How to teach English in Vietnam

In recent years, Vietnam has experienced a surge of media exposure that has brought visitors flocking. Whether it be the moped-strewn Hanoian streets, or floating villages of Ha Long Bay, this once closed country has earned a place on everyone’s bucket list. If you’re wanting to experience the aptly named “Land of smiles” for yourself, there’s no better way than TEFL!

Teaching in the schools of Vietnam is undoubtedly the best way to travel ethically: by giving back to the community that you wish to experience! 

However, as you may already know, moving to Asia isn’t as simple as hopping on a flight- oh how we wish it was! Before you can savour that first sip of Pho, or high-five your first students, there are requirements that need to be met. Want to know more about how to teach English in Vietnam? Stay tuned to find out!

What are the perks of teaching English in Vietnam?

While the requirements to teach English in Vietnam are numerous, the perks of living there undoubtedly surpass them! Its growing popularity as a TEFL destination, has created thriving expat scenes in each major city. Combine this with a nation keen to preserve their history, and you have the perfect fusion of western comforts, and authentic Vietnamese culture. 

There truly is something for everyone- whether its surfing the beaches of Da Nang, or sipping cocktails atop Hanoi’s infamous Lotte Tower. Whichever suits you best, the low cost of living, paired with an enviable salary, makes for an unforgettable TEFL experience. Are you tempted yet? In which case, let’s take a look at each requirement.

1: A degree and TEFL certificate are both required

This might seem like a stale point on which to start, but visa eligibility is the unavoidable first stage of any TEFL adventure. 

Having a valid degree in any subject, and evidence of a completed TEFL course, is perhaps the most important requirement of all. Both will be sent to be apostilled- a process which sounds intimidating, but is really just to check they’re real! Only once they’re stamped and verified by a solicitor, and the Vietnamese Embassy in your home country, will you be able to scroll through skyscanner! 

2: Spend a good amount of time job-hunting 

In Vietnam, learning the English language is taken very seriously, and its ability to open doors for students is widely recognised. On a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, it’s not uncommon to have children and older folk alike, approach you to practice their English. 

The resulting demand for TEFL teachers is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to your job search. The initial relief at the amount of job advertisements yielded by a quick google search, can quickly become overwhelming as you endlessly scroll. While there are a lot of great companies out there, it’s important not to sign up for the first one you see! Instead, make a list of your own personal requirements (location type, contract length, housing etc), and decide which company best aligns with them. The following names are essentially BNOCS of the TEFL world in Vietnam, and most feature on the GoAbroad comparison tool.

  1. APAX English 

While they may be the new kids on the block, APAX have received a steady stream of rave reviews, and it’s no surprise given their job perks. Expect to receive visa support, health insurance, as well as a hefty bonus, and the return of your flight money after completing the contract. While they don’t provide housing, APAX offers a generous monthly stipend to help their teachers cover the cost! 

What makes this company stand apart from the rest however, is the range of locations they provide. From the mountains of Sapa in the far north, to the sleepy beaches of Quy Nhon in the south, there’s an APAX school for everyone. They even provide a monthly bonus for choosing one of the smaller, more rogue locations! 

  1. I-to-i TEFL 

 Catering for those beginning their TEFL journeys, a paid internship with i-to-i guarantees support every step of the way. Though there’s the small snag of a starting cost, this fee ensures an orientation week, accommodation throughout, and a ready-made group of fellow expats. If you’re fresh out of university, or have no prior teaching experience, an internship with i-to-i is the most comfortable way to start your adventure. 

  1. Language Link 

This prestigious company are certainly not new to the business, and have been providing Hanoi’s public schools with English teachers since the 90’s. Gearing towards the seasoned TEFL teacher, working with Language Link is a great way to boost a longer-term teaching career. Though opportunities are limited to Hanoi, Vietnam’s buzzing capital is an ideal location to begin your life as an expat!

