Saturday, December 4, 2010

Miniature City Ho Chi Minh City (very cool video)

Great, creative, video. It's funny, as I've seen all these locations, but now they're miniaturized.  It's like watching a table-top model of Saigon suddenly come to life in brilliant detail. Watch for the motion to begin at 1:30.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hello again. And what about all this modernizing Vietnam, anyway?

Well, I've been really busy teaching 4th grade lately.  My energy level at the end of the day has been enough to just barely get me to the beer fridge and the tv remote at the end of the day, but I'm adjusting, and, out with a hurt knee, have found a little time to post.  (btw, It's a great job and I encourage anyone with a feeling for the vocation to give it a whirl.  There are about a dozen international schools in Saigon, and hundreds, if not thousands, world-wide.  The topic deserves a post all it's own.) 

That said, a reader mentioned to me in an e-mail that he is probably going to end up in Hanoi. That got me thinking about some of the differences between Saigon, Hanoi, and really the whole country.  Though I haven't been to Hanoi, I know there are many.  I'm hoping to visit up there next year, and perhaps go to Sapa, as well, but this is really worth exploring, as the differences (and similarities) really define this place.

For the sake of conversation, let's set up a sort of common point for further discussion we can use to talk about girls, music, architecture, politics -- really anything.

Forgive me while I indulge my penitent for analysis here. You can codify any other cultural subject/object along a 3 dimensional grid: a geographical y-axis -- running north to south -- a cultural y-axis -- running from the countryside to the city -- and a z-axis representing duration in these places.

The y-axis. Starting in Hanoi, moving, to Hue in the center, then down to Binh Dinh and Nha Trang, south to Saigon, and then all the way down to the Makong Delta, people begin in the north conservative and become more happy-go-lucky, with Makong people (let me say girls here) being pretty derned free-spirited.  The common understanding is that weather in the north is such that farmers had to prepare for the possibility of their crops getting wrecked by a bad year, and thus had to be more conservative with their behavior and resources just in case.  At the opposite extreme is the Mekong (referred to as the "west" here for some reason), where food grows everywhere year round resulting in a perpetual sun-baked party of sorts.

The x-axis.  The "countryside" can be mountains, coasts, and plains -- just about all of which involve rice.  The big cities being Hanoi (a thousand-year-old city), Hue, Da Nang, Saigon/HCMC, with Can Tho in the Mekong.  And a bunch of other big towns (Da Lat, for example) that are pretty much cities now.  The differences here are astounding.  Visit the countryside, for example, and you can still hear the voice of the State broadcasting interpretations of laws over a system of one-way wired speakers planted on poles all over the place.  People didn't have radios in these areas just a short while ago.  The level of naivete can be astounding and is still exploited here in the city where xe om (cab drivers) have been implicated in enslaving kids coming in to the city from the countryside via train. (This is a sad story: they do it for 500k dong -- about $25).

The z-axis.  Hanoi and Hue have been around a long time, but as you get farther south, the areas are newer and faster moving.  Saigon was just a little coastal village when the French got here, the Mekong wasn't even "settled" yet (though there were tribes and villages there).  Now, the migration is constant and cultural change revolves around tensions of staying put where the family has been, and moving on, invariably to a city, sometimes to one in the US, Australia, and franco/anglo points in between.  Just like everywhere on the planet, this sense of time is becoming increasingly compressed.  If you stay here even a few months, you'll see what I mean.

All this is really a way for me to make sense of things here, but I hope it helps you understand the constant change here that takes place amidst a very old backdrop of tradition.  My students' parents, for example, want their kids to really understand living internationally.  Class is English but many of my students study Chinese and French as well.  One student is moving to the US next year, one student is from the US and, though Viet Kieu, doesn't know a word of Vietnamese, another is moving to Belgium.  In a way, all of my Vietnamese kids are sort of Viet Kieu in mind if not actually. 

What I hope to do in coming posts is to place my experiences more along these complex axes. Nothing is standing still here.  The pagodas, for example, are poles planted into the earth that anchor people to their sense of being, but their hold is at once deep and tenuous, their architecture in stark contrast to the minimalist, modernist architecture abounding here.  I'll leave this post with an interesting discussion of architecture I found this morning entitled Saigon is a city of clean lines, by Helen Clark. I'm working with my wonderful fiance on a little virtual tour of traditional music as well.  Look for it, hopefully, in the near future.  Now, I need to prepare myself to return back to the classroom.

ps, I apologize for not responding to comments -- I wrote a bunch of responses and couldn't post them, for some reason.  A technological glitch I know not what's up with. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Comments are open to all

A reader sent me an e-mail recently and said he tried to post a comment but couldn't.  So, I've opened the comments to full blast, even anonymous, with moderation.  Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3 mantras for a new life in Vietnam

My goodness, this place is cruel and awesome. I am missing my beloved greatly, as she visits her countryside, but the people that we've befriended are taking care of us.  Hospitality is alive and well, my friends: there is death and disease here (agent orange, mines, poverty, corruption), but also communion of a high order that promises a good future.

I invite all my talented, passionate compadres to come here and prosper. 3 points:

1: Commit to being or becoming a good teacher. Process all of your decisions based on your staying here, learning the ropes, offering a valuable service, and hopefully eventually buying a house by the beach while taking 3 vacations per year to places your parents can't fathom in the depths of their souls. 

2. Don't let anything in your words, countenance, or dreams sway you from prospering. When the Vietnamese people understand that you have planted your flag, many of the negative discussions that expats engage in will fall to the floor, dry up, and blow away.

3. People here are seeking all the same stuff you are.  If you're with them, they will join and support you.  If not, you're a target.  Just like anywhere.

It's that simple.

Are you ready?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Teach Pronunciation and Listening in Vietnam

After 2 years of teaching pronunciation and listening (P & L), both in Texas and here in Vietnam, I'm headed back into international school teaching where the kids are basically immersed in English from a young age and this particular skill isn't as key as it is in ESL (though I'll certainly use it).  So, as sort of a professional reflective practice as I move on, I offer my insights into teaching pronunciation and listening with some special attention to Vietnamese learners.

First, it's a valuable skill.  Students may study grammar for a year or two in high school or university, and they may go out to the park to try and get some practice, but a good pronunciation course is pure gold to them.  What separates casual "conversation practice" buddies from skilled pronunciation and listening teachers is a series of concepts, techniques, and psychological habits.  If you learn this skill, you'll be known as a good teacher and will be able to earn your bread anywhere on the planet confident that you offer a truly effective service.  However, there are certain peculiarities to every first language (L1).  What I offer you here is a basic introduction into becoming a good pronunciation and listening teacher with particular focus on a Vietnamese audience.  Perhaps by reading this, you'll arrive better prepared.  If you're already here, you'll get ramped up to speed faster on the peculiarities of teaching this highly sought-after skill here.  Cha ching!

Second, it's not entertainment (though good instruction should be entertaining). I've heard enough people complaining that "all ESL teaching is is being a clown blah blah."  I want to take this moment to say emphatically that this is patently false.  If you catch yourself saying this, you need to dig deeper and take informed, authoritative control of your practice.  That said, some of the most valuable teaching classes I ever took were actually improvisation and acting classes.  If you can take an improv class before coming here, before doing your CELTA, before your next kegger, take the improv class.  The ability to be creative on your feet , to stimulate and orchestrate creativity around you, will make you a better teacher.  In fact, I'd hope that basic improv technique would become part of teaching curricula, be that at the university level or the certificate level.  Good improv techniques + good pedagogy = awesome. While I can't offer such training here, my point is that you can learn some basic concepts and techniques that your students will enjoy and benefit from.  And you won't feel like an idiot; you'll feel like, and be, a bona fide teacher.

