Ho Chi Minh City, especially the working-class Go Vap district, made John’s first month in Vietnam a cultural challenge. And, as if that weren’t enough, he was going back to school.
I stepped into Ho Chi Minh City just in time for Halloween. But for the next 30 days or so, I felt as though I were the ghost.
It was a strange feeling. On the one hand, I was aware of standing out, a bearded, older white guy in a sea of Asian faces. Another student in my 17-member TEFL class, a lanky young man from America’s East Coast who was biding time before starting law school, complained: “Help! Everyone is staring at me!” Perhaps. But I felt ignored as much as I was noticed, especially as a pedestrian.
I soon came to realize that it wasn’t just me. In a metropolis of some 13 million people, the best way to retain anonymity might be to discount anyone who “doesn’t matter,” whose path never crosses yours except in traffic, foot or otherwise. Western concepts of courtesy are largely nonexistent. Everyone is treated the same. People would see me coming and stand in the way, or move their motorbikes precisely across the path I was walking. They would stare — not at me, but through me — and turn away.
There wasn’t much in the way of sidewalks, at least in the sense I understood. Shops overflowed onto disintegrating concrete blocks, most of which had no true curbs to divide them from the busy streets. The smells of garbage sacks and decaying tropical fruit, so unpleasant to the Western nose but attractive after dark to cockroaches and rats, filled the air.
Literally millions of motorbikes, their horns endlessly beeping, move through these avenues, far outnumbering cars and trucks and buses. They have nowhere to park except on the sidewalks or in parlors and living rooms. That’s not an exaggeration. Business opportunities abound for parking attendants and security guards who can assure the safety of these vehicles for their owners.
Perhaps the biggest culture shock came in merely crossing a street. If you remember the pioneering 1980s video game “Frogger,” you’ll have some idea what it is like. Negotiating a crosswalk, even with a green walk light, is always an adventure. The key is to wait for an ever-so-minor break in traffic and begin walking slowly and steadily. As long as you don’t stop and start, as long as you maintain a steady pace in the direction you’re going, drivers are very good at gauging your stride. They won’t stop, they rarely even slow down, but they veer at all the proper angles.
Down in the ‘hood
Not every first-time visitor to Vietnam is going to have the same experience. Mine was heavily influenced by the location of my school in Go Vap, a hardscrabble, working-class district of Ho Chi Minh City, about 30 minutes’ drive north of the city’s tourist-friendly commercial center.
AVSE, the Australia-Vietnam School of English, was headquartered in a small storefront on busy Du’òng (Street) Quang Trung, between a juice bar and a bridal shop, a seafood restaurant and a karaoke bar. I was quartered in a residence about 10 minutes’ walk away from the school, a private room in a house shared with three other students. It was lonely but sufficient. The bed was hard, the community kitchen wasn’t much, but I had a desk, air-conditioning and my own bathroom.
Like three other AVSE-owned houses, my home was nestled on a side street away from traffic. Hem 51, the nearest through street, had a handful of coffee shops and open-air cafes. Just around the corner, my usual route to school was down another lane just wide enough for motorbikes to negotiate their ways past a row of shops.
Every morning, this alley was clustered with market stalls, or what is known here as a “wet market.” All manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood and poultry, were for sale beside children’s toys and casual clothing. The market was a great place to grab a banh mí, a baguette sandwich, as I walked past. In the evening, when only the tiny pharmacy remained open, I could hear residents of many homes practicing their karaoke singing through open doors. (More than once, I was invited to join them. And I did.) And when it rained and the streets flooded, as occasionally occurred in November, I replaced my shoes with flip-flops and strode through the warm water. Yes, it was truly a wet market.
Had I not already been a big fan of Southeast Asian cuisine, it might have been challenging to get used to a new diet. There wasn’t a lot of Western food in Go Vap, besides Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Circle K convenience store. Vietnamese pho’ (beef noodle soup) and bân xèo (a filled crêpe) were delicious.
Back to school
Peter Gouger, a short, stout man with a heavy Aussie accent, a thick wallet and a stunning Vietnamese wife, operated the school. In my month in Go Vap, I met him three times, including once at a meet-and-greet event at a pool hall before classes began. He left it to his staff, some of whom were well qualified, to keep the business running smoothly. Some of them succeeded. It was unfortunate that certain others didn’t themselves have a better grasp of English before they were hired.
The curriculum was constructed specifically to prepare us for English-teaching positions. The first week was mostly lectures on theory and methodology, lesson structure and planning, and class management. In the second week, we went into more detail on how to present vocabulary and grammar, how to keep the lessons fun, and how to monitor student progress in reading, writing, listening and speaking English.
By the third week, after a couple of simulated classroom presentations before our peers, we began actual classroom training with sometimes unruly and snot-nosed children. (One gets used to seeing fingers up noses here, even among adults.) This continued into the final week of classes. We also produced a series of lesson plans and an essay on motivation for evaluation by the Australian International College of Language, AVSE’s mother agency.
The AVSE teachers were very good, especially head teacher Andrew Alford, another Australian. The students in my November class included six Americans, but we were truly a multinational group: Canada, England and Australia were represented, as well as Romania, South Korea, China, Singapore and Vietnam. We ranged in age from just out of college to AARP-eligible. Several students had lived and worked for years in Asia or elsewhere on the globe.
Everyone was mutually supportive, although our two Koreans were sometimes on another planet when it came to understanding course content. Indeed, Harry, a sweet man of middle years who had been living for a couple of decades in Australia, kept the class amused with his malapropisms. My most frequent drinking buddy was Adam, a 39-year-old property investor from Perth, Australia. In the ensuing weeks and months, he has become my best friend in Ho Chi Minh City.
I’m not certain how many of our group finally completed the certificate. For those of us who succeeded, AVSE followed through as promised on job placements. I was recommended to one of the leading national language programs in Vietnam, APAX Leaders, and was hired almost immediately.
Next: Learning the city