3: Cultural research is necessary

Whether you’re in a taxi wobbling along a road the width of a bahn mi, or being hassled by   street vendors, culture shock can hit us all. While it’s not an official requirement to teach English in Vietnam, researching the culture will help avoid culture shock, and enhance your experience. Travelling ethically means respecting the customs of each country- and Vietnam has plenty of its own!

Probably the most obvious, and important, preliminary research you can do, will be on the Vietnamese language. After all, having no knowledge of a language’s basics can leave you feeling isolated further down the line. 

As a starting point, consider that in Vietnam, greetings are modified to respect each age-group. While your ability to say “Xin-chao” will please the locals, there are ways to maximise your politeness level. For example, when greeting an older man or woman, opt for “chao anh” or “chao chi”. If you’re talking to someone younger than you, a simple “chao em” will suffice! 

As with most countries, regional dialect in Vietnam has a big impact on meaning, and this should be modified to your chosen teaching location. In the north, the “R” in a word is pronounced as “Z”, whereas in the south, an “R” is simply an “R”. Ordering egg fried (Com rang trung) in Hanoi? Make sure to pronounce “rang” as “zang”, to avoid dinner-table confusion. 

4: Prepare for teaching younger children, and leave your ego at the door!

As a new teacher on the block in Vietnam, you’ll be expected to teach a range of ages so that employers can gage your individual style. This means you’ll have at least one class of younger learners per week which, while being super fun, requires an energetic personality.

Akin to the other requirements, there are things you can do to prepare, and ensure you’re ready to face a class of sixty beaming grade ones! When building a repertoire of games to include in your lesson plan, think back to your own school experience and ask- what made learning fun? Activities such as Simon Says are sure to make an unexpected comeback in your life. Similarly, the ABC song stands the test of time, and should be accompanied by dance moves- the sillier the better! 

Your TEFL adventure in Vietnam awaits! 

If you’ve met the requirements to teach English in Vietnam, congratulations- an unforgettable, personality shaping experience is within reach! While Vietnam might not be the easiest country to enter, don’t be put off by the paperwork. Instead, see the requirements listed in this article as exciting stepping stones, leading to your next TEFL adventure. When, after seeing tantalizing snippets of life in Vietnam on your instagram, friends ask how you got there- you’ll know exactly what to tell them!

Moving from offline to online teaching: 5 things I’ve learnt so far

Swapping from school to screen is a decision many of us have had to make in the last twelve months. Though it may not be the tropical climate you hoped for, online TEFL is a great way to keep your mind engaged in “teaching mode” before we can travel again. Most importantly, it’s vital in helping students get the extra tuition they may have missed due to covid.

While you may not be moving physically between borders, the journey from in-person to remote teaching demands the same level of planning and re-adjustment! In this article, I’ll be taking you through five things I’ve learnt about the craft of TEFl teaching through this exciting transition! 

Online teaching requires you to cater to an individual 

As I waved to my first student on English Firsts’ online platform, I couldn’t help but think back to my first day as a teacher in Vietnam, almost one year prior. Having your class-size shrink from sixty enthusiastic faces, to one, is perhaps the most stark difference between the two teaching mediums. It’ll become clear that, In most cases, online teaching can be better described as personal tuition. 

In this setting, your ability to identify a student’s learning style will be just as important as teaching English! For this exact purpose, enter the VARK model. It might be harsh on the ears, this acronym will become indispensable, and recognizing the four groups: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic , helps us to get out of the”one size fits all” teaching approach. For example, if your student is animated during discussion, but switches off when reading, they’re probably an auditory learner. Have they ignored your doodle of a cat, but recognized it in word form on another slide? Rather than insulting your artistic skills, they might fall into the reading/writing category. 

Perhaps the trickiest VARK member to accommodate in an online classroom, are kinesthetic, or “hands on” learners. It’s true that being desk-bound doesn’t suit students that thrive on active participation. However, there are things you can do- which brings me on to my next point.

Body language and TPR is even more important!

As Shakespeare once said (hear me out), “all the world’s a stage”, and no one puts on a show quite like a teacher. The most effective way of keeping our student’s attention (and hopefully imparting some English too) is through gestures, dancing, singing, and all things theatrical. However, while in-person teaching allows you to incorporate the space around you, online classrooms are limited to screen sized nooks.

