Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our new blog

We have now left Vietnam and we are in the process of moving to Thailand. Before we get there we are spending a few weeks in France.

If you would like to keep in touch with what we are up to you can check out our new Thailand blog.

It has been great keeping in touch with so many people through this blog and also being able to give others advice. Thanks to everyone.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Good bye Vietnam

The last few days in Hanoi were pretty frantic. We moved out of our house, off loaded most of our furniture to our friend Nam and sold our bikes. We packed up boxes to be sent to Thailand and had our house cleaned from top to bottom. The last week went very quickly and before I knew it I was teaching my last class. It was a little sad. I am not a big hugger but the Vietnamese seem to be so I frequently had students coming in for a big goodbye hug.

Our on last night in the house our neighbours put on a party for us; a feast of Vietnamese food. We left our house a few days before our flight to chill in the Old Quarter. Old grannies from the street came out waving to say goodbye. It was very nice. We had some farewell drinks with our expat buddies in town which was also great. They are mainly teachers and we had representations from all corners of the globe. It has been great to meet so many people from different countries around the world.

I went and said goodbye to Mr Tuan, Madame Dzung and Grandmere, the family we stayed with when we first moved to Hanoi. We have kept in touch and they have always been so welcoming to us. Gradmere is probably our favourite person in Vietnam. She is so damn adorable. At 80 + and with only about 3 teeth she always gives you the biggest and happiest smile. I sat and had a green tea with her and told her where I was going. She was very interested. Madame Dzung made me some dinner and I drank some wine with Mr Tuan. I also got a big hug from him when I left.

We finished our last night with a few beers and some Vietnamese spring rolls at a restaurant we often go to. The waitress was very sad when we said we were leaving and gave Celine her scarf.

It has been a great year and a half in Hanoi. The Vietnamese people are so friendly. We have learnt so many interesting things about their culture and despite our excitement about Thailand will definitely miss the place. We hope to come back and visit.

Vietnamese Students

I don’t know if so far, we have taken the time to properly describe what Vietnamese students are like, and what it’s like to teach them.

Usually, my adult students are actually students, they are between 16 and 30 years old, with a few older ones, but it’s quite rare, maybe one or two in each class.

Vietnamese students are lovely. They’re friendly, good natured and usually happy to be alive, and happy to be in class. They enjoy playing games more than anything, apart from the odd really-serious-guy (usually a girl, actually) who wants to do grammar exercises all the time. By games I mean anything involving some sort of competition with points or fake money, the girl love to crush the boys, and the boys love to crush the girls.

Vietnamese students have cooties. Talking about the boys and girls divide, we (all the teachers, from Dan, to Dana, to Lanette, to all my teacher friends) all understood after like… 3 days on the job, that something important here: boys and girls from 8 years old to about 18 years old hate each other and will NOT mix. Before that, they’re little kids and they don’t care. After that, they’re pretty much adults and start to have boyfriends and girlfriends, so the gender mixing is no longer an issue, but between 8 and 18 years old, there is no way to mix the students without having a profoundly upset class where everyone glares at me and wants to runaway home.

I like to play on that, I must admit. This morning I picked a kid who really makes me laugh, a cheeky boy of 11 named Nam Anh, and told the class that I would divide them in two groups: boys on one side and girls + Nam Anh on the other. Lol, he looked like he was about to have a heart attack, he screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” while the other kids and I laughed our head off. Obviously I was only joking, and he knew it. But it shows you the general boy-girl feeling.

With adult classes, it’s easier. The boys and the girls are usually friendly enough to one another, unless playing language games in different teams and then they become competitive, but not hostile.

Vietnamese students are respectful of the teacher. Again, this is more obvious in adult classes, but to be honest even in kids’ classes or teenager’s classes, I can see a world of difference when I compare with the way we regarded teachers in my time as a student. Incomparable, really.

Adults are pretty much grateful to their teacher, kids have not grasped that concept yet, but they will stop talking right away at the first sign of me being annoyed. They are cute as, the kids, looking at me with their big eyes, cheering at the activities I propose, getting so much into the games they jump up and down in excitement. When they don’t stop talking and running even if I ask them to, it’s really more because of their hyperactivity than coming from a lack of respect for me.
Adults are great also, and tend to want to become friends. Half of my adult students have found me on facebook and send me random messages of love, and that’s the same with every other teacher I know.

Of course we all have classes we like a bit less, taciturn or downright boring students, and even the odd case of know-it-all annoying dude, who questions everything you say.

But usually they’re just awesome, and they love the teacher. If I ever get angry or upset, they’re mortified. I remember being mortified when I didn’t manage to enrage my teacher, that shows you how different my two worlds are.

