Seda: Here we are in Vietnam again, in Ho Chi Minh City this time, which used to be called Saigon. Our arrival didn’t go as planned and we couldn’t get a 1 month visa as we’d hoped. They allowed us into the country with a 2 week transit visa but we were worried especially considering our onwards flights are booked from HCMC in a month’s time. Andy’s charms didn’t faze the rather animated angry officer and we were gently pushed aside where a better english speaker came and explained that we’d have to take it up with the Department of Immigration the next day. We were very demoralised but checked into a nearby hotel, spent the night there and tried to sleep the worries off.
It appears that there is a high demand for English speakers in Vietnam to help students to learn from or practice speaking with. Before we even arrived into HCMC, we had 4 offers from companies offering us accommodation in return for a few hours of English to help their students. We’d chosen one of these places to stay with based on their central location. After introductions, we were shown to our dorm room where Andy and I each have a bed on the top bunk given that the 3 who were already there, preferred bottom beds. Nothing like a bit of climbing up and down action for our 40 something bodies, right?
Andy: The Department of Immigration was thankfully only a 15 minutes walk from where we stayed. When we first arrived it was lunchtime, and therefore closed so we waited next door in a coffee shop. On the stroke of 1.15 we walked back into the Department of Immigration, took a number and waited. It was around 1.45 when the men and women started to make their way out to the various counters. Must have been an epic lunch!
Seda: The company we would be volunteering at owned 2 coffee shops where we would be expected to go most days and chat to English learners. Our first time visiting one of the coffee shops was together. We chatted to a few people and started to get a feel for the experience. Chatting is all there is to it but of course these locals have varying degrees of english knowledge and speaking confidence so it is very important to be patient, speak clearly and encourage them to relax and speak up. Let me comfort those of you who know me that I refrained from using my brummie flavoured Turkish accent and reverted to my Queen’s English!
Andy: I didn’t have any hours for the first two days and when we received the schedule, we were on different times and places. It was good to do it in different hours though because when we got together we had loads to tell each other about the characters we talked to and the interesting conversations we had.
Seda: My first group was a paying regular group of 6 work colleagues. A few of them who were very chatty to begin with, suddenly went completely silent and shy when their boss arrived. I tried to gently push those guys to talk again. I have been there myself and I feel that I know how tough it is to beat that fear and find your voice, especially if there are people around who you care what they think of you. Hopefully I have done the right things to make this experience useful for them. It is difficult to keep everyone’s attention and keep finding interesting topics that they can all contribute to considering they all from different areas of a business; administration, sales, IT, marketing, design, management. If we talk about technology and advance developments that help businesses to maximise their profits, the admin girl drifts away and if talk about Vietnamese design innovations, the sales guy starts checking his phone. Often I found that their love for their country is my way out. By asking advice on a certain place, I kept them giving me advice in a united fashion. They also seem to like my demonstration of how we were grabbed by the sellers in local market!
My second day was tough, draining and never-ending! I had the following joys;
1. A guy obsessed about English who quit his job to focus on nothing else but learning it. He tells me that it makes him cry with frustration when he cannot correct his pronunciation!
2. A crazy genius who says he’s learned 5 languages by his determination and commitment. As he starts talking to me in accurate clear Turkish, I realise he is telling the truth. He asks me to continue the practice in Turkish rather than English as he’s had no one to talk to for a while. I say “I wish my husband was as keen as you to do practice with me to improve his Turkish and he says “ He won’t because he is probably just another lazy Westerner”!
3. An 8 year old girl with her tutor. She plays piano, has dance classes, plays volleyball and asks me if I play violin?!
In the apartment we have been staying is a tiny 20 year old Vietnamese student called Ly. She runs the apartment, and communicates with people like us who are interested in volunteering and coming to stay as a part time job alongside her university studies.
Occasionally if it was just one of us working, Ly would give us a lift to the coffee shop on her scooter or we would get a grab bike. Rides with Ly on her scooter were fun. She rides defensively and quite timid at times but still does a good job and I feel safe with her. I mean as safe as anyone can feel under these crazy circumstances anyway! You could look at the picture below and tell me if you see a way of feeling completely safe in there?