When students can only see your head, shoulders and arms, it’s easy to slip into “robot-teaching” mode. But when you’re reduced to pixels on a screen, it’s even more crucial to establish your presence and use some TPR; in simpler terms, don’t be afraid to ham it up!

One way to do this is to intensify your facial expressions. If your face aches after a lesson on emotion vocabulary, after all those amplified grins and frowns- you’ve done a good job! Similarly, hand and arm gestures are a great way to elicit vocabulary- especially from kinesthetic learners who respond well to action. Say you’re teaching a lesson on weather (a classic ESL topic) nothing says “windy” like pretending to sway in the breeze,, or “stormy” like imitating the crash of thunder and lightning with some jagged hand movements. 

Not only does this style of teaching double up as a muscle workout, anything that keeps your students excited about learning English makes the transition from offline to online, easier for both parties.

Online teaching relies on different materials 

We can only do so much to merge the two teaching mediums, though, and the move to an online classroom will mean waving goodbye to the squeaky dice and inflatable balls of yesteryear. Though each company will have their own online platforms with different tools available, some materials remain the same across the board. Interactive pens, whiteboards, timers, and if you’re lucky some cute filters, will all be at your disposal.

 Of course, part of relying on technology, specifically WiFi, is contending with its unreliable nature. If you start to see the bars of your internet connection decreasing, the chances are so is the quality of your lesson. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the chances of this happening, or lessening the ill effects of a dodgy signal! Pre-lesson internet speed checks can give you time to fix any problems, while WiFi boosters and webcam upgrades can help reduce the effects of temperamental internet. 

Just as important as technology, are the use of visual aids and props in your online classroom. Students can become easily distracted when taught in person, so when you’re reduced to a screen, having an enticing background is imperative. Take the wall behind you as a chance to get creative: think bright colours, maps, diagrams and cartoon flashcards. All this will help to recreate that all important classroom atmosphere in your online lesson. 

Be spontaneous and adaptable at all times! 

After an especially rowdy class, even the best of us ESL teachers breathe a sigh of relief when it’s time for students to open their textbooks! In schools, often five to ten minutes are set aside for bookwork, or writing-based group tasks. If for whatever reason, the class hasn’t responded well to the contents of the lesson plan, this time can be spent making adjustments that will suit your students.

However, in the online world, neither of those tasks are applicable, and it’s essential to have some backup activities stored in your head. Going back to our own childhood days, try throwback games such as hangman and simon says, or freetalk using a puppet/cuddly toy. Remember that at the end of your lesson, you’ll be able to flick back through the material- perfect for reflecting on what activities worked, and recognizing what didn’t. 

A self-made schedule means self motivation 

With covid sending many aspects of life into disarray, the days of working nine till five might seem like a distant memory. While a pre-decided contract of weekly hours is typical of offline teaching jobs, online, you’ll set your own availability. Companies will allow you to change this monthly, weekly, and even daily- as long as you’re not bailing on a pre-booked lesson.

Having said this, with more autonomy comes new challenges. If, like me, you’re prone to procrastination, the idea of essentially working for yourself may be daunting. But fear not- maintaining a balance is easier than you think! While carving out time to teach (and sticking to it!) is crucial, it’s equally important to reward yourself! After a hard day’s work, there’s no greater feeling than doing something for yourself, even if you’ve only moved from one room to another when separating work from leisure! Personally, I find writing a to-do list by hand works wonders for maintaining mental health. Even making sure to include “put the kettle on” or “step outside” between lessons can break up your day!

Much of what I’ve learnt from the move from offline to online teaching, focuses on the differences between them. Of the similarities, there’s one that makes any life transition easier to manage: a sense of community! There are tonnes of us TEFL teachers out there, and we’re all in the same boat this year!

Creating an eco-concious classroom

Faced with habitat pollution, poaching, and an influx of waste, Vietnam finds itself in a battle against time to save their diverse ecosystem. Whilst western societies can afford the infrastructure needed to deal with the multitude of plastic, Asian countries struggle to cope. Inundated, the Vietnamese often have no choice but to burn the plastic, and thicken the smog surrounding Hanoi.


