With my bags packed, nerves at the ready, I set off on a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam.
I scoured the internet for every TEFL course under the sun, did the research and completed the internationally recognised CELTA course. Ok, it didn’t take just take 20 hours, it took 120, and I couldn’t do it from the comfort of my own home while working my other job, I had to give up four weeks of my time (and money) to complete it, and yes, it was so intensive at times that it reduced me tears. But after just 30 days of hard work (and a few tears) I had my ticket to freedom. The CELTA could get me a job teaching English pretty much anywhere in the world. This wasn’t a holiday I was signing up for, a temporary release from the stresses of everyday life in modern society, it was a whole new life changing event that would make constant travel a permanent way of life for me. If you would like to take a course like this in Vietnam, then click here for more info.
This was my ticket to freedom.
It turns out also that I was actually a damn good teacher. Fun fact for you. If ten people take on the CELTA, statistically, eight of them will get a Pass C, two of them will get a Pass B and no-one will get a Pass A. I can very proudly say that I got an A- so I had definitely found my calling!
However, even armed with the most recognised entry level qualification for teaching English as a second language under my belt, and a lot of hard and thorough research, I still didn’t feel prepared to take the jump and move half way around the world to an unknown city where I didn’t speak the language all on my own.
I needed some help!
So I decided to pay a well-known international company who would provide opportunities to go and teach abroad. Doing it alone isn’t for everyone and that’s OK. Yes, you can find everything on the internet nowadays but how do you decipher the fact from the fiction? It’s a minefield of information overload that was adding to my stress levels! I signed up for their Teach Abroad program which offered me a job, food and accommodation for the first six months. The relief of knowing I had somewhere to stay when I first arrived, already had a job lined up,a community of like-minded people and support on hand 24-7 made me feel much, much better.
I thought I had it all sorted, I thought I’d been smart, I thought I was prepared.
I was not prepared.
I ran into problems before I even got on the plane, when Manchester Airport wouldn’t let me board the plane without an exit flight… As I was going for six months and didn’t know what I was doing after this, I had not booked a return flight.
I explained that I wasn’t sure of my plans and that no-one had told me but the lady was very unsympathetic! I ended up rushing around in a panic, fighting back tears, telling myself it was all going to be OK, and then had to pay out a large chunk of my savings for a return flight in six months time. I was angry with myself thinking “if you’re crying before even getting on the plane then how are you going to cope?!”
Six months suddenly felt like a really long time…
Eventually I made it to Hanoi and was shocked by just how different everything was. The traffic was crazy, the roads were deadly, the hagglers were un-nerving and I was constantly being ripped off. Everything was new, the sights, the smells, the food, the environment. Nothing will ever prepare you for your first time in Asia!
It’s a lot to get your head around at first.
I vividly remember walking down the street in rush hour, struggling to keep on the pavement as bikes pushed past (yes, they were actually driving on the pavement) and just thinking, “I can’t do this”. Of course, I look back now and smile. I’ve come so far and learnt so much- but this really doesn’t help at the time!
The problem with my free accommodation was that it came with the school, and was literally inside the school premises. (No-one had told me this…) There was only myself living there, so it was very lonely, apart from the hundreds of kids who ran down the corridors every morning, lunch time and afternoon, often banging on the door and shouting. I mean, I love teaching, I love kids, but I also love lie-ins and time to myself!
To add to this, when I eventually made friends with other ex-pats, I still had an 11pm curfew, even at weekends, so could never stay out too late. I came to Vietnam for the freedom, not for a bedtime curfew!
In the end, I ended up living in an apartment much closer to the town centre. However it had no road access, which meant when returning late at night I had to wind my way down very dark, very concealed alleyways which went against all my instincts.
Don’t walk alone, don’t walk in the dark, don’t go down dark alleyways…
You’ll soon find that you when travelling you’ll do lots of things that you never thought you’d do. Like use squat loos for example… but that’s another story for another day!
It got to the point where I didn’t like going out too late, or always had to stay over with a friend.
I wish someone had told me to consider this before I moved in.
