The ups and downs of living in Vietnam

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November 20th 2009
Published: November 20th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

The end is nigh

It's coming to the end of our contract here in Haiphong. We finish teaching for Apollo on the 5th December and we fly back to the UK, via Kuala Lumpur, on the 12th.

We are really excited about coming home now. We are not the sort of expats who can stay away from the UK for long periods of time. We don't live abroad because we hate the UK, but simply because we love the life we lead away from it. We left the UK this time nearly 14 months ago now, and for future reference, it's too long. After 9 months away we were itching for a pint of real ale in a real local pub, for a long autumn walk in the countryside with crisp leaves and fluffy sheep, to hang out with our mates and to catch up with our families.

Perhaps this is the time when you start reflecting more on the experience, or perhaps after nearly a year here certain things start to stick in your mind. Maybe we are so looking forward to going back to England for Christmas that we notice things
Good friendsGood friendsGood friends

My birthday party
here a bit more.

Reflecting on some of the frustrations

On Wednesday, which, bear in mind, is our equivalent to Sunday, we had a couple of things we wanted to do.

1) Transfer some money back to our bank account in the UK
2) Buy a warm jumper for Kris
3) Get some food from the supermarket

Sounds easy?


Firstly, off we go to the bank with all the usual paperwork for transferring money. It's something we have done a couple of times before, we always deal with the same woman in the bank who speaks English, it's always been successful, but we always go in their with a feeling of concern that we won't be able to transfer money for some reason. We hear stories of people being turned away because they bank "doesn't have enough dollars" or simply "can not". She gives us the excessively long form to fill in, which is actually translated into English, but it must be some kind of banking English because it doesn't make it any easier to fill in. We always make at least one mistake and have to complete a new one.
Flowers, me and SusanFlowers, me and SusanFlowers, me and Susan

on my birthday. We met Susan through this blog so I think she should star sometimes.

So Kris was filling in his second version of the form (on the first, where it said "amount in figures" he wrote the amount in Vietnam dong, not UK pounds as it wanted, but didn't ask for). Then the woman asked us for his IBAN number.

You what? What's an IBAN number? We've never needed it before.

She patiently told us that to transfer money to the UK, we now needed a new number. Hadn't our bank in the UK told us?

The confused looks on our faces should have told her 'no'. Well, we couldn't go any further without it, so we had to leave, go home and phone the bank to get it.

Trying to shop

So, instead, off we go to Parkson Plaza, the big department store in Haiphong, next to Big C, to buy Kris something warm to wear. It's got cold recently. Like really cold. Remember back in December when we arrived and we were dressed up in fleeces for several months. It's like that again. We have to wear about 3 layers of clothes. The Vietnamese are wearing huge puffer jackets, scarves, hats and gloves.
Coca Suki Japanese restaurantCoca Suki Japanese restaurantCoca Suki Japanese restaurant

In Parkson. hahahahahahhaha.

It's not just cold outside. It's cold inside too. There isn't any heating anywhere. You don't go from cold outside to a toasty warm room inside. So everyone is wrapped up warm inside as well. I didn't notice that difference so much when we first arrived. Sometimes we find students have turned the air con units in the classrooms up to 30 degrees, to use them as some kind of alternative heating system. Clever.

Shopping for clothes in Haiphong is always a hassle. There are very few shops where you can buy Western size clothes. Most places openly laugh at you when you go in, obviously thinking "no, we don't sell clothes for giants". Parkson Plaza is some kind of Malaysian or Chinese department store, so it sells bigger clothes. But it's expensive. Kris needed new jeans a while back, and went there. He ended up buying Levi 501s, for the same price you would pay back home. He had to buy the biggest size they had.

But by far the worse thing about shopping is the service. It's not bad. It's too much. You walk in to browse around and immediately 1 or 2 sales staff are
Ph is pronounced F herePh is pronounced F herePh is pronounced F here

childish picture number 2
by your side, following you around trying to help. Holding up random items of clothing to show you. If you try to look at a size of something - they have dived in to find you the 'right' size. The 'right' size is always at least XL to them. Even if the M is just a little too small, you must need the XL. Because you are a giant, of course. Personal space is not an issue here, so they are practically standing on your toes to show you clothes. It's suffocating.

Part of the thing about Parkson is that it doesn't get many customers. It's really expensive so people don't often buy things. But they still employ huge numbers of staff, who are all stood around looking bored until an unwary foreigner walks in. They then compete to see who can serve them first.

We are generally overwhelmed by it after 2 minutes and have to leave. We are clearly too British.

So no warm clothes for Kris.

Off we went to the supermarket, Big C, next door to Parkson Plaza, to get some food. Just a couple of items we needed that can be difficult to get elsewhere - cheese, 100% fruit juice and toiletries (that don't have skin bleaching products in them). It was heaving. Big C can be really intense at the best of times, I'm sure you've read the blogs about being followed around like famous people, people openly pointing and laughing at us and making people scream when they see us. After a quite frustrating day so far, in retrospect it probably wasn't the best place to go.