Though the Hanoian PM is urging reform, change is ultimately in the hands of the next generation. Not only do we have the chance to teach children about their environment, but when combined with learning English, it creates a two-fold opportunity for students to make a difference through knowledge and wider communication.

With startling momentum that is so typical of life here, those working in education have boosted the presence of environmental topics in schools. Though the semester is only one month in, already we’ve watched plays about climate change, and staged debates on its causes.

For one lesson, I asked students to identify the plastic objects in their classroom, confident in the example I was setting, until one boy cried “teacher, oh no!”. I followed his gaze to the inflatable (plastic) planet Earth in my hands, that I’d brought to class for a game. The look on his face surpassed the language barrier; “Why are adults such hypocrites?”.

There are always way we can improve, so here are some ideas for eco-conscious teaching that I’ve either tried in my classroom or had recommended by other teachers.


Artistic recycling: plastic bottles

As with most TEFL programmes in SE Asia, your students may be from lower income areas that are less able to recycle plastic: making the concept of re-using even more important. To get the ball rolling, ask each of your students to bring a plastic bottle to class, and use your imagination to make them into art projects. These activities can of course be paired with classic TEFL topics such as Animals and colours.

My personal favourite is to cut off the bottom of a water bottle, and use it to make a turtle. This can be used to teach students about the plight of both marine and freshwater species that are present throughout Vietnam. Either paint or pens can be used to colour in the shell, while the head, flippers, and tail can start life as paper, attached with sellotape. Depending on the class, you could attach a descriptive speaking or writing task to this activity.

turtle student .jpg

turtle .jpg

For the re-occurring topic of  ‘the family’ one option is to create a “note in a bottle” style activity. Students can decorate a plastic bottle and then fill it with notes to take home to their families. Sample messages could include: “Dear Grandma, thank you for always looking after me and teaching me new things”.


Recycling clothes

At the fore of conservation efforts, sustainable fashion is an equally key notion to introduce, and is a natural vehicle for teaching items of clothing. For grades one to three, odd or unwanted socks can be made into puppets. Once they’re finished, split students into pairs and ask them to roleplay a conversation between their creations. With a degree of patience, communication with your TA and time management, this activity can cover a range of topics, and provides a refreshing learning format.






Wildlife focused activities

As a TEFL teacher, posters will be a frequent go-to, with difficulty adjusted according to age. This can be as simple as asking students to draw endangered animals, with an English caption of “my favourite animal is a ______”,or more detailed posters titled “Save the ______ of Vietnam!” for grade 4 upwards. Make sure the animals are relevant to the Vietnamese environment, so that the students can relate.  For younger students, some easily recognisable species might include:

  • Indochinese Tiger

Although these allusive creatures have not been seen in the jungles of Phong Nha for years, a tiny population is still thought to exist far from human activity, as it should be.

  • Asian Black Bear

Often falling prey to the bile trade, this species needs more recognition than ever. Located in Cuc Phuong, just two hours from Hanoi, is an ever-expanding bear sanctuary by the name of Four Paws.


For secondary school students, take advantage of their higher language level to introduce animals with more complex names, and ask them to write small sections of information on whichever they choose.  For this age group, you can branch out and provide more obscure examples:


  • Pangolin (Sunda and Chinese)

In recent years, there has been a huge surge in the conservation of pangolins and efforts to increase a population devastated by the illegal wildlife trade. Now, the government is working with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, and the Cuc Phuong national park, to clamp down on cruelty.

  • Delacour’s Langur

If you’re teaching in Hanoi, this monkey is found in the national park of Ninh Binh, located just an hour and a half from Hanoi by Train, and should resonate with students.



Ecology in general is luckily, a multi-purpose topic, and can be used outside of animal-specific topics. If you’re teaching students about North, South, East and West, draw a map of Vietnam on the board (It can be as basic as a capital S, which I learnt after many failed attempts at cartography) and mark out where endangered animals live. Students can then use English vocabulary to describe their whereabouts. E. “The Indo-Chinese Tiger is located in jungles of central Vietnam”.




