulate around observing people socialize and exercise at its edges. If you get up early in the morning you see individuals and groups doing their exercise of choice. Everything from ladies with elegant red fans to loud step aerobics classes and men with rusty old weight sets pumping iron just inches from traffic.

 

The teacher training was demanding so the walk to and from by the lake (with a stop to stretch) was a lovely respite and a peek into the daily lives of the people of Hanoi.

 

 The Food!

The street food in Hanoi is so interesting and delicious.  I never had spring rolls as good again, even in other parts of the country. In restaurants there is lots of local flair to check out, excellent French pastries and other delights from around the world.

One of the best everyday items is Bahn Mi.  For less than a dollar you get the most delicious sandwich on fresh baked baguette. I have yet to find the equivalent flavors anywhere in the US. One great reason to go back for a visit.

Travel Tip: People ask me about eating street food and getting sick in foreign countries.  Here is my personal, entirely unscientific, theory.  If you are from another country you are going to lack immunity to some of the microbes in the food and water. You will likely get a funny tummy from time to time. Paying attention to what looks clean and what other people are or are not eating (a busy place is a good sign) is a good practice. I know for certain that I have gotten sick from a fancy restaurant as well as street food and that really uptight people still get sick. Street food is so damn good, I am not going to miss out on it. So I say: be attentive, but don’t miss out on the local good stuff wherever you are.