Then there was the access to the house, which was up a very narrow, very steep ramp. When trying to push a motorbike up here, when the bike is heavier than you and the alleyway behind you is tiny and full of busy locals trying to push past, it makes life very difficult. Countless times I dropped the bike (usually on my foot), smashed the wing mirrors or ended up blocking the entire alleyway full of angry locals.
Why did I not think about this before?!
Shopping and haggling. This was my next barrier. The problem when you first arrive is that when you convert a price in your head (which is hard when everything is in millions!) then it seems very reasonable, but you will soon realise that you should still be paying about five times less than this… The problem is that many Vietnamese people add a large fee to the price the moment they see you, just because you’re not a local. (Unfortunately, there’s no hiding from this fact!)
Then there was the teaching… what an experience!
When I first arrived at the school on my first day, I was immediately asked to stand up in front of the students and sing some songs. Seriously? I’d only been in the country a week. Luckily for me I did drama and took it in my stride, but I pity the quieter teachers. The microphone was thrust into my hands and off I went…
I was then ushered into a classroom of screaming children and left to my own devices. I was given a book and had to ask a student what page we were on. There was no training, no introduction. In fact there was no training or professional development for the entire year that I worked there. Nor were there any resources or materials to support me. What I really needed in a class of fifty, all aged five to eight years old, was an assistant, or two, or three.
It was just me, on my own, alone. Five year olds have never looked so terrifying!!!
However, this was not my biggest concern however. I didn’t have an up to date police clearance check (rooky mistake!) and so had to wait for a Vietnamese one, which takes about six months to obtain. The school wouldn’t pay me the agreed salary until I had the documents for the work permit, and subsequently I lost out on about $4000 US dollars. Oh the places I could have seen and the things I could have done with that amount of money!!
Then there was the bike which I bought, for about five times too much money, which had the wrong battery for that type of bike and consequently died three months later, never to see the light of day. What was particularly annoying was that I had done a lot of research this time, but it still didn’t seem to be enough. When people scam you, they unfortunately don’t come with red flashing warning lights above their heads saying BEWARE- I’m going to take your hard earned cash!
Another helpful tip which I hadn;t known at the time was that when buying a bike you should always check that the registration plate number matches the “blue card” which comes with it, and that the engine number matches the shassy number, and that they too are correctly recorded on the “Blue Card”. (See, I’m a fountain of knowledge now!) Without these, firstly you are probably being sold a dodgy bike and secondly it will make it much harder for you to sell. Again, more money lost from your pocket.
After my first month I decided to treat myself to a much needed holiday. I didn’t know too many people just yet so I went alone without knowing what I was doing. Although I had an amazing time, I spent about 5 times too much money as I didn’t know where to book, what to book in advance and what to do last minute, what I should do as a tour and what was best done independently, and what was a decent price for a hotel!
There goes my budget.
A whole $800 on a week long trip. It was one of those moments when I walked out and did a double take, the full implications of what had just happened hitting me in the face… but the lady was so nice!
You may be thinking that I was clueless, that I didn’t do my research, that I was naïve. Yes, I made mistakes, but I came with the best of intentions. Thank goodness I booked with an international teaching company who offered me help, support and guidance throughout my time in Vietnam. Without the ease and comfort of having everythign sorted for me when I first arrived, not having to house or job hunt in an unknown city in an unknown language, I think I’d have gone crazy! Being able to ask the company every question under the sun, five times a day before my departure really helped to put me at ease and made me feel like I had someone to turn to when things went wrong!
The problem when you first land in a foreign country is that you don’t speak the language, you have no friends, you’re unfamiliar with the currency and you don’t really know where to find reliable, honest, information.
That is why I created Teacher’s Friend. So that I can do exactly that and so that I can help other people the way I was first helped and more. Everything I wrote here was pretty negative, as it was all new, but check out my blog to see the amazing adventures that I have been on since and why travelling and teaching has changed my life forever. To find out how to get TEFL qualified or about the packages that I offer you to get you from freaking out to freaking loving it, please get in touch. Remember, I’ve been there and done it so I know how you feel and I can stop you making the mistakes that I did!