5 Things I Learned From Three Years in Vietnam


by Jasper Roe
This post is about a few of the many things I’ve learned from my three years in Vietnam. I won’t get too sentimental, but living in this country and starting a career as a TEFL teacher has taught me a lot. Here are some of the things I’ve picked up:

1. Vietnamese coffee is great, but will make you fat

There came a time when I first arrived, when I couldn’t get enough of the sticky black rocket fuel that we know as Vietnamese coffee. I used to wake up every day and down a few Nau Da before I went to work (Nau Da translates as ‘brown ice’ by the way, I never know why we call it ‘white’ coffee when it’s always brown). The issue is that having a lot of condensed milk every day, delicious though it is, quickly starts to pack in the calories. In my first year I gained almost 10 kilos! Of course, the cheapest beer in the world and £0.50 Pho was part of that, but I think the coffee definitely played a role too…now I have no sugar, no milk. Sometimes.

2. The traffic is dangerous, but it’s not as dangerous as it’s made out to be

The thing is, the traffic looks crazy and people are always terrified of it at first. Me too. I still have flashbacks of me sitting on my first motorbike, white knuckled and teeth gritted, wondering what the hell I’m doing. That feeling passed. And while it is dangerous when compared to my home country (The UK, one of the safest in the world), it’s not quite as bad as everyone says. For one thing, it’s mercifully slow. When I went to Taiwan recently, I was shocked at how fast the traffic was. Everyone just seemed to turn the accelerator to breaking point and leave it there. Most of the time, in Hanoi anyway, you’ll struggle to get past 40km/h. Realistically, if you drive sensibly, wear a good helmet, and be cautious (i.e. no wheelies or drunk-driving) then you’ll be fine. It’s also worth noting that while I’ve seen a lot of accidents, most of them are people falling off their bike, dusting themselves off, then going back about their day. When I compare the traffic in the city in Hanoi to Bangkok or Taipei, it really doesn’t feel so bad. Doing the Hanoi – HCMC trail on a 20-year old motorbike held together with glue and string however, is another story…

3. Feeling uncomfortable isn’t so bad

When I was younger, I found it very difficult to put up with uncomfortable situations. I’d try so hard to avoid feeling anything unpleasant. Doing anything that wasn’t 100% comfortable, easy, and straightforward wasn’t worth doing.
Now, I’ve had a lot of practice and being patient (e.g. in traffic), being stared at (when you’re somewhere rural and people are very interested in you!), and being physically uncomfortable (getting more than my fair share of food poisoning!). I find that now I know I can tolerate it much more easily than if I’d just stayed at home and lived in my bubble of security.
As an example, my friend and I went to stay in some bamboo huts out in the countryside. Normally, I’m a nice hotel kind of guy, but I felt like trying something new. When we got there, it poured with rain. Which meant all the bugs came inside. We lay there, watching cockroaches crawl over the top of the mosquito net, the mosquitos getting in through the holes in said mosquito net, and water coming through the bamboo walls and sprinkling us. Oh, and it was still hot with no fan or air conditioning. Sounds bad, right? But it wasn’t. Once I embraced it and said, OK, I’m gonna get bitten, I’m gonna be a little uncomfortable, but there’s still a lot to enjoy about this (the sound of tropical rain on the roof for instance, the cicadas, the feeling of being alone in the countryside), then it really didn’t matter. It’s a small victory, and I’m no Bear Grylls. But it was still cool to know that you can enjoy yourself even when there are those little things that before would ruin something for me.

4. Homesickness is not a big problem

Homesickness feels really bad at times. Everyone gets it now and then, and I’m no exception. This Christmas I spent it in Taiwan instead of the UK. It was a really cool experience, but of course when you see all your friends doing the traditional thing, you’re craving a roast turkey and not a fried rice.
One of the great things about life today though is that living abroad doesn’t mean you can’t visit. I think about how explorers and scientists would, just a hundred years ago or so, get on a ship and be separated from their family and friends by months of sea travel, with nothing but an occasional letter (if that) to get them through. Nowadays, provided you can afford it, the worst part of going home is a long flight and airplane food. Even if you can’t, having Facebook and Skype can make a world of difference. You get reminded that even though you miss home, there’s no reason not to enjoy where you are right now, and remember why you’re there.

5. Teaching is one of the coolest jobs you can have

And not just because you get to live abroad. I always told myself when I was younger that I’d never be a teacher, so it’s ironic that is where I’ve ended up. Equally, a lot of people have an idea that they’d ‘never work with kids’ or they’re not extroverted enough to be a teacher, or they’re too scared to teach adults. And others say that TEFL is not ‘real teaching’ (whatever that is!), or that TEFL teachers are overpaid and underqualified. I have a much more positive view of the profession than this.
In general, 99% of the teachers I meet are knowledgeable, ethical, and really care about doing their best to help their students learn a much-needed skill. I haven’t touched on job satisfaction, but teaching English is definitely the most rewarding job I’ve had. You meet people, learn about their lives, and ultimately, build relationships with your students. You share laughs, experiences, and perspectives that are totally different from your own. And how you work is up to you. If you want to go down the management route, you can forge a high-flying career. If you want to enjoy your life outside of work and just get by, you can do that too.
So there’s five things that I’ve learned from three years in Vietnam. As the country continues to change and develop, there are things I’m looking forward to and not looking forward to in future. As a new Starbucks Coffee opens on my road, I feel a little concerned that Hanoi will lose its authentic charm – to some extent, it already has a little. But I feel grateful that the country is developing, people are better off, and life is continuing to improve in the place I call home. I’m confident that what I love about Vietnam will stay, even as more high-rise apartment blocks and chain stores appear on the streets!