Hanoi in autumn

I last saw Vietnam in the oppressive heat of June- wilting in the shade and dozing beneath rice hats, so I was surprised to find a sprightlier city when I returned. As Vietnam is naturally tropical, it seems safe to assume Hanoi’s exemption from seasonal change. You can imagine my surprise then, when leaves the size of dinner plates began to slap me in the face. Even the trees that somehow thrive in these streets are shedding their leaves. Above you, they form a threadbare blanket among electrical wires.

With the fierce heat mellowed, Hanoians have a spring to their step. Normally avoided due to its lack of shade, the banks of west lake are heaving on these balmy evenings. Here, locals flock to watch the play of fire on the water as the sun sets.


The mornings, especially, have a freshness that makes for an invigorating commute to school. As I pass through the business district, the sun reflects from the formidable Lotte tower, onto the forehead of a boy transporting ice far below. Almost larger than the bike itself, the frozen blocks are attached to the passenger seat with rope barely thicker than my shoelaces. My grab driver speeds past his teetering bike, and as the sun hits the boy’s cargo, it turns to gold.  The ice starts to drip down his forehead, mixes with sweat, and runs in liquid bronze.

In the build up to Halloween, plastic pumpkins in Tropicana orange became a familiar sight. As is the Hanoian way, these decorations were assigned their own piece of the jigsaw: Hang Ma street, or temporarily, Halloween street.

Typically known for selling electrical goods and fabric, it’s no wonder that shop-owners combine the two for this time of year. Like a sudden growth of ivy, Bat-shaped lights wrap around traditional lanterns. They jostle for space with a tower of witch’s hats- soon knocked into the road by a basket of spiders.

In the coming days, I’d recognise these decorations as they were hurled into my face by over-excited students. In the coming weeks, I’d see them peering out of dumpsters.

Being a woman in Hanoi


As I wrestle with the bolt to lock my front door, I suddenly feel eyes on me. For a moment, I delay turning around, instead pretending to search my bag. The sun has left behind a faceless heat, hanging in the air and making my bare back drip with sweat. Finally, I meet the stares of two men, and realize wearing a halter neck top probably wasn’t such a wise move after all. One gestures to his own back and they begin to laugh, eyes unwavering except to look me up and down.

A few days later, my friend and I stand chatting in the street. She’s wearing a short denim skirt and has been attracting a few glares. Eventually, an old man with kind eyes shuffles towards us. Though he speaks in Vietnamese, his gesturing towards her skirt conveys his message: “please dress more appropriately”.

Keen to avoid more uncomfortable experiences, I’ve since modified how I dress. Expose less flesh, and you’ll get less unwanted attention. Well, most of the time anyway. One night, my housemate was walking home from work when a man on a moped slowed on his way past to grab her behind and laugh at her reaction, before speeding away.

Of course, this can, and certainly does, happen to women at home in the UK; the only difference as a foreigner is that it’s harder to understand any crude comments aimed at you.

Though life as an expat woman can feel akin to being a walking exhibit, reaching out of my glass cabinet to slurp some Pho, outward shows of sexism are rare, and only seem to come from older men. As with most cultural matters, it seems that Hanoi is in a tug of war match between traditionalism and modernity. At least, on the side of the former, androcentrism is starting to get rope burn.

Teaching the new generation


If you want a glimpse into the future of a country, becoming a teacher is probably the nearest you’ll get. By skimming through the provided syllabus, you can get a real sense of Hanoi’s current position on women’s liberation. After all, what could be more important than carrying these views down to the next generation?

What pleasantly surprised me was the collective emphasis placed on International Women’s Day. Our employers told us that for an entire week, students would be making cards addressed to a female family member or teacher.  Some of these are now stashed in my room, with messages including “dear teacher Molly, thankyou for teaching us new things, we love you”.