Vietnamese students have a lot in common with one another. Discussions and debates are not the easiest task for a teacher to have their class perform, which comes from the fact that someone’s opinion will generally be representative of the entire age group’s opinion… on just about anything. The young adults cultivate their individuality as opposed to their parent’s generation’s individuality, but not so much as one-another’s individuality.

If one of my students likes a song, you can me almost sure that it’s a stylish song, and all the rest of the class will like it. If one doesn’t like an artist, the other ones don’t like him or her either (exceptions to this rule being Kpop and lady Gaga… some love, some hate.)

Same goes with what activities they like or dislike. They like going to the cinema, using facebook, listening to music and going out to drink coffee and eat ice cream with friends. Girls like shopping, boys like playing computer games. You might want to tell me that’s international, ok, it is… but try to find a whole class in your country where EVERY SINGLE boy will answer to the question ‘what do you like to do in your free time’: ‘playing computer games’.

I’ll be specific with the going out with friends business… going out with friends means: walk around the night market or drink coffee or eat street food or ice cream or go to the cinema. No house parties, no drinking beer nonsense – not for the girls, anyway, no smoking, no walking around the lake or in the park, no going on trips together or rarely, no meeting up in each other’s houses etc… A lot of these activities are considered lacking style, God knows why, I don’t know what’s so lame about walking in the park or by the lake but hey, I’m not very stylish myself ;)

General opinions-wise, it’s a bit the same. Teachers have adapted by asking questions to the class as a whole, where we usually get “YEEEES!!!” or “NOOOO” answers. A lot of us have given up altogether on healthy debates, because Vietnamese students, if they are against something, will find it extremely difficult to pretend that they are not, even for the sake of bettering their English – which after all is the only thing we are interested in providing, as teachers.

One of the teachers here, Sarah, made me pee my pants laughing when she told me a story: she organised a class debate about hashish. Not that I advocate its use or that our role as teachers should be to advocate its use, but I don’t think, with my western brain, that asking adults to impersonate doctors recommending the use of pot to their patients is a terrible thing to do. I think it’s ok. I wouldn’t tempt it myself as a teacher, because it would be impossible to put into place here, but she did it and good on her for trying. Anyway, she divided the class in two groups, “for” and “against”. The “for” group was absolutely mortified. They had to find arguments SUPPORTING the use of pot??? Might as well have asked them to find arguments to defend puppy killers – actually, that would have been tons easier around here…

She explained over and over that the students didn’t have to BELIEVE in their argument, only to try and impersonate people who did, people who didn’t view pot as an evil, like doctors or insomniacs etc…

It was tough. Group A argumented how evil pot was for twenty minutes, listing every by-the-book reason we’ve all heard before and worse.

Then group B remained silent and prostrated, and when Sarah urged them to give it a go, one of them stood up… said nothing… sat back down again… then stood up again and in a tense voice said:
“I AGREE with group A!!”. Then sat back down again.
That was the end of that debate.
I thought that was so funny, I still laugh now writing about it. If you’re not laughing, it’s probably because you’re not a teacher in Vietnam. Otherwise, you’d know, you’d really know why this is hilarious.

Let’s just say Sarah set the bar a bit high with her attempt, we usually keep debate topics a bit less controversial, because Vietnamese students have not been raised to believe evil can be good and good can be evil… they don’t see many shades of grey.

Some teachers argument that it is for us to show them that the western world thinks in shades of grey. They argue this because we train students with their English, so that they can pass their IELTS and consequently end up studying abroad. Should we show them how different from their own the thought patterns get in those western countries they want to go to, or let them figure it out on their own? I mean they’ll get to America, where the gay marriage rights hot topic is on the table (and let me tell you I completely support gay marriage) and not know what the heck is going on… I mean, gay culture here equals zero, it’s not talked about, it doesn’t exist and it’s wrong, anyway. Seriously. And what about moving to Australia and finding out that girls do drink, that a lot of couples do live together before marriage, that half of the population has a little joint here and there? What about getting to England and seeing girls go out with their mates ‘on the pull’?
Is it for us to introduce these foreign concepts to the students?

I think not, to be honest, but that’s mainly because I don’t teach IELTS and my students are usually in lower levels, where this whole ethical set of questions is irrelevant.

I feel for these other teachers, like Lindy, who teach IELTS and find themselves having to say ‘ok, your English is perfect, but please, PLEASE, do NOT say that to the examinator!” when her student said something like “obviously when I get married, I will never need to step in the kitchen ever again, it will be my wife’s duty to cook good meat for me everyday”.

There are exceptions to everything I've just said tough of course.
Nam, our best friend here, regularly organises trips with his friends and even girls join them - some have to lie to their parents and pretend it's a work thing, some tell the truth. He goes to travelers' conventions and everything. He enjoys bowling and walking in the park (yes!). My friend Phuong spends her free afternoons in book stores, which is hardly considered stylish amongst the young here, my student Tho Linh listens to hard rock and wears Metallica t-shirts, my friend Tung dresses in flamboyant colourful outfits, Chau and Van are hip-hop fans, they dance it, teach how to dance it and look like cute mini rappers... It's all relative, after all. But I mean generally speaking, these remain exceptions to the mass.