Lip position for a proper schwa.
1. The psychological aspect is paramount.  There are many textbooks and programs out there to follow, but you cannot escape yourself.  You create an emotional climate in your class that can either create or destroy students' confidence.  Vietnamese people know how crucial pronunciation is to their success and they typically put a lot of pressure on themselves.  Conversely, they are very happy when they get it right.

2. Pacing.  Your students want more repetition than you may be comfortable with.  Go slow and steady.  You will think, in the back of your mind, that "this is easy."  Actually, English is an extremely difficult language and the rudimentary basics of its pronunciation are paramount.  Introduce them in very simple terms and build on them.  To you, you may feel like you're teaching kindergarten, but to them, you'll be doing rocket science.  Avoid complexity.  Seek profound simplicity.

3. You are not teaching English.  You are teaching people how to communicate using English as a medium.  This principal will guide you while you select and execute activities.  Pair practice is the most important element of the course.  Here is what I mean:

First, demonstrate the difference between b and p.  
  • Write 2 words on the board: 1. bot  2. pot.
  • Student a says one of the words and student b holds up either 1 or 2 fingers, depending on what he or she hears.
Now write 1. top and 2. tob on the board.  Demonstrate.  Repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. pop and 2. bob on the board.  Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. bop and 2. pob on the board. Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.

This example activity illustrates that pair work forces people to communicate sounds clearly and to listen intently.  Any good pronunciation and listening book will include a lot of these activities, so this is not about instructional design; it's about you, the teacher, understanding how important this pair work really is.  You'll see the excitement and frustration on their faces. Walk around and troubleshoot.  Avail yourself to the students rather than forcefully correct them.  Give them a lot of time and keep it simple.  This pair work is a core activity -- THE core activity -- in your classroom and forms the basis of both simple and complex lessons (and by complex I mean activities that combine the fruits of past simple activities).

4. Communicate that this course is a music course and math course.  Each activity builds on prior activities into ever-increasing skill building.  Recognize this and confirm it often.

5. This course is valuable.  They know, you know it, but you need to recognize this and confirm it often.

6. Tell them on the first days and remind that "You will not understand everything I say.  Do the activities and listen to how I talk." 

7.  It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Pronunciation is necessary but not sufficient.  English is a musical language.  It is an emotional language.  How you say things matters.  They know it, you know it, but they don't know how to do it.  It's a massive obstacle to good communication and relationship building.

Point to a student and ask him "What are you doing?!", as if you know what he's doing but that you are surprised that he is doing it.  Now ask "What are you doing" as if pleasantly curious.  In the first case, your students should be kind of shocked; in the second, feeling the warmth of the question.  "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."  By the 8th hour of instruction, your class should be able to finish this mantra when prompted by you as you say "It's not what you say...(pause for them to finish it)."

In fact, the course is literally a music course in many ways.   You'll understand this once you begin teaching it, but I want to drive home the point itself here.  Approach it like a music course, teach it like a music course, and it will bear fruit, imho.

8. The Vietnamese language is for all intents and purposes here, a mono-syllabic language.  Point this out in vivid detail. Take syllable work seriously. The word "banana" is rich in syllables, schwas, and stress.  I offer this word as the most important word in my course.  You can use it, too. 

9. Like syllables, the concept of stopped and continuing final consonants is foreign to your students.  I mean, even though they've watched movies and sing English karoke, they're not cognizant of producing these nor registering them in their minds while listening.  A level 1 student will say this sentence

"I like to read books because they make me smart"

like this

"I lie to ree boo(k) becaw day may me smar."

I put the k in () because they will use a stop sound which is a cross between a k and b.

Your job at the beginner level (maybe a year or two of study in high school or whatever, but no actual pronunciation and listening training, is to bring them to be able to say this sentence, and similarly complex sentences, clearly.  At an intermediate level, your job will be to have them stressing and intoning short, simple dialogues in a way that emphasizes meaning.  In fact, at the conclusion of the class, they, at both levels, should be prepared to be able to teach aspects of the class. 

At about 18 hours into the class, be it beginner or intermediate (if the intermediate group never took P & L before [you may be surprised at how much some people can learn on their own]) I like to introduce the following lesson and pair-work activity:

1. lie 2. lied 3. lies 4. lice 5. like 6. liked 7. likes 8. light 9. lights

This really drives home how important final sounds are in English.  Every word begins "lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie" (I say pointing to each word in rapid succession) but the end sound completely changes it's meaning.

Believe me when I say pronunciation and listening is highly valued here.
10. Though some people thing teaching pronunciation is a highly technical, difficult, and laborious task, I'm here to tell you that it is a simple, creative, and fun class to teach.  Your students will thank you dearly for this class and will always remember you for being their teacher.  Again, if you've emphasized the concepts and have a done a lot of good pair-work activities, they should be able to share this skill with their cousin, friend, or sibling relatively effectively, thus reinforcing they're learning even further.

Further reading and resources:

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding teaching English pronunciation and listening.  Some favor phonics, which is awesome; others a technical International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) approach, which is necessary only if you're training a class of linguists (which you are probably not).  This modified musical, communicative approach I introduced here works.  I've had the privilege of using it to teach engineers who MUST show gains in their work, unlike at some language schools where leveling up is sometimes a matter of time and money more than actual learning.  Using this method I've helped many people gain a verbal level in as little as 10 hours of instruction (though 20 + is better) and feel like, yes, they can actually be fluent in this crazy language and, more importantly, be able to communicate using it. You can do this too.


Here is a link to the theory and a good explanation of it.  I strongly encourage anyone teaching or planning to teach pronunciation and listening to read this booklet (free download from Cambridge).

Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid - Judy B. Gilbert Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid
by Judy B. Gilbert
Download PDF (2.1 MB)

And here are the textbooks and teacher guides and resources at amazon.   The American accent is highly prized here.  It is the most sought after accent.  These books are geared toward teaching it. You can get the student books here in Vietnam (though they're more expensive) but you can't get the teacher resources (though you can order them; it takes weeks for them to get here).  I suggest putting them in your personal arsenal now; you can travel the world with these and teach anywhere confidently.  Rock and roll, compadres.



Monday, October 11, 2010

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 3: the third eye

Continued from Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2

She points to her eye, I nod and say "yea."

Just the thought of what will happen next may make you squeamish.  And that's ok.  Squirming is part of the experience.

She drops some sort of peppermint eyedrop into my left eye.  I blink hard a couple of times and look around and think "ok, what happens next."  She taps me on the should and closes her eyes slightly dramatically.  I get the picture.  I close my eyes.

The next thing I know, she is gently tracing my lower eyelid -- I mean the moist part from which the eyelashes grow, just next to the eyeball -- with a metallic instrument.  I don't know what the instrument is, exactly.  My eyes are closed.  I can only feel an extremely intense tickle as she moves the tool back and forth across the fragile frame that houses my eyeballs. 