Every day became a tiring yet wonderful show of praise: I received flowers, endless snacks, as well as envelopes containing money.

After I expressed my surprise to my TA, she explained how important it is in Vietnam to have a day in the year where every woman, be it at home or in the workplace, has her accomplishments recognised.

Unfortunately, the ideas expressed in our teaching materials are less forward-thinking. Flashcards for the unit on careers show exclusively male doctors, farmers, businessmen- and among these are only two depictions of women. One, an engineer beaming in her construction helmet, and the other a housewife. While a domestic lifestyle is a perfectly valid one, the lack of equality that we’re asked to present to young girls is dis- heartening.

This ideology even extends to who we’re allowed to teach based on our gender. Since the beginning of our contract, its been an un-explained rule (or at most, brushed past with a smile), that women teach infant classes, while men focus on secondary level. We didn’t want to presume at first, but the rigidity of this system seems to deem men unable to teach younger students, a more maternal role, while us women are kept away from hormonal teenage boys. Once again, more scaffolding is built to stabilize the opposition between sexes.


Beyond Hanoi: Womanhood in the hills of Sapa


As dense fog rolls in, the hot pink legwarmers of our guide become beacons leading us through the valley. We stop for a water break and observe a cluster of other tourists, helping to prepare the rice paddies for planting in a few days. I’m too old for this kind of work!” wails a man no older than twenty-five. Our guide scoffs beside me, “There are women in my tribe older than eighty who work harder than he is!”

This is our second day of trekking with our guide’s help, and in perfect English she tells us how being a woman here is both helped and hindered by economic necessity. The hill tribes around Sapa have become famous for their textile industry, weaving beautiful garments from local plants such as hemp. In fact, the first thing that hits you upon arrival is the dizzying kaleidoscope of colour. Predominately women and children are laden with beads and patterns, with the designs dependent on which tribe they belong to.

In a largely inaccessible landscape, textile production and guiding tourists go hand in hand for these women. After all, if you help a wobbly tourist down a slippery path, they’re more likely to buy a purse when they stop for lunch. This gives women in the area a level of agency over their own living and allows them to carve identities outside of being a wife and mother.


In this strive for independence, companies such as Sapa Sisters were formed. They offer guided treks, overnight stays, and the promise that your money will reach the women who make such experiences possible. Their clear emphasis is on “girl power”, with this phrase being the Wi-Fi password in their office.

As we walk and talk, our guide, only twenty-two herself, tells us how working for Sapa Sisters has benefited her life. Contact with westerners allows her to perfect her English- opening more doors for her own career as well as for the future of her own children, whom she teaches the language to. This, as well as independence from her husband and autonomy over her own life, is only possible because Sapa Sisters pay her fairly, she explains.

All this begs the question, what are these companies protecting women from? For Sapa Sisters to so ardently assure the ethical treatment of their employees, there must be a more harrowing side to life.

In recent times, girls as young as thirteen would be forced into arranged marriages, and would be fitted for silver earrings worn only by married women years before.  Our guide assures us that the marriageable age has since been raised to eighteen, and that couples are even in love these days. Even so, anyone over the age of thirty, regardless of gender, is considered firmly ‘on the shelf’, which leads to perhaps the area’s most sinister problem.

We pass a building of harsh stone hidden among fruit trees and are told it’s the only secondary school in the area.  All is silent, save for the lazy fluttering of a few banners and hens pecking in the dust. It may be a national holiday, but the tourist industry never rests, and so students have made for the trekking routes to sell fabric bracelets.  Our guide tells us that all girls must leave their homes and live at school, if they are lucky enough to attend. We ask why, perplexed, and she continues that it’s too dangerous for them to walk home after class. They’re preyed upon by men who are considered too old to get married, and have turned to abusive methods of gaining a companion.

In some ways, things are looking up for the women of Sapa, but there is still a long trek ahead.



Ninh Binh Province: an honest review

As the dead rat squished beneath my sandals, I realized that I was long overdue a break from the city. Luckily, Hanoi is spoilt for choice when it comes to weekend destinations, and Ninh Binh province hosts one of many national parks that encircle the capital. After just two hours on the train, you reach a landscape of towering limestone, gazing over the rice paddies at their feet.


