On February 7th I got up and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. I had a visa on arrival waiting for me at the airport and lucky for me, there were no flights that arrived just before mine so the wait wasn’t too bad. I found the kiosk where everyone was queuing to get their visas and couldn’t help but chuckle at how unorganized it all seemed. I gave an official my passport, and in return they gave me a form to fill out all the information from my passport on it. Fortunately I have that all memorized from my trip with Will when we had to fill that in almost every two weeks. After filling in that form, people just butted to the front of the line to hand it back to an official as opposed to getting back into the queue. I did overhear some people panicking about how they were going to fill in the form without having their passports on hand.
After getting my visa, I made my way out of the airport, passing the many non-registered taxi drivers who approach you when you’re foreign. Generally they try to scam you by saying the meter doesn’t work, or if it does, they take you on a bit of a roundabout ride to your final destination to run the meter. Instead I used the airport service which you pay a flat fee for depending on how far you’re going. I was a little skeptical paying beforehand and getting a receipt to give a driver, but it all worked out just fine.
On arrival, I had made plans to stay with Sam and Charis, good friends of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken from their church in Bangkok. They’re a wonderful couple from Malaysia and have two young kids, so it was very generous for them to take me in! They made me feel very welcome and were incredibly helpful for me while getting my feet on the ground here. I stayed with Sam and Charis for about 10 days, setting up interviews, exploring District (Quận) 7, and looking online for places to live.
Tết Nguyên Đán 2015 – Year of the Goat
Tết is the Vietnamese New Year, celebrated on the Lunar New Year at the same time as the Chinese New Year. It is the biggest holiday for the Vietnamese people, so many people were off from work for over a full week. Traditionally, people will leave the city to go back to their hometowns to spend time with their family, which left Ho Chi Minh City very quiet relative to how it normally is. There are many decorations set up all over, incredible displays of organized flowers and lights, and special food that’s only available during Tết.
In addition to the decorations, there was a festival going on in Quận 7 that had food, rides, and many shops selling a variety of things. There was a large section devoted to selling plants, which are supposed to bring luck to the family in the new year. The most popular were yellow flowers and kumquat plants.
On the eve of the new year, fireworks were set off in various districts, the most popular display being in Quận 1. By that point, I had moved to Quận Bình Thạnh which is north of Quận 1. That night I was able to see the fireworks from the rooftop deck of the house I’ve moved into.
Job & House Search
On arrival to HCMC, I immediately began shooting my resume out to many different international schools and education centers around the city. Quick note about the resume, the format here is very different. You’re expected to put your picture at the top, as well as your birthdate, sex, and nationality. Two-pages is also more than acceptable. Anyway, international schools tended to have more requirements for employment, so I wasn’t too enthusiastic that I would get a job with one, but it didn’t hurt to try. The education centers just teach English and tend to be after school programs, so their requirements aren’t as stringent and my TESOL Certification + Bachelor’s were what most were looking for. I managed to set up several interviews in a short period of time, but many companies told me they would get back to me after Tết. Not ideal for someone needing a source of income!
One day while killing time before an interview in the afternoon, I went to a Phở restaurant that Sam and Charis enjoy. While waiting for my food, a guy across the restaurant named Abe initiated a conversation with me to find out what I was doing in HCMC. I told him I was an English teacher looking for a job, and he asked what I majored in. “Biology,” I said, to which he responded, “Oh, so you can teach Biology too!” He told me he ran a school teaching International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as well as English courses for Korean expats in Quận 7. I was a little nervous about that idea, but I asked him what level and he said High School. I figured I could at least give it a shot if he asked, so we exchanged contact information and I sent him my resume, thinking that my lack of experience would deter him from asking me to come teach Biology. I was wrong. Abe texted me the next week, asking me to teach a two-hour Biology lesson that Saturday. I picked up the material from him the following day and brushed up on my genetics, which was the content of the first lesson. I have to say that those may be easier lessons to do than teaching English as a second language. Not having a language barrier is nice! Abe called me after I left and told me that I was one of the best Biology teachers they had at the school, so I was hired. Lucky me!
My second job I got through yet another connection of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken. They got me in touch with a girl named Stephanie who has been teaching English here for the last year. Steph had two part-time jobs, and recently one of the two asked her to come on full-time. As a result, the other school she worked at was looking for a quick replacement to step in. When I arrived in HCMC, I texted Steph and she filled me in on the situation, saying that I could pick up a few hours per week at a kindergarten/preschool. It was going to give me more experience, which is always a good thing. I shadowed Steph for her two last days there, and on the second day some of the students were already greeting me with hugs. That’s a really nice way to start the day, relative to talking to some angry people about their money.
