My 5 Favorite Things About Hoi An, Vietnam

The City of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site on Vietnam’s central coast. Known for its well-preserved Ancient Town, the whole city is cut through with canals. Its small population and compact size make it easily explorable by bicycle or on foot. Being a four-hour bus ride from Hanoi, I’d only heard of Hoi An from fellow travellers once I had arrived in-country. Since it was near other places I wanted to see, I headed south.

When I visited Hoi An, the word was just getting out among the backpacking crowd. My current research shows that the city has become a tourist mecca. 

Old Town

Old Town is in an incredible state of preservation, with narrow streets that are closed to traffic. You can wander and admire the ancient houses, pagodas and temples, wells, and tombs without navigating cars, motorcycles, and scooters. The lichen-stained patina of pastel-colored walls immediately caught my attention, especially the ones splashed with vibrant red or purple bougainvillea. In the morning and evening light, fellow shutterbugs were in awe.

I stayed in Old Town, choosing a hotel with a pool for relief from the tropical heat. It was there that I learned Hoi An was the place to go for custom-made clothing. One of the main streets is lined with tailors and dress shops, the storefront windows crammed with colorful reams of material. I bumped into a guy who I met at Hạ Long Bay at a restaurant near my hotel. He was in town, waiting on his custom-made suit. 

There are plenty of authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Old Town. I fell in love with a local dumpling specialty called White Rose. I felt so impressed with another appetizer, stuffed squid, that I took a cooking class to learn how to make the delicacy. Despite how delicious the dish was, I was the only student and I mostly sat with cold beer in hand watching the barefoot chef cook on an old hot plate. I felt like I was in an episode of The Flintstones

Hoi An Night Market

This is not your average fruit and vegetable market. It has all the fresh produce you can imagine, along with local artisans who create and sell their wares on-site. Shopkeepers have set up the market stalls along the river, across the street from a row of restaurants and specialty shops. They’ve strung up colorful lamps and paper lanterns in front of the vendor booths like distant planets glowing in the twilight. 

One of my favorite pastimes while travelling is people watching. After learning that ‘fresh beer’ actually meant draft beer, I perched myself on a restaurant patio to sip and slurp my cold brew and White Rose dumplings. I watched the busy little people shopping and selling their wares, some wearing the traditional rice hat. I couldn’t have felt any further from home and that was just fine by me. 

An Bang Beach

An Bang Beach is about a 10-minute scooter ride, or a 25-minute scenic and leisurely bicycle ride along the river from Old Town. Stepping out from the row of shady palm trees that lined the white sand beach on the South China Sea, I felt blown away by the unobstructed views for miles in either direction. I spotted an Australian woman from my hotel and asked if I could share her blanket to get off the hot sand. 

We chatted, comparing previous trips and our lives at home. She was staying in town, waiting on a custom-made bridesmaid dress for a friend’s wedding. I borrowed sunscreen to stop my pale skin from burning to a crisp, one reason I don’t spend much time at the beach. The pleasant company and nearly deserted beach made for a nice afternoon. 

The beach in Vietnam

Mỹ Sơn 

Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples in central Vietnam. These gorgeous structures were constructed between the 4th and 14th century by the Kings of Champa, an Indianized kingdom of the Cham people. About 25 kilometers away from Hoi An, this awesome ruin site was nearly decimated by American bombing during the Vietnam War. The government is doing its best to restore Mỹ Sơn which was once more glorious than Angkor Wat. 

I took the bus there, feeding pills to my food-poisoned Aussie friend along the way. Many of the temples suffered severe damage from the bombing. Those that survived are truly magnificent. The guided tour is a must if you’re interested in knowing the history of what you’re looking at. Bring along a hat or umbrella if you arrive in the midday heat. There is no shade from the hot sun. 

Marble Mountain & Da Nang

These authentic hotspots are also close by. I rented a scooter for a short trip and enjoyed the scenery along the shoreline of the South China Sea. The City of Da Nang was once the location for a huge US military base. Although I didn’t visit the city, I checked out two of the concrete bunkers along the beach. Across the highway, Marble Mountain was much more impressive. It has an interesting history to boot. 

During the war, North Vietnamese soldiers took refuge and set up a military hospital inside mountain caves. The US bombed the mountain so severely, they eventually blew a hole in the top. Natural sunlight now streams through the hole, lighting up the altar and shrine below. I climbed to the top of Marble Mountain and took in amazing views of the sea and Da Nang. 