I don't know much about chakras, but the third eye is one of them.  What is so weird about this eye cleaning is that you observe your eyes being cleaned while your eyes are closed.  I don't think that this is actually some path to this chakra so much as it is a partial, obscure, spine tingling reflection of it.

I haven't found any info about this practice online.  Friends say that it sounds too weird or that it's useless.  Factually, I might agree.  But sitting in that chair and feeling like I was going to rocket out of it at any second makes me question the facts.  Back to past tense.

I honestly can't describe how thorough she was with the left eye.  I felt the instrument moving all around the upper and lower eyelids, even moving along the inner eyelid. It was sensational.  Thorough.  As fun as riding a roller coaster.

My right eye was another story.  What was really pleasant -- dare I say exciting or even blissful -- became a trial of sorts.  My right eye has always been a bit twitchy.  When I'm tired or whatever it will flutter a bit -- nothing even noticeable.  But there in the chair, peppermint drop administered and little metal thing gliding around -- the experience became more a battle with my reactive self to try and calm an automatic jerking around.  I mean, I didn't want her to have any accidents.  I struggle to keep it closed, even opening a couple of times to see her intent face looking at the task at hand and something moving around my eye.  Wild.

Would not be cool. 

More a testimony to her skills than to my controlling my autonomic reflexes, she didn't stop but instead continued through all the twitching, expertly clearing away the city's dust and the optigoop from my eye.

Finished.  A sigh. It's over.  My face, head, body, ears, and even my eyes reverberating, I stand, look at myself in the mirror (the word "fresh" came to mind). I collect my stuff, go next door and pick up my sparkly clean motorbike and head back to work.  How's that for a lunch break? Final cost -- about $5, including the bike wash.

Alot of people say that Vietnam is a great value.  I agree.  But I also think that the typical experience of it differs both in cost and quality than that which can be had by trying out some out of the way places.  There are plenty of salons and spas for men and women all over the city and especially around Ben Than market.  I'm not knocking those.  I am saying, though, that the smaller full-service men's barbers can be interesting, if not a bit enlightening.  Contra to local tradition, tip.  Your tips will be appreciated, remembered, and will pay off in better service, usually.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2

Continued from Part 1

My head soaked, fingers start moving around my head, soaping and scratching and massaging.  This is where I am especially thankful to sport a buzz.  Full contact.  The shampooing is thorough: for the next 15 minutes every millimeter of  my scalp and forehead is shampooed, rinsed, splashed,  rubbed, tickled, and kneaded into mush.  I remind myself, "this is legal."

My head sparkling and calm, perhaps like the head of Siddhartha under the bodi tree as he opened his eyes and his extended the hand of the Buddha, the jello is lifted from my face.  The fingers return bearing splashes of cool water to rinse my face.  But they do not stop once all the goo is removed; instead they continue tickling and splashing and kneading until any signs of age or emotional duress are melted away.  Here, this is considered a shampoo.  Back home, this would be considered a facial massage

She finishes the massage and wipes my face clean with an ice cold cloth. I am serene.  I am the jello king.

Then she waterboards my eyes.

She drapes the cloth over my eyes and runs cool water over it, actually waterboarding my eyes.  I believe that in this moment that I can, very, very vaguely, understand what waterboarding must be like.  It feels like being plunged into a stream of rushing mountain water.  But I don't gasp and sputter.  Big difference.  Instead my eyes do a perfect swan dive into clear waters.  I can just imagine someone looking at the guy on the table -- so still, so calm -- but inside I am doing laps in Barton Springs pool.

She pats my face dry.  A finger taps me on the cheek.  I open my eyes and let the light back in.  For a moment, I am sorry that it is over.  I come back to awareness that I am vulnerable to the vagueries of the contingent world. Some sort of contemporary-yet-traditional Vietnamese music is playing. Before my eyes could even focus, she says "massa?" and I nod and say "yea."  She gestures for me to sit up, I do, and she arranges a new towel where I will place my head, then I lay back down.  I close my eyes.  Then I hear the snap of electrical power followed by a bzzzzzzzz... 

Imagine a hand touching your forehead.  Now imagine that hand with 120 volts of jiggling energy pulsing through it and into your skull.  Now imagine that hand moving around, it's fingers moving tugging at the bridge of your nose.  Your head shutters awake as though it had been sleeping (yes, even after being waterboarded).  The hand moves over head, neck, shoulders, melting the butter of stress away.  It moves over ribs and stomach.  I am ticklish.  This is serious.  And, then, avoiding the crotch (sorry, guys, this isn't that kind of massage), it grabs and kneads the thighs.  I am about to jump off the table and bounce like Tigger down the street, but I stay.  I endure.

High 5!
Then, with a word I don't know and a gesture, I flip over.  The surge of power coursing through the fingers melts away the worries of my work, the deadlines, the pending job change -- that have accumulated in my shoulders.  I sit, cross-legged and serene on a vibrating lotus blossom.  Finally, the click of the stop of the bzzz signals that it is over.  It is over, I think.
Then she gestures for me to sit up.  Then she begins working my shoulders and neck with practiced hands.  She must have sensed some tension that only muscle can reach. "Good" I say to my self, to my newly acquired third eye perhaps. This is awesome.

Another 5 minutes, if time matters at this point.  

Alright, then. That was just fine. Work is the last thing on my mind. I'm about to say "bao nhiêu" (how much?) and she points at her ear and says something I don't know and I nod and say "yea."  She gestures for me to take a seat on a barber's chair that she reclines to nearly full horizontal position.  I do, and she fetches a spotlight and some instruments. This is a good example of how I felt for the next 15 minutes.

edit: I don't know what happened to the youtube video I put here.  It was a dog loving getting his ears cleaned.  Anyway, enjoy the video below.

Though, this is technically more accurate (and a lot cuter than either myself or the dog in the video above).

Now, you think that's about it.  What could I experience that is legal, time-honored, and even more intense than anything I have described here.  Well, in retrospect, so far I've spent about $4.00 and have pushed the envelop of what I can tolerate.  The next $1 I spend is going to pretty much put me over the edge.  Stay tuned.  Read part 3 -- the third eye.

Goosebumps at the Barber Part 1

Now, here's something Lonely Planet doesn't cover: the barber. I mean the full service men's barber shop. They're scattered everywhere around the city, but you typically don't notice them. Instead, expats sometimes and tourists always opt for the swanky mini day-spas around pham ngu lao. And that's cool. They're clean, speak enough English to get an accurate estimation of what kind of cut you want, and are typically populated with very cute girls who will guide you to spaliday nirvana. However, if you just want a buzz or want to cast your fate to the wind, go to the little out of the way shops. I did. Here is my story.

I went to a barber shop on Phan Xich Long yesterday. I won't disclose the exact location because, besides my buddy who introduced me to the place, I am the only expat who goes there, to my knowledge.  It's mine.  There are many like it, but this one is mine. Anyway, I left my motorbike at the motorbike wash next door, then went in to the barber shop and sat down on a stool by the front door and picked up a paper to stare at and try to identify some words. This is where the story shifts into present tense.

The place looks just like your average barber shop but with a few differences. One big difference being that there are two hair washing stations in the corner, but not like the ones with reclining seats like in beauty shops: these are tables -- half massage table and half shampooing station. We'll get back to those momentarily.