The last job I got, which I start tomorrow, is for a company called British Education Partnership (BEP). BEP is associated with Apollo, which is the oldest foreign owned chain of education centers in Vietnam. My interview was at the very beginning of Tết, so the school was pretty much shut down. I arrived a little early and met the interviewer, Will, who was very friendly and informative off the bat. When we sat down to begin the interview, he said, “Well, first of all, UM YA YA!” (A Saint Olaf cheer) Needless to say, I was shocked. Running into another Ole randomly on the other side of the globe isn’t something I was expecting at all, but I guess we’re all over the place. He graduated four years before me and has been teaching in Asia since then. After the interview he told me they could hire me for a 6-month, part-time contract during which I would be sent to local public schools teaching Vietnamese students. Exactly what I was hoping to do.
At this point in time, Sam and Charis’ driver, Nguyen, was taking me from place to place during the day while Sam was at work and Charis was with the kids. We got to know each other during that time and he is now someone I consider a friend here in HCMC. He is very kind and helpful, and he introduced me to some of his friends who are also drivers for businessmen. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering, but the job he had was boring so he has since found other work.
When Sam and Charis left to spend the Lunar New Year in Malaysia, Nguyen took me out to eat and drink beer with his friends at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant (pictured above). We had all sorts of snails, mussels, and clams which were probably not the best idea for me to eat, but man were they delicious. I figured I didn’t have work yet, so if I got sick, there was nothing going on I would be missing. Fortunately everything sat fine and my body has adjusted to the bacteria here.
At one point when we were driving around, Nguyen asked me what my budget was for a living space. From my research online, I had seen many serviced apartments for around $300/mo, so I told him that’s what I was thinking, but I was hoping for something better if I could find it. He informed me that his aunt and uncle have a home in which they rent out rooms to foreigners only. He thought it would be cheaper than what I had budgeted, maybe by even $100. Sounded good to me, so we arranged to check out the room.
The room was fully furnished, had a TV on the wall, a walk in closet, and a private bathroom. Nga, Nguyen’s aunt, confirmed that the price for renting was $200 per month, but having the maid clean my room and do my laundry would cost slightly more. Works for me! I haven’t done my own laundry since leaving the States, no reason to start now. In addition there is some common space on the top floor for karaoke and a rooftop deck attached, as well as a nice kitchen on the first floor. I jumped on the opportunity and it is where I am currently living. My housemates are all French (aside from Nga and her husband) and everyone living here is very friendly. Occasionally Nga will cook food which she sends up via the maid to my room, and she knows how to cook. She runs a restaurant nearby that I have yet to go to. Maybe I can have her teach me how to make some Vietnamese dishes…
As I moved into the house during Tết, I got to experience one of the family Tết parties here with Nguyen and Nga’s family. One night there were probably about 25 people or so in the house and Nga formally invited me to the party. One of my housemates, Alexis, was also there and we had a phenomenal time chatting with the family members. Over the course of the holiday, a family will have a series of parties at different family member’s homes.
On one of the days while I was still living in Quận 7, I went with Charis to Bến Thành Market, a large market in Quận 1. Will and I had gone the last time we were here accompanied by a local who thought we needed to see it before we left. It’s a pretty cool market, but it can be overwhelming if it’s the first time you go because nearly everyone is trying to get you to purchase something from their store if you linger at all. You have to walk with determination from point A to point B if you don’t want to be bothered. I didn’t mind much, just laughed and said, “no, thank you,” constantly while I walked through. It was here that I had my first Banh Mi sandwich and Vietnamese iced coffee. Delicious, but can’t make a habit of having the coffee all the time as it has a fair amount of sweetened condensed milk in it.
Now that I am officially on my own in HCMC, it’s been a bit strange adjusting to the lack of a social life. In Bangkok I was incredibly busy with my course, so I didn’t mind. That and Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken brought me many places and introduced me to many people, so I had a good amount of interaction when I wasn’t studying. Tết slowing things down didn’t help either as most people had plans and things to do during the holiday. Fortunately I have a meeting tomorrow morning with my new coworkers at BEP so I’m looking forward to making new friends there. More of a social life will come with time!
Over the last few days I got a little sick and I’m pretty sure it’s the kids’ fault at the preschool/kindergarten. I wouldn’t mind much, however I lost my voice as a result and had to teach a two-hour Chemistry lesson for Abe’s school yesterday! That was a bit of a disaster as my voice just got worse and worse as the lesson went on. It’s still a little hoarse, but I’m really hoping that tomorrow when I start for BEP it’s better. I’m hoping for the best as I drank lots of tea and rested my voice today. Until next time!
[Shoutout to my sister Mica: Happy Birthday! Have a great day!]