Saturday, October 10, 2009

Want to Teach English In Vietnam? Prepare to SWEAT!

By Kelly Fitzgerald

Can Tho city. You probably think you’ve pronounced it correctly, right? CAN-TOE? Well, turns out, you probably didn’t. As is the case with so many other words in Vietnamese, nothing is pronounced the way your American mind thinks it should be.

Can Tho (pronounced CUN-TA) is my current place of residence. Located about 180km south of Ho Chi Minh city, it is the most commercial and profitable province in all of southern Vietnam. What am I doing here, you ask? What many other college graduates are doing this fall: teaching English abroad. In other words: hiding from the anticipated rejection letters of potential business employers in the States. And I couldn’t have picked a more interesting country in which to take cover.

Daily life for an English teacher in Can Tho: Wake up. Sweat. Wash my face. Put on my work clothes. Sweat. Flag a motorbike taxi to Campus Two of Can Tho University. Pay the man 10,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), roughly equivalent to forty-five cents in the U.S. Sweat some more. Teach for three hours. SWEAT. Come home and go to dinner with my roommate (which costs only fifty cents, by the way.) Get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Repeat.

Although communism is way less apparent in the southern provinces of Vietnam, it is still evident in the country’s educational system. My students, though sweet and friendly, are very shy. They never raise their hand and look begrudged to come speak in front of the class when I call on them. They are not free-thinkers. They are taught how to think at an early age, and that means two things: acceptance and subordination.

Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam ( is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University. We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.

“Okay, class,” I say, preparing to teach them how to pronounce "sheep."

“Repeat after me: ship-sheep.”

Class: “Ship-ship.”

Me: “Err…bet-but.”

Class: “Bess-buss.”

Me: “Put-pitt.”

Class: “Puss-piss.”

Evidently, we have a way to go, but we’re getting there. And it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for.

There are touristy things to do in Can Tho, of course. The floating markets are the most popular attraction. To see them at their busiest, be prepared to rise at 4 a.m. I have yet to get there myself, but according to my roommate and co-worker, it is quite the site to see: little Vietnamese women in their conical hats, squatting on their long canoes, trying to sell you fresh fish, vegetables and fruit in the heart of the Mekong delta. (I still have yet to develop a taste for seafood that early, though!)

I’ve also grown accustomed to my noisy yet invisible neighbors. The sounds of the frogs and the geckoes (yes, they make noises) are rhythms that I’ve grown quite accustomed to. It’s never a dull night in my front or backyard – I’m just never invited to the party.

Besides its surplus of amphibian life, southern Vietnam is also well-known for its food. Specifically, their sweet-n-sour soup and their “pancakes.” In the traditional American frame of mind, pancakes are thick, lovely slices of carbohydrate heaven. In Can Tho, they are very thin, very crispy flakes of fried rice noodle, jam-packed with a plethora of goodies in between: bean sprouts, carrots, string beans, shrimp, chicken, beef, pineapple, peas, etc. Anything you want in there (except maple syrup) you got it.

All these fabulous things aside, it’s important to note that Vietnam was not my first choice. I originally intended on teaching English in Europe after graduating in May. Preferably Italy, as I had studied the language for seven years. Those plans, however, fell through. Now I can’t imagine having lived in a place where the cost of living would have exceeded my salary almost two to one.

Here, I live like royalty. The food is incredible and the people, so hospitable. Everyone is always smiling at me. And the only reason for that is just my appearance: there are few if any “foreigners” in Can Tho, so I stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, it’s strange but exhilarating to be looking from the outside in, and this country has certainly taken my breath away.

Writer Kelly Fitzgerald is a May, 2009 graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her blog capturing her adventures in Vietnam appears at


Anonymous said...

It is so wonderful to be able to read about your experiences. I looked at your blog as well. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

I would LOVE to be able to do this! Unfortunately, those of us who chose to stay home with the kids are finding that returning to work is difficult to impossible. Despite a brand new undergrad and grad degree, the only work I can get is as a salesperson. Even that is not full-time.

I know it is not all fun and games--obvious from your blog posts:-o!! However, the physical inconveniences will fade over time while the meaningful experiences will always remain as gems for thoughtful reflection.

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Anonymous said...

I've made a site about teaching ESL in Vietnam. If you'd like to have a look, here it is!

Anonymous said...

As a seasoned expat and esl teacher (5 years) in south Vietnam, I find your story reflects the typical and true experience of teaching ESL in south Vietnam. I have been living in Saigon and have been to Can Tho a few times. Unfortunately, your story (and so many other foreigners in Vn) demonstrates a "lack of awareness and understanding" of the locals. Truth is ... the locals want you to speak as much English as possible (hopefully for free). What I call "free ESL lessons". Now you know why they invited you to their home + offered motorbike rides. I can always get student motorbike rides, as long as I speak english with them and they drive as slow as possible. That's "free English". Maybe the locals are free thinkers, in fact the southern Vietnamese are the most entrepreneurial of any people I have ever met. This is my lesson for you and so many other expat teachers here. Enjoy Vietnam, respect the locals, but do not let anyone (in any country) take advantage of you. Any other questions? : )

ps..Need proof? I am from Canada, but I usually speak Vietnamese to the locals. They either answer in English, make a quick exit, or ask me to buy something.

ManinVn : )

vietnamvisa said...

hi kelly,

I'm vietnamese. Thank for your affection to Vietnam. we alway welcome you to live in here, we wanna share my affection with everybody, showing our lifestyle and more.
thank to all of you ( teachers from foreign)

Dan Dumitrache said...

The article reflects the truth. I also teach English in Vietnam and I have same kind of experiences. What kind of food is 50 cents? Is it that cheap? or maybe I am used with the cost of living in Ho Chi Minh ... Nice blog you have got here!

Anonymous said...

You are very condescending to the people of Vietnam. Further, you mixed up site/sight. I hope you do not pass on your errors to any Vietnamese people.

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