Queuing is not something that is done here. They've only had supermarkets for a couple of years and the checkouts are more like a herd of people than a queue. It's like a free for all. Add the personal space thing. We Brits like our personal space and so there is an area around you that you keep to yourself, and only close friends and family can invade. It's not so here. There isn't any personal space. So in the supermarket queue, the person behind you is basically huddled up to your bum. Pushing you from behind. Trying to get in front of you so they can get served first. We regularly have people try to physically push us out of

How do you know whose is whose?
the way so they can get in front. Luckily we are quite big and hard to push. We feel a bit like cattle at times.

So there we were, standing waiting at the check out to pay (I won't say queueing, because that would suggest that people were standing in line), the woman behind Kris has pushed her trolley right up his arse, and another woman is trying to push me out of the way so she can put her shopping on the belt before mine.

You have to swallow all your British-ness, all your love of queues and personal space and order and remember that you are in a foreign country and this is not the way things are done.....

and then go home before you hurt someone.

- because losing your temper is the biggest no-no here.

Smile and go home and shut the door and calm down.

It's all a rollercoaster

The slogan for Vietnam tourism is "Vietnam: the hidden charm".

It's quite accurate.

Because some days all those things can happen to really frustrate you, and make you wonder why you live somewhere.
This is a watermelonThis is a watermelonThis is a watermelon

how amazing is this? A student actually carved it for one of the other teachers.

And then other things quietly happen and totally charm us and we remember.

Today is Teachers' Day in Vietnam. A special day where students show their appreciation for all the teachers who have taught them in the past. They have the day off school/university so they can visit their teachers houses and take them gifts.

You don't get that at home, do you?

The teachers' room at work looks like a florists. It's full of flowers from students. And presents. And little handwritten notes of thanks. The Vietnamese staff at Apollo threw us a party with cake and gifts. One of my corporate classes took me out for dinner to celebrate.

How can you stay angry at a place that shows you so much love?

Today I went with my friend, Bich, to a nail art salon. Having manicures is not something I used to do at home. An unnecessary expense. I didn't even have my hair cut regularly. Today I had flowers painted on my fingers and toes. They look awesome. All for the meagre price of £2.

I didn't pay actually, Bich did.

Last week was Bich's birthday and we went our for dinner. 5 of us. Dinner and drinks. £16.

I love the quality of life we have here. The cost of living is so good.

We were transferring money because we are able to save a lot of money while still having a great quality of life. We eat out several times a week. We go out for beers with our friends very regularly. We spend the weekends in Hanoi, the capital city, staying in a nice hotel, or on the tropical island of Cat Ba. We just spent 3 weeks in the Philippines on holiday. We bought a Wii a couple of months ago.

And we still save about £1000 a month.

Back home, all we hear about is the credit crunch. Friends are tragically loosing their jobs. We read about staycations . People tell us that homebrew is really popular now because it's cheaper to stay in and drink that than to go out.

I can forgive the lack of queueing.

I can forgo my personal space.

I can take a deep breath when things get frustrating.

Because life here is great. There may be some downs but the ups are amazing.

The people are lovely. It really does annoy me when I read blogs about Vietnam and they slag off the Vietnamese as only after your money - bla bla bla. Perhaps the people you meet in the tourist areas are, but get off the tourist trail and you will met some truly generous, friendly people who just want to know you and be your friend.

The quality of life is fantastic. The weather is good (it's even nice when it's cold). We love teaching English. We make a lot of money doing it. Particularly pertinent during this credit crunch.

So we might be coming home in December, for Christmas and New Year. But we are coming back to Vietnam in January.

Why wouldn't we?

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


How good are the cake decorations?How good are the cake decorations?
How good are the cake decorations?

one of my two birthday cakes.
Mid Autumn Tet partyMid Autumn Tet party
Mid Autumn Tet party

My Intermediate B adult students threw a party in class to celebrate the mid Autumn festival.
Message on the board from my studentsMessage on the board from my students
Message on the board from my students

The first time I've spent my birthday with a load of teenagers since I was one myself.
Xuc Xich means sausageXuc Xich means sausage
Xuc Xich means sausage

so this is sausage fashion.

24th October 2012

Many thanks for your article. It was a really nice read and very informative. I have just landed a contract at the same school and will be flying out next week. Is it difficult to find accommodation and what is a reasonable price to pay for a one bedroom appt? Hope you can help out. cheers, Jonny
25th October 2012

Hi Jonny, You've got a contract with Apollo Haiphong? Cool. The staff there will help you find accommodation. When you arrive, you usually staff in a hotel which they arrange for you. After that they will let you know where to find accommodation. We haven't worked there for 3 years now so things have changed. I've heard some teachers have shared houses, while others have found apartments. As I haven't lived there for 3 years, I don't know about costs. We paid $250 a month when we lived there but that was very cheap. We now pay $600 in Saigon. As I've said, the staff at Apollo always have teachers coming from abroad and are good at helping them to settle and find accommodation.

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