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My first week in Saigon

After graduating, I decided to pack up my life and move to Vietnam.

In short, the first week was hellish, but that was to be expected. Every time that I’ve moved to a new country, the first week is filled with confusion, stress and inevitable language barriers. Moving to Saigon was no different, except this time the initial language barrier was heightened.

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Before getting there:

I did do some preparation before arriving to the city, known since 1975 as Ho Chi Minh. Having initially decided to move with my friend, with no address, no job and no plan, the adventure took a turn when I discovered that I would be alone on this adventure due to, let’s say a change in circumstances. Moving to the bustling city all by myself, without any real plans or security, I decided that looking for a job before I got there would maybe help during the first few weeks.

Having sent out multiple CVs and Job Application to different Teaching companies throughout Vietnam, a few awkward Skype interviews later, I was offered an 8-month contract with Vinalearn as a full-time English teacher. I was lucky as the company aided me with my Business Visa, my Work Permit, Airport Pick-up and a decent salary. So I didn’t have the stress of trying to organise everything before I left.

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Moving to a completely different country alone should have been a scary and exciting experience, however the 2 flight from Glasgow - Dubai - HCMC were chilled and I almost felt indifferent. I should have been nervous but the last minute booking didn’t give me enough time for my true feelings to settle in.

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Sixteen hours later I arrived at HCMC airport, the visa application was a lengthy process but forty minutes later I was out into the humid, night air and was greeted by two colleagues accompanied with a sign reading LINDSAY BRAND – VINALEARN. That had never happened to me before; I felt like an important business woman! 

The "free accomodation":

A 20-minute drive later and I was at the hotel that the company put us up in until we found our own place. It was horrible! My room had cigarette buds left around, hairs in the bathroom and it appeared as though it hadn’t been dusted in months. The first night was sleepless.

Time to explore:

The next morning I felt that I had to get out. Aided with google maps and a guide book I started for District 1. The guidebook was right when it said that “Only tourists walk in Saigon”. Everyone was on a motorbike, scooter, car, bus or some other form of engine-run machine. I was the only one walking in the streets under the boiling sun.

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After a 40-minute walk from the hotel in D3, I reached the popular, backpacker area of D1. The closer to the town centre, the more people you see walking on the streets. More or less 80% foreigners. I walked around for hours looking at famous monuments, markets and air-conditioned malls to escape the heat of the 1pm sun.

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After being out for 5 hours, I headed back for the hotel. I discovered that there were in fact three other Vinalearn teachers staying in the hotel. I felt instantly better; I wasn’t the only one staying there. We all me up for dinner and complained together about the disaster of a hotel which was to be our home for the next 5-7 days. We found great little restaurant where we had Pho – the tradition noodle soup of Vietnam. A few Tiger Bias later and we headed back for another restless night.

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Week one:

The first 3 days in HCMC for me were tough. I hated where I was sleeping which made me question if I had made the right decision or not. I felt so guilty for leaving my mum, Iacopo and other friends in Scotland.

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I didn’t want to go back, but I wanted them with me. The Skype calls often ended in tears which made me question further my decisions. But I knew it would get better. The first week of moving to a new country is always a bit of a mess. It would take a couple of tries to find the correct accommodation, a few weeks to get used to my ever-changing teaching schedule, in addition to finding a group of friends and a routine. I knew this, but it did not change the fact that my first week in Saigon was shit.

Teaching:

We were still in the hotel when we started our first days in school. We got so many Uber’s or Grab car’s to and from our schools.

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The first week was also scheduled as an ‘Introduction week’. In other words, we were to spend up to an hour and a half introducing ourselves and playing games to establish the children's level of English. It was tedious and often got out of control when the kids become too excited and loud. But I knew that the 2nd week would be better once we had schedules and lessons plans. 

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My Friday classes were the worst. I had four classes all lasting 1hr 30mins with a 2-hour lunch break spent alone. I had Grade 6 which I was used to. However, the last two classes on a Friday afternoon were Grade 8s – children aged 13-14. i.e. kids who do not want to learn English. My classroom assistant was useless, he often looked at his phone and made no attempt whatsoever to calm the kids down. I couldn’t wait for the last hour to pass, I was even considering walking out of the classroom as the kids wouldn’t listen and were shouting and being downright rude. But it ended, eventually.

