Expat Life in Hanoi, Vietnam

I know it’s been a while since my last post but getting situated in Hanoi was more work than I anticipated!


17622263_1578184102192947_1518307075_oAs some may already know, most expats living in Southeast Asia take to teaching as their primary gig. Unless you speak Vietnamese or are a musician, artist, or work remotely, there isn’t a lot else. Although I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of teaching kids, having no experience and always supremely hating speaking in front of groups, I knew I’d warm up to it with practice.

My first job was with Ms. Vân’s Outdoor English Club (OEC), which is a pretty sweet gig.

17157723_10208150386908356_4041139210502262024_oShe was a good boss– fair– who really cared about learning outcomes. Having studied abroad in Cambridge University herself, she had good command of English, real expectations, and had a constant stream of ideas. I would meet kids enrolled in the program at local parks, museums, and other outdoor getaways where I’d then lead a mix of games and crafts. The objective was simple: get these kids interacting with and using English in a fun environment, outside of the classroom. For me, this was great because I could build confidence interacting with kids and parents without the pressures associated with a classroom. Despite finding full-time work at a private school a few months later, I’d remain working with Ms. Vân until leaving Vietnam, almost two years later.

While working for OEC for 8-10 hours per weekend was nice, I began to run into some difficulty with the cover classes I’d get all over town.

For those who don’t know what a cover class is, it’s simple. Say you work teaching at a center but are sick. There’s a group set-up and ran by expat teachers; post in the group with the information, lesson plans, and materials, as well as the hourly rate. Boom! 21014127_10209435189587620_5766028895162967893_oNow you, the permanent teacher, have just set up a cover class for another expat. Basically, you’re a substitute. If anybody remembers how we treated substitutes in America, you can maybe see why it isn’t so fun. What I I found was that because of the money involved in English centers and ESL in Vietnam, a lot of centers are at-home, give little regard to true learning outcomes or objectives, and don’t provide the necessary environment for positive outcomes.

Working in “bad” centers can quickly suck the life out of you and cause you to dread going to work.

Because these centers don’t have no concern for learning outcomes as long as the cash keeps coming, I quickly  found myself feeling more like a babysitter than a teacher, lacking the framework for success. In Vietnam, they have a name for that: “monkey teachers.” It started to wear me down and eventually developed into a low-grade depression.

In fact, I contemplated taking the meager amount of money I had already saved and continuing on as a backpacker.

I told myself that I would wait it out, keep hunting for a good job– one that cared, regardless of their ability to pay the high wages typical of Hanoi (+20USD/hour). I told myself to ride the waves and reminded myself that life consists of ups and downs; all things arise, exist, then expire.

17571283_1578184012192956_191711479_oSo, what I did was submit my application to as many centers as I could, refusing to settle until I found one that worked for me. Eventually, I found an English center in Vân Quan, Ha Dong district. My demo lesson went well, the kids and staffed liked me, and the feeling was right– I could see myself working their. After a few weeks, I was offered to take on two more classes.

One year later, I’d find myself there in the capacity as Head Teacher working full-time and earning $25 USD/hour.

Below is a break-down of my biggest expenses:

Rent = 3.125 million VND/month+ 1 million VND for utilities (Roughly $190/month)

Motorbike = 300,000 VND/week or 1.2 million VND/month ($55/month)


Stay tuned for an in-depth breakdown of my costs in each of the four countries I visited.


“Golden Key”

I will dedicate a separate section in my blog to the stories that should remain untold were they not some of the best memories I have…

Living in Brazil for several months during 2010, I was constantly introduced to new expressions and curious slang.

One of the phrases really resonated with me. In Portuguese, fechar com chave de ouro” means to wrap up an experience in an epic way. You can think of it as the English equivalent to “the cherry on the cake.” Brazil’s language is the richest that I have experienced and I attribute this a lot to different pockets in which language evolved within Brazil, often times with different cultural influences from the next. An MC from Brazil’s famous conscious rap group, Racionais MC’s, puts it this way: “Slang? No– dialect.” In this, he references the extremely fluid and rich linguistic culture. Much of these develop in a very niche-specific way yet can be found by many to be as accessible as it is exclusive.