There are topics to avoid when teaching Vietnamese students: sensitive topics exist everywhere, really, and here you don’t risk anything by trying them out, but I still wouldn’t recommend it… for the good flow of the lesson if nothing else. Sex is a no-go, although if you get anywhere near it you won’t have students leaving your classroom in shock or anything, but you’ll get an uncontrollable level of blushing, giggling and hiding behind books. Why do it, then?

Politics are a complete no-go, students can’t grasp concepts they were never taught, and everything government-related is impossible to touch on. You might find students willing to tell you they hate the police or some officials are corrupted, but it costs them a lot more than what little gratification it might bring, so why do it?
I also avoid the cheating, affairs, mistresses etc… topics, for I don’t know what the general policy is on that and wouldn’t want to hurt anyone.

On the other hand, many subjects sensitive in the western world are not sensitive here: Religion is not a hot topic, it simply doesn’t exist as a debate or a stigma in any way. Some of them mention Buddha, some mention Jesus, they believe in what they believe in but they are unaware of what the concept of religion means to the western world: over and over I have to tell them what this word is, even, for they stumble on it in texts we study together, and simply don’t know what it is. They’ve never seen it before, the word ‘religion’ I mean, even within the higher levels of English.

It’s ok to call each other ‘fat’, it’s ok to point at the fat kid and call him fat, the fat kid himself laughs his head off, it’s ok to call someone ugly, rich or poor, it’s ok to ask about people’s salaries, it’s ok to say inappropriate racist remarks, that gay people must be crazy, that Thailand is a land of debauchery because men become girls… all this is ok, in the Vietnamese classrooms. No big deal. If that wasn’t clear, I don’t mean to say that it’s ok FOR ME to say those things, although it probably would be but hey, I can’t just unscrew my western head and put on my Vietnamese one on instead. I meant the STUDENTS say those things.

Vietnamese students are a bit shy: they need to get comfortable in their environment before coming out with answers to my questions. They might know a lot of vocabulary and grammar, but it’s hard for them to take it to the world and build sentences with what they know.

When left with a task involving imagination, I get very little response. I try to make them explain words they already know, so it appeals to their ability to put sentences together all on their own, and express concepts on their own, which they are not used to doing in the language learning process I mean. They know what a ‘lake’ is, for example, but when asked to explain it to me, they keep silent. They have been used to grammar exercises and generally much more controlled methods of learning like fill the blanks or multiple choice answers. Little by little, with my adult classes, I’ve built this bridge and they get more comfortable expressing concepts or explaining things. I tell them it doesn’t matter if the English is not very good, as long as they try. I ask them how they’re going to have conversations with foreigners if they don’t want to make sentences unless they are perfect? It works and the bridges are built, but only until this class gets to another teacher and I have to start all over again with a new class.

Vietnamese students cover the whole range between ‘stick together’ and ‘each for its own’. It’s funny to see how furiously they try to help the poor guy I asked a question to and can’t answer, they all whisper the answer in a frenzy that becomes so loud it seems almost ridiculous to keep whispering: obviously I can see and hear what they are doing. It makes me feel happy, this level of togetherness. They hate to see one person in trouble and will do anything in their power to help.

On the other hand, they are more than happy to snitch, with no shame at all. Especially teenagers, within friends groups I mean, will say “teacher, teacher, HE didn’t do his homework!! Punish HIM!!”. “teacher, teacher, you marked him right here but he got it wrong, please take away a point from him!!”.
It’s hilarious, as they do that to their best mates, no worries. The best mate in question doesn’t get angry, either, he just smiles good naturally. Amazing.

As teachers, we need to know our audience to be more efficient, and I think I really do, now. I’ve been teaching here for 18 months, I have taught maybe 50 adult classes, two to six hours per week for three months each class, that’s 1000 Vietnamese adult students. I think when you’ve taught 1000 students from a country, you can say you know your audience.

So, my audience is like this: Vietnamese students are pretty awesome, from the first meeting. Sweet, attentive, they listen to the teacher and laugh at my bad jokes like… every time. They are friendly, funny, extremely respectful and grateful to be taught. On the more sensitive aspects, I would say they are like one mind, and have not been taught to question what they know, much. The result is a uniformity of thought pattern and opinions which can be dealt with ok, as long as one is aware of it, and willing to adapt.