Boat trips (Trang An and Van Long)

Ninh Binh’s boom in tourism owes itself almost entirely to the tributaries of the river Day. Acting as the arteries of the province, the waterways deliver tourists to anything that could be considered authentic. And here lies the double-edged sword of Ninh Binh. Whilst the Trang An boat tour is a spectacular way to view the karst landscape,some of its features leave a sour aftertaste. Visitors flock to the Kong: Skull Island film set – posing for selfies with the ‘native villagers’ who speed home on their mopeds at dusk.


Further down the river, Trang An’s sleepier cousin Van Long escapes the hordes. This doesn’t mean to say it’s empty, and as with everything in Ninh Binh, plan to visit in the quieter hours of early morning or evening. It’s at these times that you can get a sense of rural Vietnam; huddles of bamboo boats drowse in the still water, while kingfishers scan the wetland for insects. A patchwork of jungle blankets the rock, and monkeys boom from somewhere within.



In the Vietnamese no-nonsense approach, you’re assigned a boat (sans life jacket), and begin your journey.  After fifteen minutes of silence between myself and the guide, broken only by the chattering of birds, he suddenly pointed to a bare patch on the cliff. Clinging to nooks in the rockface was a troop of Langur monkeys. With only threhundred left in the wild, we were ecstatic to spot two babies: balls of orange that look a different species entirely to the parents.




Thung Nham Bird Park

After paying more for a tank of fuel than we would for a week’s food in Hanoi, we set off on our moped (essential to Ninh Binh travel). The road to Thung Nham takes you off the highway – through stone hamlets and the occasional goat herd, before winding into a pocket of tranquillity. The nature reserve can only be described as a natural bowl- with mountains and jungle rising up on all sides.



Apart from a few tour guides, the park is mostly empty, so you’re free to take your pick from the many caves, bird spotting stations, and trails that take you deep into the forest. The Thung Nham area is so sprawling, that even if a tour group descends you can quickly lose them again. Near the entrance, a five hundred step climb leads to what is at first a cave, but soon becomes a gaping hole in the mountainside. Luckily, a rusty iron gate saves you from instant death, and the view is spectacular.


As with most of Ninh Binh, the locals are in the process of building a resort. It’s sits on a separate island, grey and eerily waiting. Despite the rugged beauty, it’s hard to shake the feeling that nature is losing the battle for Thung Nham.



Is Bai Dinh cashing in on Budhism?

In SE Asia’s largest temple complex, benches advertising ‘Mobifone’, sit opposite wooden pagodas.  Somewhat disingenuously, Bai Dinh  flaunts its UNESCO world heritage status, which covers not just the temple site, but the entire Trang An Landscape Complex. While an older temple nuzzles the mountain-side, its sprawling neighbouring structures were only fully completed in 2010.


Despite this, their architecture gives the impression of age:  cloisters are lined with Buddha statues (five hundred to be exact) and a cloud of incense will suddenly appear as if on a timed loop. While structurally it’s impressive, its ideology is less so; it’s as if the grandeur and scale of the complex seeks to compensate for its soulless atmosphere.


The cynic in me would happily say all this, but Bai Dinh is still worth a visit. Historically, it’s the first mixed heritage site in Asia, boasting both natural and cultural aspects. But more than that, it’s clearly an important place emotionally for Buddhists across the nation.

With places like Bai Dinh, Vietnam is cementing its place in the tourist scene: but at what cost?



Surviving Culture Shock

It’s my Seventh week in Hanoi, and I’m only just writing my first blog post. I could say that I’ve been busy, too swept off my feet by Vietnam to write anything, but that would only be partly true. The euphoric buzz of my first two weeks had faded into a jitter, and I found I was struggling. I’d made it off the flight, but I was still lost in transit.

To make matters worse, other travel blogs I came across seemed intent on romanticizing their experience. Whenever I tried to write, I felt that there was an unspoken pressure: a narrative that whispered– If you’re not enjoying every second of your trip, then you’re doing it wrong.