Anyway, a guy motions me over to an open chair. I sit down and wave my hand over my head and say "everything. bzzzzzzzt." He puts the standard barber cape around me, turns on a fan above, and fires up the buzzer. Since you can't jack the chair up and down, I scoot down in the chair to give him better access to my towering head.

He starts to buzz, just around the edges, but he's being too careful. I conclude that he is going to give me sort of a "fade" but I don't want a fade, I want a buzz, so I say "khong" and wave my hand over my head in a bigger, slightly more dramatic, circle and say "bzzzzzt" again and he gets the picture. He proceeds to mow, which is what I wanted. He finishes the Bruce Willis then he sprays a myst of water around my head and breaks out the straight razor for a thorough trim -- ears, neck, edge of the brow, everything. A quick sponge off and a few towel snaps later and I'm dusted off. Perfect. He's paying attention to detail. I like that.

He puts his hand over his own head and does a squeezing motion, like an octopus or something. I nod and say "yea" (which actually means "yea" in Vietnamese too, thank god). Onto the shampoo station.

An average-but-skilled-looking woman is sitting on a stool next to one of the shampoo tables. The barber says something to her and does the octopus gesture on his head.  She puts down her magazine and gestures for me to lie down. I do this. I have to do it just right to get my head over the sink correctly, but I fail. I'm about 5 inches too long. I sort of lay there for a moment awkwardly trying to reposition my feet against the wall and contemplate just drooping my legs down on the floor to basically straddle the whole table. But she intercedes and adjusts the shampoo station to accommodate the extra centimeters.  Towel wrapped around my neck and shoulders, comfortably positioned, and ready to go.

This is where the fun begins.

I am lying there briefly looking around and then feel a tap on the shoulder. It is my wash maiden, pointing at a package with a picture of an aloe plant on it. I nod and say "yea" and close my eyes. I hear the package crinkling as it's ripped open and put away. A moment later I feel a cool jelly-like substance being draped over my face. It does smell like aloe, actually. Cool. My grandmother used to put that on my burns, and it worked, so I figure it's good stuff. But then I hear another package being ripped open. The next thing I know, she is gooping my face with peppermint goo, smearing it around and distributing it evenly, avoiding eyes and orifices, expertly catching and re-directing any stray goo, waking up my skin cells.  I didn't know they were asleep.

Artist's rendering of my skin cells at this point.  Note: may not be to scale.

I am lying on a table, fully clothed, eyes closed, my face under a mask of aloe-peppermint jello. I am relaxed yet invigorated. I feel like I have discovered a secret that has been kept from me. I start to fade away into a peppermint aloe jello bliss.  Then I hear running water next to my head.

So far I've spent about $2 and change.  Read Goosebumps at the Barber Part 2 to see how I spent the next $1.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jeremy Jackson Top Gear vid about Vietnam

This is well worth a watch if you're interested in Vietnam and especially about how things were here between 1975 and about 1990 -- back when the Honda Dream ruled the road and the laws were even more like "suggestions" than they are now. 

A lot of the country's aspirations mentioned in this video have come true, for better or for worse.

State shipbuilder makes a Vespa knock off

So, evidently in response to the WTOs concerns about piracy, the state-run ship-building company partners with a Chinese company to make a Vespa knock-off and claims that Honda is making the motor -- a claim that Honda Vietnam denies.

I'll try and snap a pic of one of these if I come across it.  Evidently they're pretty much perfect duplicates of this popular bike here, visually speaking.  I can't say much for the motor, though.  Chinese motors don't get a whole lot of respect here, just a waggle of the handle and the words "no good."  Why the ship builder wouldn't go ahead and produce a home-grown Vietnamese motorbike is beyond me.

Warning: May contain a naughty word. Awesome, simple, little site.

Press the "more advice" button for more advice.  I'm curious what people think about this advice.

Good job, anonymous web guy, whoever you are. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We have a new forum

I'm trying to make this a good website for those who want to come here and for those who are already here.  There are many ways to get involved, like follow, subscribe to the RSS or post a comment.  But now we're ready to try out a living, breathing conversation.  You can see the SaigonAlive forum page up in the top menu and 3 sub-forums once you get in: getting here (documentation, visas, tickets and stuff), working here (schools and jobs), and living here (everything else.  I already have a good couple of restaurants I want to put up there).

It's good to have a community of like-minded people where you can say pretty much whatever you want (just be civil) and keep in touch as you get to and live in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  I invite you, brave compadre, to be among the first to join in. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

A letter from a reader coming to Vietnam from Korea

I got an email from a reader who spent time in Korea who's coming here soon from California.  With the author's permission, I'll post it and respond to it, as it poses some interesting questions.

Hello Mr. Campbell!

I finished reading your blog and now I'm just fishing for a little advice and reassurance to help give me that final push. 

I just finished my third year teaching English in Seoul and I'm ready to try something new.  I've had an eager eye on Vietnam ever since I vacationed there a few years ago.

I have a BS in Computer Science, 3 years teaching kindergarten and elementary students at a private institute, and a 120 hour TESOL from ITTT.  I'm planning on booking a one-way ticket for the end of October.  I'm currently in California.

I realize a lot depends on the type of person I am and the level of comfort I'm used to, but any general answers and advice would be greatly appreciated.

Here's a little more about myself that may help you more accurately answer my questions: 

I'm a 29-year-old reasonable looking and well mannered dude.  I'm not very outgoing, but no wallflower either.  I'm accustomed to living in small spaces after Korea, so I won't need a big place.  Outside of work I like exercising(martial arts, running), drinking good beers (I'm expecting Saigon to surpass Seoul in this department) and searching for my future wife (Korean women....don't get me started....amazing).  I don't have any bills to pay back home. 

As long as I follow the paperwork guidelines do you think I would have a fairly easy chance finding work once I hit the ground?
How much money would you suggest I need to get me comfortably set up and give me time to find a job?  I'm hoping $4000 will be enough?

Can I easily expect to find a full time job that pays around $2000 USD a month?

I have a 120 TESOL from ITTT but it was you think this will be a problem?  I'm hoping my teaching experience can counterbalance that.

What can I expect to pay for a decent apartment in city?

Hope you can help answer any or all of these questions.  Thank you for taking the time to read this.


First, let me say I really appreciate this.

There are actually a lot of interesting points to this, so let me take them point by point:

I just finished my third year teaching English in Seoul and I'm ready to try something new.  I've had an eager eye on Vietnam ever since I vacationed there a few years ago.

It sounds like you won't be entirely shocked when you get here :-)

I have a BS in Computer Science, 3 years teaching kindergarten and elementary students at a private institute, and a 120 hour TESOL from ITTT.  I'm planning on booking a one-way ticket for the end of October.  I'm currently in California.

Good.  You're in the States, so you can ensure you get your paperwork together.

I realize a lot depends on the type of person I am and the level of comfort I'm used to, but any general answers and advice would be greatly appreciated.

Here's a little more about myself that may help you more accurately answer my questions:

I'm a 29-year-old reasonable looking and well mannered dude.  I'm not very outgoing, but no wallflower either.  I'm accustomed to living in small spaces after Korea, so I won't need a big place.  Outside of work I like exercising(martial arts, running), drinking good beers (I'm expecting Saigon to surpass Seoul in this department) and searching for my future wife (Korean women....don't get me started....amazing).  I don't have any bills to pay back home. 