Monday, February 21, 2011


With the days left in Vietnam now in single digits it has been time to start packing up our things and getting ready to leave. We had accumulated a decent selection of books over the year and a half we were here so obviously couldn't take them all with us. The bookworm, a foreign bookstore owned by a few Aussies, is an ideal place to offload them. They offer you a third of what they think they can sell them for; which at the end of the day is not that much. However, I don't really know of any other place that even sells a decent selection of books here in Hanoi so I was happy to use them.

We decided to stop for a coffee and plan our last week in Hanoi.

Bookworm: 44 Chau Long Street (not far from Truc Bach lake)
Next door is a Cooking Centre where you can sit and have a great lunch in a small courtyard away from the noise of the nearby street. Top food.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Rat is back

Celine and I started work again on Saturday after our Tet holiday. On Sunday morning, my biggest teaching day, I came downstairs to prepare breakfast to find my recently purchased baguette gnawed to bits. Shit, was my first reaction - the Rat is back. We have had some rat problems over the past few months but they all seemed to fix themselves without any drastic measures required. With only two weeks to go in the country we all had hoped that the rat situation was over. Apparently not.

The rat somehow climbed the chair and got onto the table where it proceeded to devour our morning baguette. I must admit I am damn impressed by how it managed to get up on the table in the first place. It was clear we were dealing with a professional.

Later that day, sitting on the sofa, I heard a rustling noise near the TV. The rat was in an empty paper bag I had planned to use for rubbish. I grabbed a nearby broom and planned my attack. The two logical options were to close off the exit to the bag and kill it or quickly pick up the bag and run it outside. I opted for a pathetic, at best, poke at the bag which had no benefit at all. The rat ran out and I jumped back like a little pansy. Man, I hate rats. He (I have decided the rat is a guy) ran behind the big cupboard under the TV probably thinking how stupid humans are. I decided to leave it there.

I told Ben and Lanette, my roommates, about our recent rat situation night. We are all about as useful as each other when it comes to rat disposal so our strategy was to wish it away. That didn't work.

Celine and I were upstairs watching Scrubs when she asked me; "but what if it comes up the stairs?" I replied something along the lines "Hun, I swear there is no chance at all that the rat can or would want to come up the stairs. There is no food up here". Within a minute of my words of wisdom we heard Lanette scream. The rat had in fact come up the stairs and had also decided to poop in Lanette's bathroom; at least it is toilet trained. The monster confronted Lanette as she came out of her room. The scream caused the rat, or more appropriately small dog, to run into our spare bedroom. This was one hell of a rat and was obviously not afraid of anyone.

Ben, Lanette, Celine and I talked strategy outside the spare room; each peering in as if a family of cobras lived inside. It was the room with all our things for France and Thailand; piled up on the floor. I did not like the idea of leaving our stuff to the mercy of the beast but it became clear that we were probably not the best people for the job. We decided to close the door and sort it out in the morning.

This morning I woke up and went to find my neighbour Hai. After explaining my situation he said he would help. We loaded up on weaponry and went into the room. Once in the room he told me to close the door. Since Hai was helping me, and I didn't want to look like a complete wuss, I did as I was asked. I must be honest though, the heart rate increased a few beats. I know it is not very manly but there is something about rats I just can't stand. There was a mass of hiding places in a small room where the only exit was now closed. The rat on steroids was somewhere and I was a little on edge.

I won't go into details but Hai is a legend and the problem is now solved. Thank you Hai. I owe you a few beers.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tet's food and drinks

We enjoyed a few Tet specialties over our 4 days in Hoa Binh province. In every house we went to, there were candy and Tet nibbles: sunflower seeds, biscuits, pistachios, caramels, soft candies, wasabi pease... and green tea, a lot lot lot of green tea! A lot of beers, too, but I stopped after like... 2. A beer in each house and I wouldn't have been able to go through the day!

Then in one house only, Khoi's house, we had dinner. The boys do this every year, they visit all their mates and end up at Khoi's house around 5pm for an early dinner (don't worry, there are still like... 7 houses after that, before being allowed to go to bed, so no the day doesn't end there at 5pm with a nice dinner, that's only the signal that the day is over and the evening is starting).
The green square is called banh trung (pronounce bang choong), it's a sticky rice savoury cake with soy bean paste and bits of pork inside. Below the banh trung is some grilled pork, at the bottom is a sort of head and cartilage pate, the round thing a kind of thick processed ham and on the left, stewed chicken.

Vietnamese houses in Tet

Like Dan said in his post a few days ago, we visited about 20 houses in the course of our two days Tet celebrations bonanza. It's a tradition for Nam and his friends in their home town, they visit each other, and everytime they get to one of their friend's houses, they drink tea or bear, eat some candy, chat a while then go to the next house, taking the latest host with them.

We took some pictures... not of the twenty houses, but still quite a few... as you can see there are more and more people as new friends tag along...

Hung's house

Phi's house

Ngoc's house

Dung's house

Trung's house

Khoi's house