6. Stacking the dominoes

John finds a job, negotiates money and visa crises, and makes new and old friends to help ease the transition to his new life.

It didn’t take long for me to get a job teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City. As AVSE had promised, the school made an email introduction for me with a company called APAX Leaders. By the first week of December, I had a job interview. “Frankly, we don’t get many people with a background like yours,” the recruiter said. I wasn’t surprised. By the second week of December, I was training the APAX way.

The company was established in Seoul, South Korea, in 2007, and expanded to Vietnam in 2015. Its emphasis on cooperative learning, creative and critical thinking — and on teaching children to say “please” and “thank you,” not part of a normal Vietnamese vocabulary — seemed to be a good fit. With more than 130 centers and 700 teachers across Vietnam and Cambodia, I hoped I would have an opportunity to work in different parts of the country, from the city to the Mekong Delta, the beaches and the hill country.

My first workplace: APAX Leaders’ Pham Dinh Ho center. (JGA photo)

I trained for a week at a center in the Binh Thanh district, near downtown, carving out a block of time for a mandated physical examination. I learned as much as I could about the teaching system, which includes pre-written lessons and video-recording with green-screen technology. For a non-tech-savvy bloke like myself, it was still challenging, but I persisted and passed. A high percentage of the staff were native English speakers from South Africa, a country (for that matter, a continent) to which I have not yet traveled.

I was placed at the Pham Dinh Ho center in District 6, just beyond Cho’lòn (District 5, Chinatown) and a few steps from its Binh Tay market. I was told that my starting date would be December 27, just after Christmas, and I would sign my contract (and begin to draw a paycheck) on that same morning. But there was a catch: I had to get a work visa.

This was confusing, because I had come into Vietnam on a one-year tourist visa. (In 2022 and 2023, following the Covid-19 pandemic, the length of a tourist visa was reduced to 30 days.) Now I had to surrender that in exchange for a three-month work visa, which would be extended once more to a full year resident’s visa after I started work. I couldn’t legally work on a tourist visa. I had to have the work visa.

Watching the money go

By now, I had discovered that the amount of money I set aside for my relocation was falling far short of what I needed. The bureaucratic hurdles and auxiliary costs, including the month between the end of my certification program and the start of my salaried teaching, left me no choice but to be exceedingly stingy in my spending. I saved money by getting well acquainted with Vietnamese street food. I urge anyone who wants to come to Vietnam and teach, young or old, to carry at least US$3,000 to get them by until the checks begin to flow.

Fortunately, Anna Nguyen, a marketing associate with the Red Doorz Hotels management group, was able to offer me a discount rate at her company’s properties. One was near my training site in Binh Thanh; the other, close to my new workplace, in District 6. I paid about US$14/night for no-frills rooms in simple but clean hotels. One of them even had a window with a balcony overlooking the street — a blessing that turned out to be a curse on nights when home karaoke machines were cranked up.

Sharing a reunion with old friend Alan Mulley (JGA photo)

During this time, I was reunited with one of my dearest friends from my distant past. When I was a young reporter in Sydney, Australia, Alan Mulley was a graphic designer for the same biweekly dining and entertainment publications. I had seen the Welsh bluesman only once or twice since then in Australia, but he hadn’t lost the twinkle in his eyes nor his wry wit.  He was stopping over in Vietnam for a couple of weeks on a flight between London and Sydney, visiting his friend Rick Reid. When Alan returned to Australia, Rick and I kept our friendship going — and I am now an official member of the unofficial Friday Lunch Club.

I also began to hang out with the Fabulous Baker Boys, close friends of my buddy Kurt Bennett (see “Making the Move”), who carried significant responsibility for launching me on this adventure. David Baker, a fiber-optics engineer from Mississippi, had been working in Saigon for more than 15 years. Terry Baker, his older brother, had joined David about a year before my arrival, retired from working as a wildcatter on Gulf Coast oil rigs. A few weeks later, they took me in as a housemate.

First, however, there was the little matter of getting my new work visa. In order to do so, I had to travel out of Vietnam and fly back in. Once I arrived at the airport, my passport could be stamped with my new, shorter visa.

Rather than simply jumping across the border of Cambodia, I chose to take my “visa run” to Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city I had long wanted to visit.

My new Temporary Residence Card and visa (JGA photo)

            Next: Chiang Mai


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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