As long as I follow the paperwork guidelines do you think I would have a fairly easy chance finding work once I hit the ground?

How much money would you suggest I need to get me comfortably set up and give me time to find a job?  I'm hoping $4000 will be enough?

If you splurge like it's your last week on earth, you can blow through that easily in a week here (or anywhere on the planet for that matter).  But Seoul this is not.  That $4k will go a lot longer way here than in Seoul.  Your first month here may go something like this:

Get a hotel on Bui Vien for $400-450/month.
$8/day for food (eating well, that is, all over Bui Vien). ($240/month)
Xe Om / Taxi  $50
$300 miscellaneous (socks, beer)
cell phone, sim card, and charge ($50 +++)

Let's call it an even $1100.  Tack on another $500 to $1000 for who knows what (trip to Bangkok? tailors? girls?)  You can get a comfortable 2 months out of that and even 4 months if you figure out what you're doing quick enough (though I'd say something 2.5 months is most realistic). I came pretty much on a wing and a prayer ($1900) during TET, which is the lowest teaching season.   I don't recommend that anyone does that unless he or she is really confident about options. You're coming in much more comfortably than I did.   

Can I easily expect to find a full time job that pays around $2000 USD a month?

Maybe.  See below.

I have a 120 TESOL from ITTT but it was you think this will be a problem?  I'm hoping my teaching experience can counterbalance that.

You can start work immediately. You'll make about $15-$16/hr part-time at first, so you can do the math.  If you get a real "full time" job (meaning time for lesson planning, etc and, say, 24 hours/wk teaching), you'll get your $2000.  If you don't get that job, then you can do two part time jobs.  You'll be making $20 + hour soon enough if you know what you're doing, or you'll get that full-time job.  And even more later.  Some people are pulling in $3-4K here.

Your teaching experience will get your foot in the door.  Your wages, hours, and possibilities will go up quickly if you're good.  Just realize that your first few months are going to be spent learning the streets, so to speak.  I'm just brain-storming here, but especially with your CS degree, you might also want to pass your resume around the new technology park here.  I'm working at a software company and can recommend it as a good possibility; they want results, not just entertainment.  I like that.

Speaking directly to your online Tesol: an online cert. doesn't hold water here as far as schools are concerned.  But in your case you don't need it to get even a job.  You might run into some confusion, though regarding your work permit.  If I were you I'd be very assertive about hooking up with a school that has a track record for getting people work permits (i.e. Cleverlearn) and who may understand that the government of Vietnam doesn't require a CELTA and may not even bat an eyelash at your Tesol.  Put it through the Chain of Authentication just in case.

You will get a job immediately.  October is a good time to come here.  It'll still be raining some, but school is in session.

What can I expect to pay for a decent apartment in city?

Apartments run from $180 to $7000/month.  You'll get a decent apartment once you've gotten a lay of the land, for around $400 or $500 for sure.  And that's for something fairly roomy and comfortable.  I've known people in Korea that lived in these little, tiny places -- I really can't even call them a "room" much less an apartment.  Again, this isn't Seoul.

Here's what I mean: on craigslist you'll find tons of swanky-ish $1000 apartments, but you can also find a whole, furnished, rather nice-looking Vietnamese-style HOUSE for under $500. I'm going to post a dedicated page to this site for what I think are some of the better deals for rooms, apartments, and houses.  Just do yourself a favor and don't a least one one of the $700 apartments.  There are some really good deals out there. 

It depends on what you want and where you want to be.  You'll definitely want to limit your commute eventually.  And never, never, never get a place on a river here.  The smell sometimes will knock you out.

Hope you can help answer any or all of these questions.  Thank you for taking the time to read this.

You're very welcome.  I hope my responses were helpful.  I'm looking forward to hearing from you -- how your experience here compares to that in Korea, any good deals you come across, and all the stuff that matters (food, motorbikes, and girls).  :-)

Friday, September 10, 2010

How to Thrive in Saigon Ho Chi Minh City

How to thrive here.

You noticed that things are getting less step-by-step.  Now we're totally into the realm of "milestones" rather than steps. Thriving here is your own deal.  I'll share some thoughts on this and will maintain the "steps" for reference.

Step 15. Get a really good girlfriend, perhaps a future wife.  This will happen only if a. you're ready, b. your heart is in the right place, and c. you're not scared to do so --  just like everywhere else.

Optional: you're one of the few lucky souls who can actually use this language with strangers at some practical depth.  You may proceed without a good girlfriend.

Step 15a. Extend your visa the cheap way.  Your girlfriend will do this for $10.  You will kick yourself for having spent all that money before, but, eh, that's life here.

Step 16.  Get a better job/room and get the WP, if you haven't yet.  By now you should be making some connections.  You may, however, be considering shelling out $700 for a swanky apartment.  You can do that or contact me directly for apartments and houses at non-expat prices.

Barometer check: If you haven't been hanging out with embittered people, you should feel like you're thriving at this point. Thriving meaning, you have tons of money and are having a lot of fun.  If you don't feel happy at 10 months, regardless leave.  Do not become embittered, as this will follow you around for a long while.

You may be getting fat from beer and good food at this point.  Consider joining a gym.  Or just get fat -- it's a sign of wealth here and chicks dig it.

Optional steps:

Step 16. Get engaged. Buy a second motorbike*.  And a decent ring**.  You will now be thankful you can utter some Vietnamese words intelligibly, because you'll be uttering some very specialized words to your girlfriend's family at this point.

*That second motorbike should  probably be an Attilla (for medium/large girls  (and by Western standards, tis means small) or a Honda Click or Yamaha Mio Classico for more petite girls.

Get something classy for her and something she can wear a skirt while riding.  If you don't feel obliged to, go back to step 15. This is a Yamaha Mio Classico.  23.5 million VND plus 2 million for paperwork.  We chose the Mio over the Honda Click, which is superior to the Mio in every practical way, because the Mio is just freagin' swanky.  Consult your girlfriend and don't believe her when she says "anything you want, honey."

** Cruise around the area behind Ben Than market and knock yourself out.  Don't bargain with them as they're largely going by published weights and prices.  Go to Thailand if you want the extremely awesome deals on jewelry work.

Step 17. Rent a bigger apartment or a house.  Toy around with the idea of teaching in your house.  You may, however, be shelling out $700 + for a house.  You can do that or contact me directly for apartments and houses at non-expat prices.

Optional: get a dog. Yes, people eat dogs here and yes it's not easy to have a dog here, but  a lot of people do.  This topic is rich in opinion and great, if not touchy, conversation fodder here.

Your best friend.

Optional: save about $5,000 for a wedding party in HCMC; otherwise, $3,000 for one in your girlfriend's countryside.  If you find that you are not exercising this option, you may want to reconsider Step 15.  Otherwise, you've worked out something good, I hope.  (I have one buddy, for instance, who skipped all the Vietnam hub-bub and just took his girl back home to Australia and did everything there. If you're from the US you don't have this option: the odds of getting a tourist visa for your girlfriend/fiance or really, really low.)