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I was so ready to go out for a few drinks with the other teachers on the first Friay night but instead I was roped into watching the new Stephen King film IT. I hate horror films but I had a choice between that and staying in the 'hotel' alone. Yet again, another sleepless night but this time not because of the state of the hotel.

Moving day:

Saturday was moving day! Me and two Canadian teachers had looked at various flats together as our schools were close to each other. We got a flat in Tan Phu District, near our schools in D12 – ages away from the backpacker-run city centre. The apartment is in a massive complex named Celadon City. A walled city, surrounded with parks, ponds, a gym and swimming pool.

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There are around 15 other Vinalearn teachers in this area, so we were not completely alone, we would find out own cool bars and restaurants, in a more traditional, Vietnamese setting, away from tourist traps.  It was a long day, moving all our luggage in the rush-hour lunchtime traffic. We spent the rest of the day unpacking and checking out the surrounding area.

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We live beside a massive mall called Aeon Mall which is full of cute shops and an amazing supermarket where we can get westernised home comforts in addition to great Asian fast food. Saturday night was spent with the 3 flatmates moving a mattress into the living room and watching multiple films on a laptop linked to the TV.

Time to join the traffic jams:

And it was. My first turn onto a main road, my bike drove away from me and I crashed into a couple of oncoming bikes, whose drivers simply stared at me and did nothing to help. I must have pulled the accelerator before the break as my bike jerked forward. I wasn’t hurt as I wasn’t going fast, but I was panicked and already scared. I picked up the bike and drove over to my new teacher friends. After I had calmed down, we figured out the route and headed towards D3 where our friend lived and worked.

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We stopped every 10 minutes just to make sure that we were on the right track. A couple of dodgy turns, stalls and a fuel up, we eventually arrived. District 3 is amazing. There are canals and rail tracks running through the streets. The area where our friend lives is full of little boutiques and coffee shops.

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After a couple of hours, it was time for me and my new flatmate, Kaytlyn to make our way back to Celadon City. I tell no lie when I say that the second we turned on our bikes, rain started to fall. The further we drove the heavier it got. It is monsoon season after all. Unarmed with ponchos like everyone else, we must have looked ridiculous riding in the pouring rain in shorts and vest tops. The rain didn’t help with google maps as the massive drops confused the touch screens of our smartphones.

The journey home:

Once I had an idea of where to go we set off, little by little getting the hang of how to work the bike, turn tight corners and avoid other vehicles. We were driving at a decent speed around a massive roundabout which had traffic lights. I was ahead of Kaytlyn as I was leading the way. I had just notice the the light had turned red so I stopped quite abruptly. However, Kaytlyn noticed me stopping a little too late. The sudden stop all the vehicles around her, partnered with the slippery roads and rain, she panicked and pulled her front wheel break and went flying off her bike. The sea of motorbikes beside me all gasped and many started to dismount their bikes to aid her. She stood up as quick as she good as the oncoming traffic had started to move. She picked up her bike and got back behind the traffic light beside me. She said she was fine, but her scrapes were already evident. We just wanted to get home after all the trauma of our bikes and the weather.

We made it home eventually and Kayt was truly ok! She had a couple of bruises and scratches but nothing too serious. We were thankful that someone from Vinalearn was going to accompany us to school on Monday morning.

It is really a question of when you will get used to the bike; the biting point, the speed and the weight. A couple of days later, I definitely felt more comfortable and began to recognise the roads so that my travel time to work was so much shorter.

To conclude:

In short, my first week in Saigon was pretty mental. The heat, the immense amount of bikes on the roads, the monsoon weather and the crazy kids really were a shock to the system. Despite this, I love the atmosphere of the city. It is so busy, with so much going on that it is hard to be bored.

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Of course everything is daunting at first, but one week in, I am already feeling more accustomed to everything. Immersing myself into the culture, food and way of life. Whilst I’m here, I want to take up new activities; riding a scooter being the first one, but maybe in addition, a new sport, swimming, a new style of dance, cooking classes, the list is endless. The next step will be learning some Vietnamese; a challenge I accept with open arms.

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Saigon, I’m ready.

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