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Top 10 Tips To Survive Hanoi

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Tried-and-true advice from one ESL teacher. 

Hanoi’s a great place to live and work for English teachers. Of course, as you can imagine, things may not be what you are used to. Here are my top pieces of advice for avoiding problems and getting the most out of your stay. 

1. Avoid driving in rush hour

Hanoi is a big city, with an amazing amount crammed into it. "Crammed" is the operative word, as with narrows roads and alleys hosting a huge volume of traffic getting about can be difficult at the best of times.

With a wide variety of working hours for English teachers, there’s no need need to drive during the chaos of rush hour. However, if you feel that you must go somewhere during peak hour, give yourself plenty of time and consider a bus or motorbike taxi. 

2. Ensure you have a solid two days off work

Although in Vietnam you don’t have to "seat warm" (or remain on site when not teaching), a typical teaching job will see you travelling around the city, which can be pretty tiring. One of the best bits of advice my old boss gave me was to make sure to have two consecutive rest days to recharge.

With so many jobs there’s no need to work every day unless you really want to. It’s often difficult to get all your work with one employer, so be prepared to give it some time to build a portfolio of jobs that give you the hours you want. You really can work as much and whenever you like.

3. Take time out of the city now and again to reset

Life in the big city can a bit hectic and—let’s be honest—a landscape of skyscrapers, concrete, pollution and construction isn’t particularly appealing.

Being in the capital means having good travel links, so consider getting out into the beautiful farmlands, mountains and seaside that surround the city. The beautiful karst cliffs of Halong Bay are well known, but for a more low-key experience but with the same beautiful backdrop of karst mountains try Ninh Bin, which can be reached in only two hours. I recently took a trip to a river view home-stay, to relax, enjoy the greenery and breathe. 

4. Enjoy the evening scene

Bustling as it is by day, Hanoi really winds down in the evening. This may not be the city for a party ( aside from the tourist hub old quarter), but rather a place to enjoy the pleasant buzz of cafes and coffee shops that populate just about every street corner. Most make a mean smoothie (avocado and mango mixed has been an absolute revelation) alongside a range of teas, coffees and nibbles. Watch evening life go by at a rather more sedate pace, or try near the famous Hoy Tay (west lake), for some added ambience.

5. Take up a hobby

If you are here as a teacher you will find yourself with a lot of time, as the average worker probably does less than 20 hours. Hanoi has a lot to offer to keep you busy. From gyms with excellent facilities and yoga classes with Indian yoga experts, to marital arts, comedy and acting classes, not to mention a lively music and spoken word scene, there are a huge array of activities. What’s brilliant is they all offer opportunities in English.

6. Learn some basic words 

Learning to speak the language is always a top tip in any country, but Vietnam’s capital has a surprising dearth of English amongst everyday locals, outside of the key foreign areas.. Vietnamese is not the easiest language, but a little goes a long way.

If you’re keen there are a number of classes you can join, or private tutors who can be contacted on Facebook. I’ve also found putting aside a few minutes a day to study with free app Duolingo has helped a lot. 

7. Make friends with the locals

Vietnamese people are generally friendly, although sometimes a little reserved, perhaps due to the lack of English. That said, Vietnam has a huge youth population—two-thirds are under 30. These younger Vietnamese have benefitted from an extensive investment in English education. Many are keen to practice their English and make friends.

8. Give thought to how to transfer money home

I’m assuming you’ve come here to at least attempt to save money. If not then I’d urge you to reconsider because the low cost of living and high wages mean even the worst budgeter in the world (yours truly) ends up with a fair amount of money at the end of the month. A big obstacle to sending money home is Vietnam’s closed currency and tight scrutiny of financial transactions. To do it legally, a bank account is needed, along with a slot of supporting paperwork. (This itself is a problem due to the largely unofficial status of the majority of even those teachers who are qualified and well-meaning.)

To combat this problem a range of options exist. Local and international financial businesses, including local gold-shops and well-connected natives, can all be useful. These ideas are far from exhaustive and each one has its pitfalls and risks. A fellow teacher told me a story of losing a large sum of money when trying to send it home. Make sure to do some research before making a decision.

9. Bargain hard and fair

Bartering is a huge part of Vietnamese life. From small goods, clothes, taxi rides all the way to securing the best pay, its totally normal for the other party to try and negotiate a good deal for themselves. It makes sense in a country where many shops and businesses are small and family-owned.

Be politely assertive when venturing out to a market; I recently got overcharged for a belt, as once the seller had offered me a price she began to cut it down to size for me, leaving me feeling too polite to say no.

10. Consider what to bring with you from home

It can be hard to get reliable information about what you can get in Vietnam. The majority of medicines seem available, but it’s best to bring from home if you have a specific prescription. One of the biggest problems can be clothes. Larger size clothes and shoes are very hard to come by, and I’m currently hobbling about in a undersized pair of football boots as I can’t find any Euro size 45/46.

Don’t despair as clothes you already own can be cheaply repaired by a wealth of tailors, who can also make clothes to fit for a fraction of the price of back home if you can’t get what you want.

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Sam Paterson

Sam Paterson is an English teacher working in Vietnam. He previously spent three years teaching in Thailand, exploring its lesser-known areas in his free time. He has an eye for cultural differences and the awkward situations that can arise if they’re not understood.

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