Unexpected Friends

On the way to the mountain, two young girls on a scooter befriended me and said I could park across the street at their uncle’s shop. I knew I’d have to pay in some way later on. One of the smiley young ladies was waiting when I returned. She told me I qualified for a discount in the store because we were friends. In fairness, she was the one who showed me the bunkers. The store was filled with amazing marble sculptures; I took home two hand-carved candle holders. 

I’d originally planned to only spend three days in Hoi An, but after falling in love with the place I extended my stay to five. It is a great place to explore or kick back, relax, and soak up the exotic culture.

If you enjoyed my story and would like to read more about my travels in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, please check out my book, A Casual Traveler, or visit the travel section of my website.

Anna Lech Talks Relocation Abroad

Anna Lech profile in Tenerife, Spain.Fresh ocean air, swaying palm trees, June Gloom, people surfing, skateboarding, or playing beach volleyball. I’ve always imagined mornings to be on California beaches as centers of activity. I took a stroll on the boardwalk to see if my image of the Golden State lifestyle, in which everybody is photogenic, athletic, and surrounded by friends on the beach, is real.  More importantly, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I needed to find out why millions around the world dream about a relocation to California

I struck up conversations with local surfers and lifeguards so I could learn more about Californian stereotypes. Now, I’ve always thought that there is no better way to get to know a country than to blend in with locals. Usually, I learn much from these conversations. However, this particular one shocked me; one surfer said he’d never been outside his home state. He loved California so much that he couldn’t imagine ever living somewhere else. But how could he possibly know what he’s missing if he had never left home? 

My Relocation Experience

I was born in Poland and for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to visit other countries, learn foreign languages, try new cuisines, and get to know other cultures.  More than that, I always felt fascinated by the idea of living abroad in as many countries as possible. 

When I was a student, international travel and foreign student exchanges weren’t a thing. There weren’t many countries Polish people could freely travel to. 

When I was 22 years old, I was fortunate enough to take part in a three-month work experience program in Germany. Since this was my first relocation, I played it safe by going to a neighboring country whose language I learned in school. 

This wasn’t the case with my next relocation to the UK. On a whim, I decided to move there with just a few words of English, no plan, and barely any air travel experience. This relocation proved to be very difficult and challenging. Nonetheless, my adventurous soul always wanted to experience a vagabond life, even though it meant operating outside my comfort zone.  

I went from feeling scared to be away from home for three months to falling in love with living abroad in just a few short years.  In the UK, I also learned that “home” is where you make it. It’s not a fixed location. 

Globetrotter

A year before I turned 40, I made one of my biggest dreams come true. I went for a 15-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. I ended this adventure in the Caribbean. I’m glad to report I’m now a permanent US resident who now calls Puerto Rico home.  

My main relocation tips would be to go for it and don’t look back. Prepare for things to go wrong, or at least not according to a plan. 

Moving abroad is not for everyone but, in my opinion, everyone should give it a try at least once. I’ve met dozens of very unhappy immigrants abroad. They count their days before their return to their home country. However, none of them ever regretted trying it. They all said that they became more independent, responsible, and learned new things about themselves while living abroad. 

I am not the best person to give advice on how to responsibly and carefully move abroad.  All I had before I moved to Germany was a fax printout with a hotel address.  Leaping into the unknown felt both terrifying and thrilling. I took an overnight bus to Germany followed by a train ride and a boat journey. I did it all without much research ahead of time. 

Fueled by Spontaneity

Moving to the UK was also very spontaneous. I traveled to London for a long weekend, which planted an idea for moving there. After graduating from university four months later, I boarded a plane to Manchester. I went with the flow, without expectations or any plan to return home. 

The older I got, the more spontaneous I became. At an age when most of my friends had settled down, I packed 13 years of my life in the UK into a couple of boxes. I pursued my lifelong dream to backpack around the world for a few months. Five months after I started my trip, I ended up inviting my family to my wedding in Puerto Rico. America became my new home. 

As a child, I spent many holidays in Hungary due to my dad’s work. Often, I would pick up a few Hungarian words or phrases and use them to impress the folks back home. I had so much fun learning something new that I could put to use immediately. I couldn’t say the same about chemistry or physics.

