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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hungry in Hanoi - We Can Afford to Eat Out Every Single Day!

Larva... For reals!

Fried Street Food... I stay away from this lady because her food is awesome!
Dumplings, shrimp cakes... all deep fried and dangerous! Cost: 31 cents each

Plates are heaped with fresh veggies and small cuts of tasty meats.
Our orders at this sit-down restaurant costs less than $2 each.
My two sisters and I had a fortunate upbringing. Money was so tight it squeaked when our single-mom spent it, but she had great ideas for shaking up an otherwise mundane, lower-middle-class existence. One of our favorite memories is when Mom took us to the little Vietnamese restaurant in Casa View near our house in Dallas. The owners didn't speak much English, but their smiles warmed our hearts. They humbly offered us delicious meals we'd never tasted at prices Mom could afford. I still don't remember the names of the dishes, but I remember the flavors and the colors.We had our first Vietnamese coffee over ice... and I can still taste it to this day.

Our visit to Hanoi has magnified those memories.

We're not seriously radical when it comes to trying new things if they wiggle, squiggle or burst with body fluids when you sink your teeth into them. We passed at the snake hearts... still beating. But, food is fresh here... fresher than I can describe with words.

The fish in the silver bowl are still wriggling... and the frogs
are banded together so they can't escape.

Pho, a Vietnamese tasty beef soup served with fresh basil or peppermint leaves.
Cost is less than $2 in a sit-down restaurant with A/C. Beer costs $1.

Live chickens - but not for long.
The crab is costly - we passed it up when we were quoted $15 for one.
Food costs to eat out are very affordable. In fact, we eat out every meal because we don't have a kitchen. The amount of food and the combination of flavors are downright holy. The choices are plentiful, too.

My favorite is Bun Bo Nam Bo. Rice noodles and beef in a thin vinegar sauce with
fresh green veggies, herbs, roasted peanuts and fried onions. $2 and I'm full.

Vietnamese burrito...meat, noodles and fresh veg are wrapped tightly in thin, dry rice papers. Dip the mini burrito in a homemade  peanut satay-type sauce loaded with sesame seeds.
O-M-G!!! Yep... $2 and my tummy is full and taste buds are dancing.

Clay pot of tender-as-my-heart pork in a savory broth. Served over rice it's very filling.
Fermented root veggies add color and sharp flavor to offset the meat.
This is Carolyne's favorite... $2.

Ordering drinks in restaurants is where the bill starts to add up. Beers run $1-$2, as do cokes and bottled waters. With three of us eating meals out at least twice a day (and running to the mini marts for drinks, snacks, etc...) it does add up. We've started making coffee in the hotel room to cut down on spending.

Not hard to find delicious duck in Hanoi.

Eel... we tried it. We lived to tell our tale. It's not our favorite.

Eating on the street is favorable, too. Tiny stools crowd the sidewalk and
you can order right off the electric stove or charcoal stoves. Those fried
shrimp dumplings are 75 cents each... and they are SO good!

Carolyne and I discovered this cool alleyway one day while we were exploring the city. A smorgasbord of barbecues and seafood and gelatinous Vietnamese dishes lined both sides of the follicle-thin lane, yet motorbikes still charge through. We grabbed Jim and returned the next afternoon for lunch. Such a treat! Jim's favorite dish is an egg based pancake filled with meat and shrimp.

We found the Vietnamese hide-away food heaven!

So many national dishes!

My Vietnamese stinks , but our cook understands what we want. Jim's
hooked on her Banh Xeo and sausages. We eat full meals here for all
three of us for less than $4... total!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Teaching English in Hanoi Haphazzardly - Part II

One of my favorite classes - Language Arts & Drama
As one 5-year-old boy jumped (again) over the small table resembling a Japanese chabudai, another boy flung something gooey from his mouth across the room. I tried to lasso the energy from the other rambunctious children into an organized cluster of Phonics-learning-focused students. The noisy mob resisted every single one of my fool-proof teacher tricks.

Food is cheap in Hanoi, especially if you frequent the street food vendors.
Not sure that we'll go to the "Eel House" again, though.
I'd been taught a mantra early on in teaching... "Rules are the foundation of effective classroom management". 
Children have to understand what you're saying in order for that to work. 
Besides, rules are different in every culture. And this being my first class in Vietnam, I was still in the grasping stage of appropriate means of pupil wrangling. So far, I was learning that Vietnamese children can misbehave exactly the same as American children. We can thank television for that, my haggard voice echoed in my head.
So, I went with Plan B. 
I turned on the television.

