The first 6 weeks in Vietnam

I land in HCMC International after a couple of not-too-long flights. I’m with a group of volunteers, 12 of us, when I see a young man holding a sign reading “Lattitude Volunters” (sic). Assuming this is intended for me and my fellow travellers I gain his attention and we pile into a van, off to our hotel/home for the next 6 days. The standard chit-chat of strangers diminishes as we gape at the chaotic city rushing by. Alien shop fronts and restaurants, vibrant little alleys and more motorbikes than I’ve ever come close to seeing at any given intersection. Nothing is quite sinking in. We arrive at a very nice hotel and get settled.

The next day we are taken on a tour through the city formerly known as Saigon. We shift from one temple to the next, enjoy some Vietnamese food – albeit seemingly designed for a Western palate – and wander through the famous Reunification Palace, where those tanks burst through the gate in 1975. Absorbing it all is a struggle, especially because at the back of everyone’s mind is the thought of our intensive teaching course, due to start the very next day.

Not sure what to expect, the group of 17 (5 had joined us from England) are sent away in taxis at 11am the following morning to the Shane English Centre. We are directed up 4 flights of stairs to a classroom. We quietly take our seats when Simon strolls in. Our teacher for the course. He’s English and is suspiciously very tanned. After the standard introductions he informs us that a night class will be coming in this evening, so we will get a chance to teach. The gulps of anxiety are audible. Our first day and he’s getting us in front of a class? Of course by the time we finish our day at 9pm, having ‘taught’ a class for 10 minutes each, it’s clear that it’s not as hard as expected. No one appeared nervous, but we all spoke too fast. We repeat this process for the next 4 days. Get taught how to teach, regurgitate techniques in front of unassuming adults, feel good about self. This was the easy part.

By the end of the week friendships are formed, personality clashes are evident and the city doesn’t seem so insane. We get our teaching certificates on Friday night and all but 5 fly up Hanoi-bound on Saturday morning. We say our goodbyes, strangely sad. I only met these people less than a week ago yet that we’ve-been-through-this-together feeling was present. The flight was a good chance for me to recover from the previous night’s celebrations. As we take our descent into Hanoi, the beauty of Vietnam’s north reveals itself. Majestic mountains obscured by soft mist, tiny villages at their base, lush vegetation stretching out. All in stark contrast to the flat and brown Ho Chi Minh City I had grown accustomed to. A similar procedure at the airport – into the van, through the city to another hotel. We settle into our rooms and the next day we take a tour of Hanoi. What a marvelous city. Stone buildings, narrow streets giving way to sweeping boulevards. The French influence is crystal clear.

We are shown the impressive lakes, pagodas and temples dotted around. One more night in the hotel and then we all, 2 by 2, go our separate ways. With phone number confirmations and promises to see each other soon the volunteers are split up and sent to what they’ll call home for the next 5 months. Matt and I are greeted by a representative from the University and taken to our placement. It’s a small room, two single, firm beds a foot apart and the bathroom floor and the shower floor is the same floor. Still, storage space, a fuzzy TV and a little fridge. It’s more than enough. We are then told by the University Rep that it’s National Vietnam Day on Thursday so we have the entire week off!

Quick facts
Capital: Hanoi
Government: Republic
Language: Vietnamese
Population: 88.1 million
Religions: Buddhism
Timezone: GMT +7
Climate: climate, with humidity averaging 84 % throughout the year
Currency: đồng
"Discovering Vietnam and how radically different it is from England (I really did fall in love with it) has also made me want to travel more and explore the world and all it has to offer. I would never have been this adventurous had I not been on this placement; it’s really opened my eyes to the world."

Marianne, English teacher