Step 18. Get married.  Save for a trip back home, though that won't happen easily.  Good luck getting your wife a tourist visa if home is the US.  At this point you may be saying "screw it, we'll just move back."  That's fine, but know that if you declare any intention to go back to the US on a fiance/spouse visa, that your interviewers are legally obligated to say no to any application for a tourist visa.  Anyway, at this point, you will now spend less money and work more for Steps 19 and 20.  More about getting married here later: I'm in the middle of the whirlwind of it all now and can only say yippee ki yay.

Step 19. Have a baby or two.  This is inevitable if you marry a woman that's not a Starbuck's intellectual (see the opening to "Idiocracy" for reference).  But here ye shall have babies. 

Step 20.  Buy a house or rent and cruise around this crazy planet.*  You'll need about a billion VND or so for a starter house in saigon / ho chi minh city.  Maybe you have a good $50 or $100 grand in the bank or you've actually saved that much teaching and doing whatever other business here.  If you want to settle here, you can do so.  If you want it in your name, you'll need to get an apartment for about $700 million or swing some deals. 

*Optional:  Go somewhere else. Or go back to the US and get a job. Just remember, though, that Vietnam, and Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City offers some of the best bang for the buck on the planet.

How to Get Started Living and Working in Saigion Ho Chi Minh City

Well, you're here.  If you haven't yet, check out my video of my arrival in saigon / ho chi minh city.   You'll be able to figure out where I took those shots, as you're probably on Bui Vien still acclimating.  But it's probably time to get a job.

Good times.

How to live here.

Step 8. Get a job.  Okay, maybe one more week of freaking out.  But, seriously, you can get a job now.

 Go out and do some politkin' and MAKE SOME MONEY.

These may recruit you before you even get here and pay $13-$18/hr.
  • ILA -- CELTA.  You probably know about this one already.  Lots of rich kids.
  • Apollo -- offers a CELTA. Affilated with Universities; offers advanced training (DELTA) to teachers.
  • RMIT -- Australian University.  Only place I know that hires academic professors, in addition to regular ESL teachers. Some people knock RMIT, but I've hired RMIT graduates (both BA and MBA) and I'll say they're among the sharpest (perhaps because their families travel a lot, perhaps because of the training; I don't know).
  • VUS -- everywhere: Vietnamese manged, in consultation with the City University of New York.  They like American teachers; Vietnamese people here really, really like this school.
  • Cleverlearn -- everywhere: franchised, so experiences may vary.
    Special note to VK's:  you can find work here.  There may be a bias towards "western-looking" people with lighter skin, but you can not only find work here, you can thrive if you're a good teacher.  You may need to get more experience and become better known as a good teacher before you are accepted by Vietnamese people as a good English teacher.  After talking with some VKs, I've learned that some schools will more readily offer this experience than others. IES (International English School) will hire VKs.

    101 Nguyen Van Cu
    Dist.5 Ho Chi Minh City VIETNAM
    Phone: 3923-4390

    I've learned that (and this is great advice for anyone from anywhere (i.e., the Philippines), for that matter) if kids really like you and favor you, that their parents will do whatever they can so that you can teach their kids, regardless of where you are from.

    There are hundreds of other schools here.  Hundreds.  Check out  (That site should be a lot more popular than it is.  It may be getting out-dated by now but it's rich in info.)

    After a while, people will start asking you to teach.  They may be Vietnamese dudes trying to run a school or actual students who think you stand out from the crowd of bozos and want you to teach them.  That happens almost spontaneously.  You're on your own.

    If you want to purposefully get students you can, like some wise/charismatic men I've known here, hang out a shingle in Phu Mi Hung/Q7 and teach Korean rich-dudes' wives for $35/hr over tea.  In this latter case, it doesn't hurt to be confident, wise, and a bit flirtatious. 

    If you have a BEd or especially if you are State Certified to teach back home, check out the international schools.  Live long and prosper.  I was a school teacher back home and may very well be again, so I'll say this: coming here with your teaching credentials confirms that whatever insanity led you to be a teacher has payed off, compadre.

    Other avenues: get a corporate job.  That's what I did.  Though I don't get the Int'l School treatment, I get to practice my profession and hopefully better this world a bit before I go, which is what I'm here to do (in addition to living better than probably Alexander the Great himself did).  My students are all incredibly intelligent and attentive: their very future depends on my classes.  Classroom management = trying to get people to STOP taking notes and practicing so you can move on.  Occasionally they need to turn off cell phones because they're using their dictionaries or are texting their manager. 

    Step 9. Rent a motorbike.
    Old ladies and girls ride motorbikes here. Don't be a *****.   I'm working on "how to ride your motorbike in ho chi minh city" but I haven't solved some camera issues.  For now, I'll say that the basics are thus:
    • Ride a xe om for a little while.  Get used to the traffic even though you look like a dufus (though that's okay).  
    • Then rent/borrow a motorbike and go out and make a bunch of right turns in 3rd gear until you're ready to make a left turn.  Then make the left turn. 
    • Catch your Zen.  In the time it takes you to say to yourself  "what the HELL does he think he DOING?!" you'll crash.  Catch your Zen, compadres.  If you play First-Person Shooters, you'll know what I'm talking about.
    Xe Om (literally "vehicle hug").  Always ready to charge you 40K ($2) to take you to his cousin's shop so you can buy your first cell phone in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City for a special price.

    Costs to rent a motorbike:

    Most people would lead you to believe that $50/mo for a (cheap and dependable) newer Wave is a good deal.  Ha!  I can refer you to some good, honest, people for 800,000 VND/ ($41 and change) per month.  You can go up from there -- automatic or whatever, but the price goes up steeply from the Wave just because everything besides a Wave is a lot more expensive.

    Not a Wave, but it might as well be here.

    Optional: Try to learn Vietnamese. I said try. You'll occasionally -- rarely, actually -- meet a foreigner who can actually have a conversation in Vietnamese with someone other than his forgiving and adjusted-to-his-complete-lack-of-tonality girlfriend. God bless these people. Vietnamese will appreciate your just trying. They will laugh at and with you in a good way. Chicks dig it.

    I'm linking to Sing 'n Learn, on your left, for a reason: the tones are paramount.  I can recommend books and software -- all of which are available once you get here -- but I wish I would have just learned a few children's melodies before I got here.  In fact, even after trying to learn the language for months now, I'd still like to do so. If anyone gets this book, please ping me once you get here: I'd like to get my hands and ears on it.  Again, the tones are everything.

    My favorite method for teaching English pronunciation, speaking, and listening, is focusing on the "music" of English.  Funny thing about teaching English here is that you get reacquainted with the language from a different perspective.  English is very much a tonal, melodic, language.  More on teaching English in other posts, but suffice it to say that learning the music of a language is by far the single-most important aspect of being able to use it to communicate.  Especially so with Vietnamese.

    Step 10. Get a serviced room near your job. $300 - $400 /month. I recommend Jon. He's a pretty cool guy; lived a long time in the States and may have a lot of choices for you in this range.  Or contact me directly for apartments and houses at decent prices.

    Step 10a. Get a better job. Get another serviced room near your better job. Or contact me directly for apartments and houses at non-expat prices.

    Step 11. Extend your visa the expensive way.  You may be a bit desperate to get this done, as your Visa is about to expire, so expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $150, depending on the connections you've made up.

    Step 11xyz (I can't make an infinity sign, so xyz). Get a work permit.  I've been here awhile and am still getting this done.  I did applied for my LOCAL police check (yes, here in HCMC today) and my docs are en route via FedEx from D.C. to San Francisco on there way back to HCMC are here!.  Believe me when I say follow step 3 exactly.  It is much, much easier.