The room quieted within seconds and my maniacal group of non-conformists melted together in front of the big screen. Only heavy breathing emanated from the dark holes that gaped open below their sniffers. "Meri's Super-Fun Phonics Monday" was replaced by Bob the Train teaching Phonics. I had 13 glorious minutes to figure out what to do for the rest of the hour and a half. 
Phonics for 5-ers for 1 1/2 hours??
What was I thinking when I signed up for that?

Don't 'Pokemon Go' and drive in Hanoi.
Traffic is dangerous enough already.
I almost burst out with a "Hallelujah!" when the classroom door creaked open and an adult emerged. But instead of a Teacher Assistant, a well-coiffed director walked in and stared disapprovingly at the mass of little bobbing heads glued to the colorful, singing train. I clapped in rhythm with Bob and pretended not to see her unsmiling stone-face looking my direction. But, curiosity got the best of me. She probably read self-conscious humiliation in my body language when my gaze shot from her cold eyes to the floor. Her black Gucci sandal lurked mere centimeters from the glistening glob of whatever it was the kid earlier had launched from his mouth. I visualized her perfectly polished piggies squealing "Wee-wee-wee-wee-wee!"all the way to the salon for an anti-bacterial pedi soak.

In true cruiser fashion, Carolyne and I hit the thrift shop for
used clothing. I needed garments without boat holes for work.
My situation wasn't ideal. But, after Whiny Baby snaked my classes I was left with a very difficult schedule to fill. I took what I could get. In the end, I wasn't chopped up into small pieces or turned into a sex slave when I went on an interview...
At night.
In a dark alley
At a stranger's house.
Instead, I was hired to teach Science and Phonics to different aged children at different schools by a lovely married couple. But, as the director bored holes into me with her eyes (which I think meant I was supposed to turn off the television), I had an epiphany. Teaching one subject for one and a half hours straight to 5-year-old students with no back-up is...
not my carafe of coffee...
which is how I ended up teaching Language Arts and Drama to 8-year-old angels instead.  
There are days I NEED this. Like every day.
I have my shyer children use puppets (or make their own)
to help them break out of their fear of English.

(Take THAT all of you who snubbed my Theater degree!)
((and BTW, many employers will grab up degree holders in Science, Business and "Drama"))
<sizzle sound>
I mentioned in my previous post that Jim and I read several blogs about foreigners and their experiences teaching in Vietnam before arriving in Hanoi. We decided beforehand that if Hanoi didn't "feel" right that we'd relocate. Some of my favorite blog stories came from these writers:

Our Big Fat Travel Adventure where Brits, Amy and Andrew, share their exploits of teaching in Hanoi. They also talk about work permits, how much money they made and teaching opportunities HERE. And thank you, Amy, for the Strepsils tip. I carry them everywhere!

An Overdue Adventure,written by Siobhan from the U.K., wrote this article on teaching in Hanoi for TESL Jobs World.

And we really loved reading Peter's Big Adventure. He has a wonderful post with lots of colorful descriptions in his Guide To Living in Hanoi. And, how he can be so hilarious after his traumatic teaching experience... well, it's a great read on how NOT to do it. If you like blackmail and threats of deportation stories, his stories are goodies.
WARNING: don't drink and read - can cause severe choking fit if beer goes down wrong way during gafaw!
Peter's Dumb Luck Part I
Peter's Dumb Luck Part II
Peter's Dumb Luck Part III


We've been in Hanoi for five weeks now and I'm still not 100% sure how things work. But, here are some considerations if you're contemplating teaching:
Chinese checkers to pass the slow season

Length of Stay: I've found it difficult to secure employment because my commitment here is only three months. Many employers won't hire with less than a 6 month commitment. Some want a year contract. I know of some that demand a 2-year contract. Because I won't lie, I've been turned down by wonderful employers because it's not in their best interest to hire, train... and then lose an employee after 12 weeks. Completely reasonable.

Work Visa: Depending on who you ask, you'll likely get different answers. However, this is what I've gleaned.

