Olivia Trase - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Vietnam
I returned from Vietnam about a month and a half ago, after a three month period, and yet the country’s powerful impression on me has not faded, and I doubt it ever will. I am currently on a gap year before I attend college in September, and have traveled for most of the year.
Vietnam was one of my destinations and arguably the most life-changing. I decided to take a gap year because I needed time to reflect on why I was going to university and how I could achieve my goals. When choosing my destinations, I knew I wanted to travel to Southeast Asia because I knew so little about its incredibly rich culture.
During my research, I discovered this teaching placement in Vietnam and it turned out to be the perfect situation. Teaching English in Vietnam would allow me to gain understanding of both the Vietnamese culture and its history. I found that I have gained so much more than I bargained for by availing myself of this opportunity.
Arriving in Vietnam
When I arrived at the airport in Hanoi I was instantly greeted by Thao, the Projects Abroad representative, who then brought me and another volunteer to our accommodation. I was apprehensive at first (there were no streetlights on), but Thao was confident that everything was very safe. After three months living in Hanoi, I can completely understand her confidence; Hanoi is a very safe city.
The house was nestled in a maze of narrow alleyways in a relatively quiet neighborhood. The house was cleaned regularly and our cook, Ha, made delicious meals for us every evening. She even thought to make my favorite dish, Bun Bo Nam Bo, for my last evening. Every morning before I went to work my taxi driver would be waiting for me just outside the neighborhood with a smile on his face, ready to take me to the school.
My Teaching Placement
For three months I taught in a high school for children aged twelve to fifteen, working with wonderful teachers and eager students. I feel lucky that I was put in that school, because I honestly could not have asked for a better group of students and teachers with whom to spend three months.
It was difficult, at first, to learn how to teach my students because I had little experience, but before long I was confident and could really take charge of the class. The students were, for the most part, a joy to teach. Knowing that many lessons could be boring for them, I was happy to find out that they were still eager to please me with their knowledge of English.
Many of the students didn’t yet have a firm grasp of the language, but that didn’t stop half the class from raising their hands to join in an exercise. Some students even went out of their way to find me during breaks so that they could practice asking me questions and learning more vocabulary. Every morning I would walk into the courtyard to be greeted by dozens of children yelling, “Hello!” It was always a bright start to the day.
Life in Vietnam
What I most enjoyed about travelling to a country so different from my own was the subtle cultural differences which I would not have thought about otherwise. One example is how bold Vietnamese people can be compared to most Westerners that I’ve met. In my first week I cannot tell you how many times I heard personal compliments being yelled out loud in my direction and that of other Western volunteers - most likely because of our blonde hair and blue eyes.
All of the people I met were so open about their lives, their feelings, and even what they thought about me. To me, it was a refreshing change of pace and I have many silly stories because of this particular aspect of the Vietnamese culture.
I will admit, guiltily, that some of my preconceptions of the Vietnamese culture and people before visiting the country were stereotypical, but I am happy to report that they all went flying out the window when I met this amazing group of ladies: my teachers.
In the beginning, I was a lost and confused new teacher, but they guided me through each lesson until I finally got the hang of it. My teachers would also invite me to all sorts of occasions. Sometimes it was a simple homemade lunch and at others it was a wedding reception. I was also introduced to a few of their teenage daughters so I could have friends from Vietnam who were my own age.
After being at the school for two months or so, the English teachers at my school and a few of my volunteer friends went on a weekend trip to Moc Chau, a region famous for their yogurt (I can vouch for that). Despite the strangeness of four middle-aged Vietnamese women traveling with five young volunteers from all over the world, we all had a wonderful time. The depth of their hospitality was inspiring and I will never forget them.
In addition to the people who were a part of my daily routine, the staff inside the office was also incredibly helpful and fun. I would visit the office once or twice a week to figure out my schedule, and they would also plan volunteer events as a way to get to know the volunteers living in different houses. One afternoon we visited the flower market in the Old Quarter, and another day we all helped to take a bunch of children from the orphanage to the zoo.
Being a teaching volunteer, I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to participate in the other volunteer programs, but I was so grateful to have a chance to help out with the Bo De children on their very special outing to the zoo. The staff was always making sure that my placement and accommodation was comfortable and it was always nice to just chat about how my week was going or what the other volunteers might be up to.
I honestly believe that traveling with a program like Projects Abroad to an incredibly different country that speaks another language was the best option I could have chosen. I was apprehensive about traveling alone and the teaching placement was a wonderful solution. Not only did I get to visit an amazing country, I had the opportunity to become a part of that community and learn about the intricate workings of a place halfway around the world.
I have no doubt that my experience with Projects Abroad teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam will continue to influence me as I progress to university and beyond.