After 2 difficult sessions, I was beginning to feel drained. I’ve always known that I’m not cut out for teaching but dealing with so many different people and an 8 year old just wasn’t on my agenda! Andy who was having fun conversations with guys trying to perfect their English accents was feeling sorry for me for my hard luck! Oh why thank you sir!
Andy: One of the first times I went to one of the coffee shops alone was to take part in a debate. Sat next to me was a 16 year old guy who got very animated and excited when he found out I was from England. He told me that he loves the accent, and has been trying to perfect it himself. He says it makes him stand out as most Vietnamese speak with a slight American accent learnt from TV and movies. He also said I sounded “posh” which made me laugh. He spoke English very well even if he did sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins!
Another time I went to the coffee shop alone I got chatting to a university student who was majoring in English. Of course he spoke very well and we had a good chat about his love of English music. I said to him if he ever thought of anything he’d like to ask me about English he should feel free. He suddenly thought of something! He told me his English tutor had told the class that when making a “th” sound in a word, the speaker should put their tongue outside of their mouth! I laughed at this and told him it was rubbish, and furthermore if he did it, he’d just look like a dick!
Seda: I finally had a good day when I was given a group of 19-24 year olds to spend the morning with. As I joined my group of 12, there were exercise sheets in front of everyone and I realised I’m supposed to lead this activity. It felt like actual teaching rather than just chatting. Thanks a bunch for warning me!
Thankfully no “fill in the blanks” exercise can faze me as I have done a million of them myself. Topic was occupations and general conversations about what they involved. Let’s bear in mind that although I’m certified to teach English, our hosts don’t know that and our help is on conversation based only. I was therefore surprised to find myself in the middle of this proper teaching session. Their school teacher was there to oversee but didn’t interfere which I took as a sign that I was doing a good job.
My team had people from all range of occupations. From cyber engineer to publisher, environmental engineer to designer, an absolutely lovely group of kids!
All this time, the big room we were in was divided and one of the guys we stayed in the same room was leading the other group. Last exercise of the day their teacher announced was a singing competition between 2 teams. Each team would have 10 mins to practise their chosen song then perform on stage (dinasor’s mouth). My team started asking if I knew this song or that and I felt sooooo ancient for a moment. They chose one and went to stage to sing it but apparently I need to be in the middle and sing it with my team so I did.
After us, the other team sang the baby shark song which was great! There was no time to announce a winner thankfully because they simply thrashed us! But to me, seeing our American guy stand in the middle of his team and dance uncomfortably to baby shark song was priceless!
Andy: The two of us were asked for a favour to cover a presentation slot for two hours where we would chose a subject and talk about it for an hour and then the learners would talk an hour about what they know of the same subject. We agreed to do it and suddenly two completely free days appeared on the week’s schedule! Not sure if the two were connected but we certainly did need some free time to do some sight seeing as we had just not had an opportunity until that point.
A quick meeting over an iced coffee (which is 3 times more expensive than our food) and we have chosen our topic to be England. Pretty obvious right?! We made some notes and saved a few photos of the internet to share with them.
Seda: Why is it that when you want to get somewhere quick it just doesn’t happen? Sods law that we can’t get a grab (like Uber) taxi in the rush hour! We tried 2 separate scooters, nah-ah! In the end we stopped a normal taxi. We were stuck in this crazy traffic and minutes just kept slipping away! I kept making “oh my god we are so late” noises for the drivers benefit hoping he would understand and rush a bit. Although the only way he could move at this stage would be if his car somehow transformed into a monster truck and we went over the top of everyone else! We ended up arriving 45 minutes late.
Andy: Our presentation went really well, and all the English learners were genuinely interested. Of course as they are all learning English, they naturally have an interest in the country. We tried to make some comparisons between England and Vietnam like the population, size and currency. We also mentioned how “exotic” fruits such as pineapple, mango and water melon are expensive in the UK as they don’t grow and are imported, but grow freely in Vietnam. I thought it would be fun to mention all the famous bands and musicians who have come from England over the years. We mentioned Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elton John and Oasis but looked up to blank faces all around the room. Seda then mentioned Adele and they all smiled and nodded in unison! I must mention that they were all women, and all around 25! Know your audience right?!
This is a totally new experience Ho Chi Minh City offered to us, one we never thought we’d do…and surprisingly we’re enjoying it very much so far!