Working on a 3-month Tourist Visa (which is legal) can be the cheapest route, but may not be totally hassle-free. Before the 3-months is up the Visa holder needs to extend their Visa (which I understand can be a circus if you hire the wrong agent) OR do what most foreigners do... leave Vietnam. Flights to Thailand are fairly cheap. I found a roundtrip flight 2-weeks out over 5 days (because if I'm going to Bangkok I want to see some of it, right?) for $134US. There are certainly cheaper ways, but $134 round-trip sounds wonderful to me.
Who's a cute Bozo Puppy in the tree??
But, other costs accrue quickly, including hotels, meals and shuttle service. A pre-Visa is required for most foreigners entering and re-entering Vietnam - each and every time, per person. That's $20US online for the paperwork. Then, there's $25US when you arrive. And there's the consideration that the school you're working for won't want to give you the time off to "get legal". In fact, they might not hire you at all. On the flip side, there are tons of qualified teaching foreigners looking for a quick buck who'd be willing to cover your classes in your absence and some schools appreciate your ability to find your own substitute.

Another option is to sign a contract with a school for a said period of time and having the school agree to pay for your working Visa. Just be sure to read Peter's escapades linked above before you decide to go this route.

Class Schedule: Unless you work at a public school full-time, many classes are in the evenings and on the weekends. The "prime-time" is from 5:30-7pm. I jumped for joy when one of the directors added a class to my schedule Saturday night. I now work from 3:45-6:15pm... in the same building!... which brings us to...
A cheaper way to shop
Location: Hanoi is a huge city. It's a headache alone trying to piece together a smart and efficient teaching schedule. I learned quickly that accepting jobs in districts outside my Google Map self-made perimeter cost me time and money just getting from Point A to Point B. I don't accept those jobs anymore.

Living Arrangements: In hindsight, I like what we did as Hanoi Newbies. We booked a cheap-ish room at a hotel in the French Quarter for a month with decent internet, A/C and a fridge near the street food vendors. No cooking, no cleaning, no utility bills = Happy Meri! Our hotel has a queen and a double for $500US a month. It's a great location to stay temporarily until landing a more permanent job. Afterward, apartment hunting in the district where you're working is smart.
I'm an enormous elephant next to the miniature Vietnamese.
But, we seem to dress similarly- covered up!

Carolyne makes new friends everywhere she goes!
Lesson Plans: Even though I thought I would HATE (in capital letters) teaching English to pre-schoolers, Whiny Baby left me two back-to-back classes.
He's a saint.
But I realized after the first day, qualified Teacher Assistants offered support and provided the curriculum and lesson plans at the center. This is way easier.
I come in.
I'm given an easy lesson plan.
I go over the lesson plan in class.
There's singing and games and dancing. The blocks are only 45 minutes each.
Thank you, Whiny Baby!
I am having so much fun and my kids and I ROCK the Hokey Pokey!

Seriously - just because a class has a book (and some don't), it doesn't mean there are activities to accompany the curriculum. Coming up with ideas for 45 minutes is a breeze compared to an hour and a half. I've found flashcards at local stores, I've used puppets, I've brushed up on songs I haven't sung in years and I'm currently learning how to make animal balloons. It might be a disaster... or it might be fun. I'll let you know in Part III.

Tom Yum Hot Pot OR Lau Thai
And there are things I haven't even thought of yet to add to this list (or things I can't write about yet, like pay, because I haven't been paid yet)... so it will have to wait for a month or so until I discover if I'll tap dance or rant in Part III. I prefer the tap dance. Until then, my next post will be about the FOOD!!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Teaching English Haphazzardly in Hanoi - Part I

The beautiful Dragon Fruit
I don't think when I hailed the GRAB moto-taxi (similar to Uber) that the driver expected I'd take the company name so literally. Freshly new to Hanoi, I clung tightly to the driver's waist as he zipped and dodged his motor bike through heavy rush-hour traffic along Hanoi's buzzing streets and highways. At a noisy traffic jam, he hesitated only briefly before veering up over the hump of a curb and speeding down the sidewalk as unsurprised pedestrians stepped out of his way. No one shook their fist at us. No one yelled obscenities. The rebel in me couldn't stop smiling as I reminded myself to keep my knees and elbows close to the bike as we brushed dangerously close to trees and light poles.