This isn’t a healthy way to view travelling- and it certainly doesn’t help battle culture shock. Whether you’re more of a nomad, or like me have chosen to live and work in one place, Asia will hit you at some point. Whether you’re in a taxi wobbling along a road the width of a bahn mi,or being hassled by street vendors in the old quarter- there might come a time when you’ll feel like screaming, and that’s okay!  Having somehow fumbled my way out of culture shock’s grip, here are some tips on how to overcome it.

 Learn the basics of a language before you arrive

This is one of the primary things I’d wish I’d done while preparing for my trip. Having little to no knowledge of a language’s basics can leave you feeling isolated further down the line. So take advantage of the constant excitement of that first week (before the tiredness hits); watch some youtube videos, or ask the locals, which is far less daunting than it seems (and don’t be offended if they laugh at you).

Even if you’re on the road, why not have a quick google of key phrases you can use in your next destination?


Don’t over-analyse your emotions

If like me you’re prone to over-thinking, then this might also be easier said than done. After I became aware of the four stages of culture shock, typically ordered in euphoria, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance, I started playing match the emotion.

Inner dialogued included:  right now I’m feeling amazing and completely in love with Hanoi, this is definitely the honeymoon phase, or,  I feel like shouting at my landlord because he’s cooking fish and stinking out the house: Why do the Vietnamese eat such smelly food? Oh god, I’m entering the frustration stage.

I’m not saying detach yourself completely: it’s good to know about the stages of culture shock, but only to recognise that an array of (often contradictory) emotions while adjusting to a new country, is completely normal, and will come to an end as you adapt. Instead of analysing yourself, just ride through the mood swings and accept them for what they are: a part of travelling that makes you feel alive.



Give yourself a change of scene

This one is more relevant if you’ve been living in the same city or area for a few months. When Hanoi started to grate on me, I hid away in my room, guilty that I wasn’t out there trying to ‘find myself’. For days I’d come home from teaching, turn on Netflix, and drown out the local sounds I’d once found fascinating: military trumpets, cockerels, and the neighbour who sings and sneezes simultaneously.

Then, I decided that I’d had enough, that I was letting culture shock get the better of me, so I jumped on the back of a grab bike and head to the Old quarter. After an afternoon of wandering through the humming maze of Hanoi’s centre, I sat on a bench by Hoan Kiem lake, and watched the sun sink behind turtle tower. I’d fallen in love with the city again, and all it had taken was a 10 minute journey.

If you’re starting to feel isolated, take an aimless walk, leave your headphones at home, and let seeing something new remind you of why you travelled in the first place.


Mis-interpreted Middle Fingers

One image that’ll stick with me forever is this: a sea of ink- stained middle fingers rising up around me, followed by a chorus of: “Fuck you, teacher!”. I wobbled in shock, repeating “excuse me?” to the beaming faces gazing up at me. “How are you, mother fucker?” a boy of seven replied.



It took me a few weeks to realize that students swearing at you is just another example of western culture lost in translation, and is far more innocent than you may think.  In Hanoi’s case: many kids have adopted these words as greetings. Usually, it becomes a way for them to express their excitement, and I’ve often had kids hugging me and swearing at the same time.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’ve lost the original meaning entirely: middle fingers are raised cheekily in the classroom, and if my grade five’s don’t understand an activity, they’ll look at me quizzically and ask “teacher Molly, what the fuck?”. They know they’re cursing, but they don’t understand the severity of it.

Once I got past the initial shock however, it became interesting to observe it as a cross-cultural phenomenon instead of being angry and offended. If there’s one thing that children can teach us, it’s that words and signs are there to be re-invented- that they can be used playfully.

It also brings home how thrilled most Vietnamese children are about their education, and how eager they are to learn English. I’ve never had anyone more excited to see me than a group of primary school children, taking my hand and swearing at me.

From a teaching perspective, surely it’s better to have to tell off a student for swearing at you in English, rather than them having no desire to learn it in the first place?