That month, the 372,000 inhabitants of São José do Rio Preto experienced rolling, city-wide blackouts.

Being caught in one while out and about was  a very surreal and unsettling experience. It felt apocalyptic; an entire population in absolute darkness. During the day, due to it being the state’s 2nd safest city, thing were pretty uneventful. Sometime I’d pass the time staring out the verando, onto a busy intersection, waiting for car accidents that happened there almost daily. The banal yet peculiar details come to mind, like how the sound always seemed to precede any physical impact.

That year I spent a good amount of time with a friend nicknamed Jell-O on account of the blue hair he used to sport. Jell-O came from what some might call a broken home. He lived with his father in a modest apartment in the same complex as my fathers.  In Brazil, marijuana is still taboo. On more than one occasion he blasted reggae music while lighting up a joint on the balcony as we smoked while I hid from view, paranoid somebody who knew me would see, which wasn’t uncommon in a gated apartment complex where your dad is the manager. On another occasion, I gave him some LSD I brought from America. More than anything, however, we’d chat about our experiences over a beer or two. One of the most memorable experiences, and also the one in which I first heard that Brazilian phrase that sticks with me to this day.

Facilitated by the city-wide blackouts as Brazil’s grid couldn’t supply enough energy for the city, Jell-O and I took that opportunity to “borrow” bikes from the complex’s underground garage.

Maneauvering the pitch black garage two floors underground, it took us a while to find the right bikes and we constantly felt like something or someone would jump out at us. The tires were flat and the bikes hadn’t been ridden in a while and we had every intention of returning them after a few hours. If anything, we did the owners a service. Myself, the bike owners, and security guards who caught us on the return trip, didn’t quite view it that way. Naturally, after filling up the tires, we rode to a small, local damn. We smoked joints and watched the large capybaras run around. I tried to approach one only to be chased away in a surprising display of speed.  After, we continued our way across town.

No novice to the bike scene, Jell-O would lift his seat with one hand while the other floated in the air like an American cowbow.

Like magic, he’d go minutes with one wheel in the air regardless of the traffic situation around him. Meanwhile, I was exhibiting extremely normal human biking behavior. At a red light, he tells me we’re going to a favela to pick up some weed. A few kilometers later, we show up at a brick house on the outskirts of town as a guy stands outside in shorts and no shirt. They greet each other. I noticed the iconic drug-dealer black Nike dri-fit cap as the guy takes the weed it out of his pockets, gives it to us, and walks away. He didn’t want any money. Go figure– a dealer not wanting the money. There’s a reason for this. If you are curious, do some research on drug culture in the favelas of Brazil. I could tell there was a relationship of respect between the two. 

Satisfied, we roll our bikes over to a nearby outside square encircled by trees, near a small bar and as we roll a joint, the monkeys come out, curious.

I wonder who was more curious, them or us. Thirsty, we walk over to the bar and ask for two cokes. Minding our own, just talking and going over the day, and how great it was, someone who must have been the bar owner walks up to us and asks us if we do cocaine. “No,” replied Jell-O, which was probably the more appropriate answer to a stranger we didn’t know in a sketchy part of town. His street smarts outweighed mine but in the instant, my reply was louder. I was curious. The guys invites us to the bathroom, where he had what I presume to be his kid’s elementary school workbook on the top of the ceramic toilet cover. On the notebook, he had a line about as thick as my finger. For about five minutes we struggled to finish it, the three of us chatting in this crappy bathroom on the outskirts of town.

On our way home, as we pulled up to the security gate– and, just moments before getting in trouble with security– Jell-O uttered the phrase that sticks with me to this day. In all honesty, we truly did wrap up that night with a golden key. Getting in trouble at the end was just a further point of laughter between everybody, including my dad and the security guards after.