Caroyne's Colorful New Friend

The Dragon Fruit with Red Flesh Tastes Better than the White
The gray of dusk settled. I was too afraid to let go of the driver to check my phone for the time. But, I worried I'd be late. He suddenly jerked up a dark alley. If I'd wanted, I could've touch the cracked walls of old buildings on either side, so pulled my thighs in tighter across the bike's padded seat. I hoped I wasn't sending off some moto-taxi sexual message when my knee caps vice-gripped the driver's hips. None of the locals riding on the back of motos seemed to hang onto their drivers for dear life, enveloping them like a desperate hotdog bun.

We turned at high speed from the narrow alley into a lane. Women cooked beside the street on either side of us, crouched down stirring delicious recipes that filled the air with tummy-rumbling smells. Men chatted together, smoking long wooden meter-long pipes that gurgled gently as they sucked nicotine into their lungs. A woman on a bicycle selling flowers took off her conical hat and wiped her deeply-lined cheeks with a cloth, staring into my foreign face with her brows furrowed. We darted up a narrow drive and stopped. I paid the driver 22,000 Vietnamese dong for my thrill ride - exactly $1US.
Selling tea cups, plates and tupperware

A plastic passenger

Hoan Kiem Lake at night
I stared at the ancient house- partially crumbled, adorned with fierce dragons racing across its rooftop with pointed corners that curled up like the tips of Aladdin's shoes. The lovely pagoda was in the oldest Hanoian neighborhood where proud descendants still lived in their family homes. Little shoes lined up along the wall told me where to find the entrance, a large black door left wide open in expectation of my arrival. A 40ish-year-old Vietnamese man greeted me and invited me into his home. After serving me a glass of water, he sat down in front of me - ready to conduct the interview. I asked myself what I was doing.
At night.
In a dark alley.
At a stranger's house.
Interviewing to teach English.

Our whole purpose of spending three months in Hanoi was so I could explore the teaching possibilities. We'd heard teaching English was BIG in Vietnam. And what we discovered was...
it's bigger.

But when we arrived...
I had no leads.
I had no friends.
I had little clue. Okay, I had virtually NO clue.

Fan dancers in the park

Before we left our sailboat, Hotspur, in Fiji and leapt into Asia, we'd read several blog sites from travelers who had done what we were considering doing. I say "we", but Jim wasn't (and still isn't) considering teaching. And Carolyne is a wee bit young yet... (however we're thinking of seriously sending her through a CELTA course for certification. Seriously.) But, I came to Hanoi prepared for job hunting. I'd read up on what employers wanted. And I fit the bill... except for the 20-40 age guideline, which I'd hoped no one would notice.

My credentials were in order, referred to in Vietnam as a "Curriculum Vitae" or "CV" for short. They include:
A cover letter
A resume geared toward teaching
A scanned copy of my University transcript
My TEFL online certificate completed August 2016 (Four weeks before arriving in Hanoi, I signed up for an online ESL teaching certificate to boost my chances of getting hired. I signed up with Uni Prep,a 120-hour course for $250... which I finished in less than 48 hours. Some of the more serious international schools don't accept this type of credential.)

In addition, I included a photo of me teaching students in American Samoa, a letter of recommendation from a previous school where I taught and a one page scanned copy of a magazine article I had published in March... to show off my writing and grammar skills.

First, if you are from a country where "discrimination" is a dirty word, then coming to Vietnam might shake you up. Get ready - there is nothing wrong with an employer asking your age and if you get upset about that, you lessen your chances of getting hired. In fact, your CV should include a headshot (or professional-ish photo of your face) and probably should include your age (though I left my age off and hoped my Porcelana skin would radiate "forever youth" through my photo). That's another thing about discrimination in Vietnam - lighter skin is revered. Is that wrong? It just is what it is. Maybe a woman is preferred over a man and the ad might say so. Maybe Russian English is secondary to New Zealand, Canadian or American English. Maybe "beauty" is preferred to superb teaching skills. Here, no one hides under a pretense of "fair hiring practices". Fairness doesn't exist.