Falling in Love with Foreign Languages  

I started learning German in primary school. At first, it seemed like just another subject to learn. But as soon as I had an opportunity to use what I learned to travel to Germany, communicate with native speakers, and place orders in restaurants, my approach to learning foreign languages changed a lot. It took me a long time, but I stopped being embarrassed, overthinking, or analyzing every mistake I made. I learned to keep talking and not worry about all the grammatical and pronunciation mistakes I made. In addition, I started to take unnecessary trips to different stores just to read the signs and price tags, or start a conversation with salespeople about random products. 

I listened to songs in the new language, watched TV with subtitles, and read newspaper headlines or advertisements. Every time I heard a new word, I wrote it down. Every time I saw a new word, I highlighted it. I often associate new foreign words with a place, color, person, or situation to bring the new language to life, making learning much more enjoyable than rote memorizing with a book. 

Picking Up the Second Language

Learning English in preparation for my relocation to the UK was a real challenge. I only had six months to prep, so I tried to find the most dynamic and fun way to become conversational. Since this was my second foreign language, I knew boring textbooks wouldn’t work for me. My priority was to learn useful daily phrases that would allow me to function in society, such as asking for directions, counting numbers, etc.

I settled on what was back then a very new, innovative English course called the Callan Method. The method focuses on improving students’ speaking and listening skills by repeating foreign words and phrases over and over again without thinking. After six months, I was ecstatic to be able to speak and understand basic English. Unfortunately, after moving to the UK, I had a bitter pill to swallow. I quickly realized that the course hadn’t prepared me as much as I expected. 

A Different Ballgame

Learning English turned out to be much tougher than German, mainly because I haven’t had any foundational language knowledge from school. But, more importantly, the UK is a very multicultural place and it took me a very long time to comprehend international accents. None of the English courses back home could possibly prepare me for this. 

Now that I find myself in a Spanish-speaking place, I have no choice but to start all over again. Luckily, these days there are plenty of language-learning apps and websites that are extremely handy. I already know from experience that I am not looking forward to struggling with multiple varieties of Spanish.

Living in a foreign country surrounded by unfamiliar customs can be very challenging, but by leaving your comfort zone behind you may discover a new and happier way of life that suits you better. 

Relocating abroad might not be on your bucket list at the moment, but have you ever wondered why some people move abroad and never return home? Or do you love to listen to stories about their time abroad and wish they were your own? If so, don’t waste any more time and make it happen! Don’t be like the surfer I met years ago in Hermosa Beach. He’s probably still never left California and wouldn’t have anything new to say about himself if I ran into him today.   

by Anna Lech

Life in Cambodia With Michael Carter

Michael CarterOur readership demanded we get Carter and we have. In Ed Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter, he invited us to feel free to ask follow-up questions. After getting to know Michael through his adventures and writing, here they are. 

You first moved to Cambodia from Canada, what has changed in the country since then?”

I arrived here for the first time in 2000 and used it as a travel base for Southeast Asia for five years. Then I left for two years before returning in 2007. I will base my response on my first arrival.

While much of the countryside and provincial towns in Cambodia remain quaint, capital Phnom Penh has changed from being dark and backward to like any other major Asian city. In other words, it has lost much of its charm and there are now issues with traffic, air quality, and eyesore development. On the upside, we have a wonderful international restaurant scene (although it has been under strain because of COVID).

How long did it take you to acclimatize and what do you recommend to other expats who are just moving abroad?”

I guess they aren’t expats until they move here, but for me, this part of Asia is one of the easiest places to relocate. By the time I had reached Cambodia, I was relatively well-travelled. There really were no surprises.

But for a less experienced traveller, I would suggest doing a bit of research… but not too much. You don’t want to form images and expectations in your head which simply might not exist. The best advice is to just go for it. If you are looking to work and don’t know anyone — head straight to a bar. Many expats like to go somewhere to converse fluently with someone who speaks their same native tongue. Take their words with a grain of salt, but at least it is a start.

On a scale of 1-10, how fluent are you in the Khmer language?”

This one is embarrassing for the amount of time I’ve spent here. If I am honest, I would have to say 3.5 or perhaps 4. My partner is Khmer and we have our own lingua franca which bastardizes both English and Khmer.

If you order one food in a local restaurant, what should it be and why?”

In general, I find Cambodian food bland. Although this doesn’t have to be the case if preparing it yourself or someone else is preparing it for you who will follow your requests. Most local restaurants serve basic food. It’s definitely cheap and filling. If I had to pick a favourite Khmer dish I might choose amok. You can research it. Basically, it’s fish with herbs, coconut, and banana leaves. If prepared properly, it can be quite tasty.