    Step 12. Stop renting and now buy a motorbike.  Get a second-hand motorbike, as you can sort-of "buy" these.  Probably do not try to get a new motorbike until you have completed Step 15.  Motorbikes are a whole other wonderful issue.  You can get a Wave (which I love), a fancy Yamaha, or an old-timey Vespa.  Or a stylin' old cub.  Or a freagin' 18,000,000 cc VMAX if you have the cash.

    Step 13. Get a girlfriend.  This is extremely easy.  Too easy, actually.  I have interviewed good girls here and they say this.  There are gold-diggers and there are truly loving women.  Just like everywhere.  You'll have to adjust.  I can't say anything that will actually have an affect on your brain here.  I daren't give advice, as opinions and drunken anecdotal diatribes are a dime a dozen here, but I'll go ahead and say that I hope you find a college/university girl here from the countryside.  Best of all worlds.

    Step 14. Get a motorbike license.  If you didn't bring a motorcycle endorsement from the US, you can either a. get creative with the license translation process or b. shell out about $100*.  Or not.

    If you did get your motorcycle endorsement or if you are clever enough during the translation process, here are the steps to getting your motorbike license in saigon / ho chi minh city:
    • Get your US DL officially translated -- : 150k VND at Hanoi Translation on Pasteur or wherever else.
    • Get you signature and photo validated at the American consulate. $30, cash or US debit/credit card only.  
    • Then go to the DL bureau and finish: 30k VND dong. You'll also need  two 4x3cm photos.  Bring your passport, duh. 252 Ly Chinh Thang.  They'll see you wandering in there like a lost puppy and will most likely guide you through.  Just be nice.  If you're in a bad/confused mood, fake it.  (This is a good skill here in general, btw).
    • If you were smart, you got a 3-month Visa before.  If not, get one now.  You'll need a 3-month visa to get your motorbike license. 
    • Details:
    *Or pay $100 to the right person.  In this case you'll most likely need to take the driving test, though your written test will be personally graded by said agent's cousin.

    Gear up and go on adventure (to Da Lat in this case) with your loved one on your Wave and motorbike license.  Don't worry: this machine can handle it, though your ass (and ability to negotiate all this with your girlfriend) may be challenged.
    Next steps (if you can call them that): thrive in Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    7 Steps to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam (for those who want live here for awhile)

    Do you want to live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam? This is a fun city to live in -- if you really like motorbikes...

    ... a lot. (4 million and counting).

    It's easy to live here if you have some teaching credentials and are a native English speaker.  If you meet these criteria and are from the US, read on.  If you're from another English-speaking country, read on, too; just don't try to follow steps 1-7 exactly like this!

    I'm going to talk about how to get here and how to thrive here.  How am I qualified to do so?  Because I got here and am thriving.  You'll find more-experienced people who are here or who have been here, and you'll come across A LOT of opinions and advice.  This is mine.  By my nature, and after having been in graduate school for a very long time,  I try to put facts over opinion -- or at least qualify what I'm saying as best I can.

    Getting to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

    Step 1. Education. Finish your degree. You will need credentials to get your Work Permit (WP).  Any BA or BS will do.

    If you don't have a CELTA or TEFL and/or teaching experience, you can come here and find work, but it may be difficult to situate yourself easily for a Work Permit (WP).  If you have an English degree (the kind where you read and write about English Literature for a couple of years) or Communications, you may be able to pull this off, but bring authenticated transcripts to prove it's an English or Communications degree. A BEd is guaranteed gold.  An MA is okay; good if it's in Ed or Comm.  I have an English Degree, an MA in Communications and an Advanced Certificate in Education; no CELTA.  I do respect the CELTA program, though.  Good entry-level prep/weeding out tool.

    You may want to do a CELTA before coming here, though you can do one here.  More on that in the next series.

    You can come here with a degree in Shop and nothing else. You can always get a WP.  It may cost you a good $1,000 or more, but it's possible.  You may also come here and teach with no degree --it's a tougher route and you won't get a WP.

    Step 2. Get some experience teaching/traveling. This is not a "beginner-friendly" gig. Although some completely green newbies come here, it's better if you have some traveling experience. And by travel experience I don't mean that three-week graduation trip to Europe -- I mean at least teach in Mexico or whatever for a year. In any case, just understand the basics of living in crazy, developing-world, conditions. Btw, for guys, Southeast Asia beats Mexico. Just saying.

    Not Europe

    Optional: Get your motorcycle license. It's easier and cheaper to get a motorbike license here if you have a motorcycle license from the States. You may or may not ever need the motorbike license here: I haven't needed to produce mine for a cop yet, but I got one and feel better when I pass by the police because I did.  I'll cover how to do so in the next series.

    Step 3.  This step gets it's own page. Get your documents in order and stamped through the US Chain of Authentication. 

    Step 4. (may be done parallel to the above). Get your Vietnam visa from the Vietnam Embassy. or from the Consulate in SF. Do not get a 1-month. Get a 3-month. It's easier and cheaper to extend a 3-month here than to change out a 1-month.  The eventual costs outweigh the initial costs.  Call them for the latest prices.  Go ahead and call them -- they don't bite and they do speak English.  It's sometimes difficult to get through, though.  Yes, you can use a visa agency -- there are many online -- but you can get your visa from either place above for much cheaper.

    Step 5. Get a one-way ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. If you're thinking "I should get an open-ended round trip, just in case" then do not come here: go back to step 2.  If you're a chicken (like I was) or are just concerned, get some travel insurance. After doing a bunch of research, I recommend Travel Guard. I'd say just get a month's worth so your flight over and first month are covered.

    Because you never know.

    Step 6. Go to Bui Vien/ Pham Ngu Lao. (Pronounce Ngu like this: say "sing" but don't include the "si" and add an u, as in "blue.") You will pay $10 to take a taxi from the airport. Take Mai Linn Taxi or VinaSun Taxi (the rest may rip you off) and agree up front: $10. Tell them no otherwise. Do not close the door until they agree.  These two companies have good reputations, but you never know about the driver: maybe he just lost a world-cup bet and is a little short on cash. 

    Step 7. Get a $15/night hotel. I recommend Hoai Pho. As many before and after me have, I stayed there for months until I got my bearings enough to do step 10.

    Practice your Kung-Fu in your Saigon Hotel

    Before I even came here, I used Hostelsworld and found a great place (Luan Vu) for my first 10 days, though.  You pay a booking fee, but if you want to know where you're staying and want a reviewed place, it's a great resource.  I put a widget on my page (to your right) for this.  Just type in Ho Chi Minh City and start researching. 

    Congratulations, you're here*. If you've followed all the previous steps, you will not need to get a job before coming.  I'll cover that and more in the next series of steps: How to Live in Ho Chi Minh City.

    Optional: upon arrival, freak out for 2 weeks. You may at this point drink yourself silly and fall for the bar girls/ho's. Try not to get robbed by a ho. Do not fight anyone. Do not go off on a motorbike in a riotous blaze of glory during this period: if you crash, it's your fault and you will pay.

    Knock yourself out at Go2.  Go ahead, get out of your system.
    Stay tuned for how to live here once you get here.