Before dinner with our friends, Joe and Marilyn, as Jim
goes for the fluffy-hair-in-the-fan look

Then, there was a problem of dodging the "scammers". It wasn't that there weren't any leads... there were tons. But who is honest and wonderful to work for? And who's a liar and thief? So, before hitting the pavement I joined several Facebook groups talking about teaching and hiring teachers and about Hanoi in general. You get a great feel for credible employers.... and ones you might want to avoid:
Hanoi Massive Jobs
Hanoi English Teaching Jobs
Hanoi Teachers
English Teachers in Hanoi
School and Center Rating
and I'm still awaiting a response from a group I'm interested in joining because I can't wait to read about skanks and their devious ploys to entrap unsuspecting teaching hopefuls:
Hanoi English Teacher Bad Experiences Exchange.
Carolyne strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, 
close to where we're living

It was through one of these Facebook groups I met Daren, a rockin' good teacher from New York City who needed to go home for a couple months and wanted to recruit a substitute teacher to cover his block of classes until he returned. He wanted to make a decision quickly, so I agreed to meet him at a cafe to discuss the details only four days after we arrived in Hanoi (and I'd had time to recoup from a nasty respiratory and gut flu). I ordered a coffee and waited. I was pleasantly surprised when a tall, handsome black man with long dreds gently salted with smidgens of gray walked through the door. We introduced ourselves and he sat down, removing his folding reading glasses from his pocket as he ticked off his teaching schedule. In the end, I was the perfect fit. I agreed to commit to his schedule and hold it sacred until his return in October.
Pokemon Go just started in Vietnam this week
Transport isn't always motorized - or safe
$1 Beer Corner attracts more locals than tourists
Daren is living proof that no matter what you hear the odds are against (more melanin, more gray hair, wrinkles, a Bohemian vibe v.s. Armani...) if you're a good teacher and a likable person, then the odds are favorable.

But sadly, my block of classes didn't quite work out as I expected. Before Daren left Vietnam, over half his classes I'd been promised were gifted to someone else by the director at the school to some whiny baby who threatened to quit without notice if he didn't inherit more hours. Daren is way cooler than Whiny Baby and will get his classes back upon his return in October, I'm sure of it.  But for me - since Whiny Baby didn't take all Daren's classes (which would have been preferable)- I found myself juggling a jigsaw puzzle of higgledy-piggledy open and closed slots... which is how I found myself at an interview.
At night.
In a dark alley.
At a stranger's house.
Thank you, Whiny Baby.
Really. I mean it.
Thank you.

Part II To Come...

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Coffee Culture in Hanoi

A hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with free Wifi filled to the brim with locals.
Cafe Dinh has great coffee at a great price.

Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter. It's a country that runs on coffee.

One of the first discoveries we made in Hanoi was the endless amount of coffee shops. Coffee is a big part of society here. It's for the young and old - the rich and poor - the creative and lame. Coffee is an all day affair. But, it's not just the quantity of coffee... it's the quality. Coffee in Hanoi is exceptional to what we've been drinking the past several years.

A typical Vietnamese coffee consists of espresso rich java mixed with a little condensed milk. It's delightful... served either hot in a ceramic cup or over ice cubes in a tall, clear glass.

But unlike Jim and Carolyne (who can eat sugary sweets without any love handle, muffin top or piggly-jiggly setbacks), I have to be very careful. I've found I dislike the plain black coffee here, which I parallel to drinking a thick, steeping wad of dark tobacco leaves spat out by an ogre with a bad case of gingivitis. It's terribly bitter. I contribute its popularity to the vast amount of cigarette smokers in Hanoi who have whacked out taste buds and don't realize they're drinking what amounts to the offal in a spittoon. I haven't dared to try the espresso, which might be fatal.

We try to sit upwind of the cigarettes, also very popular

Jim sitting on his bitty chair in a crowded coffee shop

Instead, I adore a beautiful latte. And the latte art is as divine as the drink itself. I've discovered beautiful lattes cost between $2 and $3. It's less sugar than the typical Vietnamese coffee, which we've found as cheap as 75 cents, but I prefer the milkiness of the latte and it has less sugar,

Coffee outlets selling beans, grounds
and accoutrements are popular

Anywhere in Hanoi, you might find weird coffee combos like:
Egg Coffee
Yogurt Coffee
Coconut Coffee
Sea Salt Coffee
Coffee with Lime

Carolyne, who drinks coffee now and then, can't handle the strength of the Vietnamese brews. Instead, she suffers through the endless smoothie drinks made with local fruits.

Looking miserable with a freshly blended strawberry smoothie