A Love Letter to Vietnam

There is an undeniable spirit about Vietnam, whether you are in one of the sprawling fast-paced cities, trekking in a rural wilderness or relaxing on one of the many stunning beaches that the country has to offer. In the three years I lived in Vietnam, I witnessed this spirit within its people and their approach to everyday life, but I would also argue that I only scratched the surface with what the country has to offer. To that end, it would be utterly impossible for me to condense three years of living in this remarkable country to one post, so, I have summarised a few of my experiences here and I hope to write more in the future.

If I had to describe Vietnam in a few words; aspiration, vitality and warmth (and not just in terms of the tropical climate) would be some of the words that first spring to my mind.

In contrast, it took me a few months to warm to Vietnam when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City back in the summer of 2014. It wasn’t as though I hated my initial impressions by any means, but I had completely underestimated the culture shock I would experience. I had gone from living in the UK, then Spain and then upping sticks to move to the other side of the world. To a large extent, the culture shock stemmed from fear. When I initially moved to Spain, it felt ‘safe’, what with relatively quick and cheapish flights to and from the UK and additional comfort provided in that many locals (at least where I was living) and amenities provided assistance in English. I hasten to add here, it was a priority of mine to integrate into the local community and so I did take Spanish lessons both in the UK prior to the move and once I arrived.

In comparison, moving to Vietnam meant that I was required to stand on my own two feet and here I was, an early 30-something-year-old woman who had actively chosen to leave her then partner for a job pretty much on the other side of the world. Part of me wonders if perhaps consciously or not, many of my decisions up till this point had largely been based on what was deemed ‘safe’ or not.

For the first few months, I found myself conflicted about the move to Vietnam. Work was busy, having received a promotion early into my contract together with planning new courses. I was also struggling to establish and foster new friendships (partly because I was stressed from work), my then partner was based in another country and I was miles and miles away from family and friends. I was lonely and felt as though I had made a terrible decision.

However, much like my initial feelings about when I went to university where everything is SO BIG and SO SCARY at first (well, that might have just have been me), once I started getting out there and exploring, I began to find my feet. Thrown together through the same circumstances, I connected pretty quickly with another newbie at the school and we would regularly explore restaurants and coffee shops at weekends with her partner. Slowly, other new friendships formed and, although I enjoyed being able to investigate on my own, sharing these experiences helped provide me with the grounding that I needed to feel more at home.

It was only when I opened my eyes and started to look outside of the walls of the school and head into the metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City, that I felt drawn in by the vitality and warmth of the Vietnamese people and its culture.

I have read in a few travel guidebooks that Thailand is known as the country of smiles, but I would argue that Vietnam is a strong contender for that crown. One of my lasting memories will be the kindness of the vast majority of people I met. Even if words failed both parties (I did learn some basic Vietnamese, but gave up after six weeks as I found it incredibly hard to get to grips with the different tones…), a smile, a brief nod together with various hand gestures and my basic Vietnamese, usually meant we could all be understood, plus a great deal of patience from my Vietnamese counterpart.

I recall thinking early on about how different my previous life had been in Spain to that of being in Vietnam (as if I thought they could in any way similar!). When I had first moved to Spain it was still suffering the effects of the economic crash in 2008; such as high unemployment rates and a high demand of people seeking social support. Another noticeable facet of this in the coastal area where I lived, were the countless abandoned building sites in which companies had either gone bust or had chosen to cut their loses. Concrete shells dotted the landscape that originally had been intended for residential use but now acted as a graffiti artist’s paradise.

In contrast, the building sites I saw in Vietnam were enormous and appeared never ending. High-rise luxury apartments cover swathes of land, and in the south, these are predominantly built on swampland. A concern certainly for the future if sea levels rise as they are expected to with climate change. And of course, with an average Vietnamese person receiving a salary of less than USD$7000 a year, I wonder who is going to be living in these luxury apartments… but despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that Vietnam has ambitions to ‘go somewhere’ after nearly a century marred by war and conflict, and this boom in construction is one way of illustrating this.

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FINDING INSPIRATION IN SHAKESPEARE

A little over a year ago I participated in some teacher training that provided me with an existential experience. A dramatic statement I know, but it was and still is perhaps the best and most useful training I have ever had in my teaching career to date.

The training was focused on developing effective leadership skills, but its audience was to the teacher and not specifically aimed at the higher echelons of management. We are, as teachers, leaders of a sort in our classrooms and the organiser wanted us to reflect on our own leadership skills and to see how we could link some of the work of Shakespeare to our role.

I was dubious at first and naively, I thought to myself, what could Shakespeare teach us about how to improve our leadership skills in the classroom? For example, one of the set texts for my GCSE English Literature exam was Macbeth and we all probably know what happened to him.

Well, it turned out (surprise, surprise) it could teach us quite a lot.

At the beginning of the day and for those who didn’t know a huge amount about the story of Henry V, including myself, we were given a synopsis of Shakespeare’s play including a few (amazing!) direct readings, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech where Henry motivates his soldiers on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt. The rousing speech along with Henry’s evident clear direction of goals is believed to have helped the English defeat the French despite being vastly outnumbered. But the purpose of the training wasn’t to provide a history lesson, although that was an added bonus, it was to illustrate how some of the themes Shakespeare used in his depiction of the story of Henry V could be utilised inside and outside the classroom, in particular, the importance of how effective leaders inspire the troops.

The troops in my case are students and one of the key message that was emphasised from the very beginning was that despite what the government, the media and some members of school management may say, the kids are not the most important part of a school. It’s the teachers. If teachers are largely happy, confident and feel supported in their role, then this will translate into their job of actually teaching, ultimately leading to hopefully happy, confident students who feel supported in their own learning.

And it was also at this point that I felt something unfurl within me, as though a part of me was stretching and waking up from slumber. It struck me that I knew I couldn’t stay much longer at my current school and it even raised larger questions about whether I wanted to remain in teaching. The realisation shook me to my core and at various points throughout the day, I was holding back tears as for the first time, in what felt like a long time, I felt as though I was being listened to but without having to say anything at all.

The organiser made the point a few times throughout the day about the importance of a supportive work culture that begins from the top (the organiser illustrated this point using Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech which he read in its entirety without prompts) and it was during this time that I noticed a few disgruntled faces amongst the management team. I believe that the shit hit the fan for some as this guy was inspiring us. He was waking most, if not nearly all of us up from a compliant and passive slumber.

I couldn’t describe the school as having a supportive culture. There are shades of it for sure, but unfortunately blame and fear ring closer to the truth. I certainly don’t want to paint all of the school management as completely unsupportive but I learnt quickly that to speak up about something was akin to branding yourself on the forehead. And those who stood out generally didn’t last long.

This was what I have always found a bit odd and disconcerting about some of the schools that I have worked in and I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this, we like to encourage our students in the hope that they will be inspired to study and think about the content they learn,  admittedly some of this motivation may come in the form of sweets or other extrinsic reward to simply get a piece of work finished, but teacher motivation is something that is rarely given as much consideration. It is assumed that working with students is reward enough. But sometimes it is quite nice to be simply told, ‘Well done, you’re doing a great job’, something that rarely happens in my school from upper management.

It obviously hasn’t been as straightforward as experiencing this realisation and then leaving. The training was over a year ago and if simply due to contract requirements I have been required to provide nearly a year’s formal notice of resignation. But I am now in my last term working at my current school and it feels incredibly strange to think that I won’t return there come the end of summer. I have learnt a great deal over the past three years and this realisation is one of the bigger things, work culture matters and a school that doesn’t value its staff will eventually lose them.