    Step 3: Documentation before you leave (for your Vietnamese Work Permit)

    Step 3.

    The Chain of Authentication

    Your documents should bear this woman's signature (and visit the Vietnamese Consulate/Embassy) before you leave.

    When you've decided to pull the trigger and come here, give yourself a good 2-3 months to get your paperwork together. Please do not skip this step or any of the sub-steps here. This is key to eventually thriving here with as few hassles as possible.
    1.  Get your degree notarized. You may get an official copy notarized. I'm not talking about xeroxing it. Ask your school to make an official copy.
    2. Do your police check and get it notarized there.  Go to your State Department of Public Safety or equivalent.  Not FBI, not local police, not Deputy Dog.  Your State Department of Public Safety or equivalent. 
    3. If you have a CELTA or similar, get it notarized.
    4. Authenticate (not apostille) all these at your state's Department of State.  Here is a list of all US States' Departments of States and Offices of Vital Statistics. They will authenticate the local  notarization you already got. Tell them it's for Vietnam and they will do the correct thing. Vietnam is not a Hague country and therefore the apostille thing is no good here (sorry Japan/Korea teachers; you'll need to get this done). Your University may be able to do this for your diploma. Note: your University may be able to do this (notarize and authenticate) for your diploma.  Mine did.  It saved me mailing and time to Illinois and back.
    5. Once all this is authenticated at the State level, send it all to Washington D.C. and the US Department of State Authentication Unit. They will authenticate the State's authentication of the notarization.$8/document.  Good news!  This is no longer necessary.  Paperwork goes straight from the State level to the Vietnam Embassy or Consulate (See step 6).
    6. When you get that back, send all of it for authentication and translation to either the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington D.C. or the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco. $50/per document plus optional $20 to expedite it (though the $20 isn't necessary if you can wait a few days).  I'm now seeing if you can do this in Houston as well.  
    7. Put all this in an envelop and guard it with your life. Remember to take it with you when you come here.
    Review: this is the correct terminology and procedure for the Chain of Authentication:
    1. Notarized at the local level. 
    2. Authenticated at the State level. 
    3. Authenticated at the National level. 
    4. Legalized at the Embassy/Consulate. 
    Do all of it and do it in that order, no matter what you hear, read, or imagine.  If you don't send your stuff to the Vietnamese Consulate/Embassy, for example, after you get them back from the US State Department, you'll have to FedEx them once you get here, spending more money and risking losing them in the process.  

    Addition: (12/7/10): a reader (in the comments below;  asks:

    Now what should you do if you've just graduated from university and your diploma won't be mailed to you until after you've already arrived in Vietnam? Could you essentially just have the official diploma mailed to you in Vietnam and get it notorized in the consulate? 

    You'll either have to a. use an agent for about $1000 or b. use DHL (or traveling friends) to do all the steps in the States.  I assume you're from the US. The agent, a, will essentially use your money to do b.  There is no more "consularization" of diplomas because a lot of bogus diplomas were getting through.  I know this because I had to do it. I tried all the tricks, after having talked to a lot of people, but the way things are (and shall remain, I strongly believe) you have to follow the chain of authentication, be it from home or abroad. Luckily, the management of the company I worked for made frequent trips to the US and I was able to save the DHL fees. 

    Treat the steps as unalterable law.

    Bookmark this post.  Love it long time -- until you get it all done.  

    Now, on to the 7 steps and  Get your Vietnam Visa.

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    The top 8 reasons Vietnam beats Mexico (for guys). # 1 -- Food

    Top 8 reasons Vietnam beats Mexico (for guys): | Food | Women | Beer | Work | Money | Location | Freedom | Safety |

    Okay, I've lived in both Mexico and Vietnam now.  I'm pretty much as qualified as anyone to take a stab at this comparison.  This piece is written for guys that have spent time (most likely teaching) in Mexico and are considering coming to Southeast Asia and in particular Vietnam.
    If you're not in this category, you may still want to read this, anyway, because, hey, you're already reading this, and you never know.  Seriously, you never know.

    First, let me say that although I wanted to come to Asia awhile before I actually came here, I had some confirming conversations with men who spent time in both parts of the world, and one in particular with a guy who had traveled extensively for many moons.  I asked him this very question: Mexico or Vietnam?  And he, in his decades of manly wisdom, just nodded, winked, and said "Vietnam."

    Invariably, these guys will agree that Southeast Asia beats Mexico if you're a guy.  So, if you don't believe me, that's cool: I'm just saying I think it's pretty easy to confirm what I'm about to say.

    Why Mexico vs Vietnam?  Well, because these two places are stuck in the American historical psyche. In short, the northern part of Mexico is kind of American and the southern part of Vietnam is kind of American. I taught ESL in Austin, Texas, for awhile and 1/2 my students were Mexican and 1/2 were Vietnamese.  It's not just a "psyche" thing: it's about geographical/historical proximity.

    Reason #1 -- The Food.


    Anthony Bourdaine had it right.  If you're a foody and/or you're the kind of person who wants to try new food, you may agree that the food here (I'm in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City)  is some of the best in the world.  And cheap. And pretty clean and healthy. People love fresh food here.  They pretty much worship it. I have gotten sick once here so far in seven months and counting (and only "kind of" sick at that) and I've eaten just about everything from just about every kind of vendor there is here.

    You may be freaked out by what you find yourself trying to eat here (e.g. snails and duck embryos, for starters), but I just don't see much in the way of food poisoning or even the runs here (unless you go to KFC).  Hint: the choices are endless -- consult your Lonely Planet or whatever, but in the final analysis, eat where the Vietnamese folks congregate.  If you like only Western food, you can do okay here, no problem.

    I feel ya, my man.  I feel ya.

    I don't know about Hanoi [edit: here is some Hanoi food porn] but you simply cannot get good Mexican (and by Mexican I mean Tex-Mex) food here in HCMC, which is the more cosmopolitan of the big cities.  You CAN get decent  jalapenos grown in Da Lat, but you CAN'T get good Tex-Mex at a restaurant here, no matter how much you pay. Wayne's BBQ is the closest I've seen, but his vision and the execution of it are often lost in translation between him and his staff. He would agree.

    But, what am I saying?: you can't get Tex-Mex in Mexico either. You can get a damn fine "big plate of meat" in Mexico.  And you can certainly get some decent seafood on the coasts.  But, for the sake of comparison, let's go with your basic cheap pre/post-hangover food: Taco vs Ban Mi.

    The taco first:

    But subtlety and surprise is a precious commodity in this world; where Mexico can deliver big, satisfying farts, Vietnam offers thousands of years of colonization and interpolations of tastes.  What the US is for music in terms of Jazz, Vietnam is for food in terms of food being Jazz.

    Behold... the Ban Mi:

    So, yea, the food here, if this simple comparison holds any water, wins over Mexico, which has some undeniably good food, and probably over the world.  It's so good, you'll often freak out.  You'll get spoiled very quickly and will become difficult to please no matter what. And then you'll be surprised again and go "oh my god, this is the most delicious thing I've ever had." Again and again.

    I think that, all-in-all, no matter how much you like Mexican food, you will eventually understand that Vietnamese food beats Mexican food.

    Now, the girls.

    Top 8 reasons Vietnam beats Mexico (for guys): | Food | Women | Beer | Work | Money | Location | Freedom | Safety |