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Vietnam: the good ... the bad ...

Vietnam pic Ho Chi Minh traffic Courtesy M. M

Kevin Martin Doyle summarises why Vietnam is a honey pot for English language teachers, but warns of a few pitfalls facing them

First, the good ...

Vietnam is one of the hottest growth areas in English language teaching. The Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training has announced that by 2020 all students leaving school must have a minimum level of English. Teachers in state schools are expected to have an even higher level of proficiency.

These ambitious goals have led to the continued growth of Vietnam’s already flourishing English teaching market. Jobs are readily available in language centres and, to a lesser extent, state and international schools across the country.

As with any country, there are both benefits and challenges to working and living in Vietnam.  Perhaps the biggest benefit, and the reason most foreign English teachers are attracted to the country, is the salary. In a country where, according to the Japan External Trade Organisation, the average worker makes £95 a month, it is normal for even inexperienced teachers to make between £1,000 and £1,300 a month working approximately twenty hours per week. Teaching salaries, while advertised in US dollars, are paid in the local currency.     

Salaries are highest in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Often new teachers make from £13 to £16 per hour for a basic conversational English class. Salaries increase for more specialised or business-oriented classes. In more rural areas salaries are lower, but schools may provide housing for teachers.

There’s great variation in salaries, with schools that provide more training and support for teachers often paying less. Established well recognised centres like ILA, Apollo and Language Link are known for the support they provide. 

Ian Normile is the director of studies at Language Link in Hanoi and has lived in Vietnam for four and a half years. He encourages teachers to decide what is most important. ‘One of the things [Language Link does] really well is provide support. We provide benefits and paid leave, and we pay on time,’ Normile says. Language Link also provides travel and temporary housing reimbursement for international hires.

Also, larger schools will often assist teachers with work permits and long-term visas.  ‘Paperwork, work permits, legality – Language Link does everything to stay above board.  We follow all the rules,’ Normile says. ‘All of our teachers have work permits. We take care of the paperwork.’

Smaller schools are frequently unable to provide the level of support bigger schools do.  Similarly, they are often unable or unwilling to help teachers obtain work permits or long-term visas. They make up for this with higher salaries.

If a teacher decides to eschew the larger schools, it is not difficult to find a job without a work permit and holding only a tourist visa. Anyone choosing to do so, however, will find themselves doing visa runs every three months to renew their documents. It is unusual for schools to help with the costs of visa runs, although not unheard of.

Whether a teacher is looking for the support of a large school or the higher salaries frequently paid at smaller schools, jobs are plentiful throughout the country. 

The high salaries available in Vietnam contrast with the low cost of living. Private one-bedroom furnished apartments are available in Hanoi for as little as £300 per month. Many teachers live in a house-share, reducing their housing costs to £100–130 per month.

Food and drink are similarly inexpensive. Hanoi’s famous bia hoi (‘fresh beer’) can be had for as little as £0.15 a glass and a meal of the country’s famous and delicious street food is available for as little as £1. On the other hand, high-end meals and cocktails are available for near Western prices.

Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are cosmopolitan places that enjoy burgeoning art and music scenes. Travelling theatre productions and music artists often make stops in both cities. Finally, Vietnam is an ideal location for travel throughout the rest of South-East Asia and China. Budget airlines make it cheap to explore both Vietnam and the surrounding countries.

... but also the bad

The traits that make Vietnam so exciting – a young population, explosive growth and newly opened markets – are causing growing pains. Anyone who wants to live and work in Vietnam should prepare for the culture shock that comes with living in a developing country.

Pollution and sanitation are bad. Air pollution is a real problem, with air quality indexes warning against exercising outdoors on some days. Millions of motorbikes snaking through the cities’ roadways are partially to blame.

These millions of motorbikes are the cause of Vietnam’s famous traffic. Traffic rules and regulations are ignored as a matter of course. Rules governing red lights, one-way streets and even lane usage are viewed as optional by locals and expats alike. New arrivals to the country should prepare themselves for an adjustment period as they learn to navigate the cities’ crowded warren of streets and alleys.

Also, different cultural practices regarding personal space, honesty and business and educational practices may be hard to adjust to. Locals frequently ask questions seen as rude in the West about age, weight, marital status and salary.

Teachers should read their employment contracts carefully. However, most troubling for those coming from countries with established legal traditions, teachers should be aware they have little to no legal recourse if a contract dispute arises with their employer.

Normile says the most important thing teachers can do when evaluating prospective employers is to ask around and see what their reputation is in the teaching community. ‘It doesn’t take much to enquire. Any good company should put you in touch with people who work there or give you an open door to contact these people. Get a reference,’ Normile says.

Online forums or Facebook groups for expatriates and teachers are good places to do research. It is not unusual to see teachers publicly shame employers who have violated contracts or not paid salaries on time. Sometimes this is enough to resolve problems – however, not always. But as jobs are plentiful teachers needn’t fear being trapped in a bad employment situation or being deported from Vietnam should something go wrong at their job.

Vietnam is a challenging country. But the culture and variety of the country, along with plentiful job opportunities, high salary, and low cost, often make it worth it.

Pic courtesy: M.M