What do locals order at the bar?”

From my observations the overwhelming majority order beer. It’s cold and wet and cheap. If you want cocktails, you will have to go to a foreign-owned place and if you want wine, you have to do the same or else go to a decent international restaurant. Unlike beer, wine and cocktails are not cheap here.

What destinations in Cambodia should travelers put on their bucket list and why?”

The obvious one is Angkor Wat. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a damned amazing place. 

If the great outdoors is your thing, head to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri Provinces. These are underpopulated with some hill tribe people (for lack of a more appropriate description) and plenty of as of yet undestroyed forests.

For animal lovers, try Kratié. It is located right on the Mekong and is one of three places in the world where you can see the Irrawaddy dolphins. They face extinction so keep that in mind for the pecking order of your bucket list.

How much should someone budget for a week’s stay?”

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because everyone has different wants and needs. Another consideration is whether you want to simply exist or do you want to actually have fun? Are you living here or are you on a freewheeling holiday? But here goes my attempt.

Backpackers roughing it can get dorm space for about $5 a night. A reasonably decent room in a modest hotel or guesthouse will run in the $15-20 range… Street food is cheap but if you want to eat in a modestly priced restaurant, you can find eateries in the $5-10 range. I would say if you want to live modestly but not on a skeleton budget then allow yourself at least $50 a day to cover meals and transportation etc along with your lodging. If you are on a short holiday, you’ll want at least double that.

What’s the average salary for a foreigner?”

Again, that’s a difficult question. What is the job? Unless you are fortunate enough to be working for a foreign company that pays a salary similar to what you would make in the West, you will probably be underpaid.

I know many of your readers are educators. If you are talking about teaching wages, then Cambodia is not the place to come to make money. Depending on your experience and certification, an entry-level teacher would not make more than $1200-1400 a month. It is also a horrible time to consider taking a teaching job in Cambodia during these COVID days. Currently, they are closed more than open. I have school-aged kids and I know. Some places are going the online learning route. This pays much less than actual teaching as it is a sub-par product anyway. I now hear of former teachers struggling to get by on about $500. In many cases, half of that is going towards their rent.

How safe is the country?”

It’s a walk in the park. Two or three decades ago it had a bit of a reputation of being the wild east. Unprovoked violent crimes are rare here now. Pickpocketing and bag snatching is rife though.

I do find your question interesting as I often wonder why someone based in the US worries about safety. I have travelled in about 70 countries and the only one I’ve been to which I would categorize as highly dangerous is the United States.

What do you miss most about Canada?”

Maple syrup, of course.

No, but besides that, I would have to say nature and the sheer beauty of the great outdoors in Canada. My kids have never experienced a camping trip with campfire cooked-food, starry nights, and loons calling on the lake at night. These are my fondest memories of the country.

A gorgeous purple sunset over the water.

Be sure to catch up with Michael Carter in his next epic travel tale when the world reopens. If you enjoy hearing about his SE Asia adventures as much as we do at Dreams Abroad, feel free to say hello in the comments. Let him know what you would like to hear about next and if you’ve been to Cambodia…?

by Leesa Truesdell

Introducing 2020’s Mid-Year Most Popular Travel Articles

We are halfway through 2020! A couple of years ago, we started publishing a mid-year review to see which articles were read the most. This has been an interesting year so far and thanks to you, our Dreams Abroad community, we are proud to release our mid-year review. Here are your favorite articles of the first half of 2020 to remind you which topics were at the top six months ago. 

So far, 2020 has been a year filled with backpacking, travel tales, teaching in Cambodia, and the impact of COVID-19 on our team in different countries. We are pleased to share our most popular travel articles with you.

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

In this illuminating interview, Ed Gagnon caught up with Michael Carter, a fellow Canadian he met while Michael was working in the restaurant industry. Ed explains Michael’s affliction for wanderlust coupled with his move to southeast Asia in 2000. Michael has been living, teaching, and traveling abroad for 20 years. 

Traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodi Travel Articles

If you would like to know more about how to stay and teach in Cambodia, this is undoubtedly a great travel article to read. Since this interview, Michael Carter has joined our team. Be sure to check out Michael’s second interview as well as his own articles. 

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Emma Higgins taught in Phuket, Thailand for a year before deciding to backpack around southeast Asia for three months before heading home to the United States. In this article, she gives 10 reasons why you should backpack around southeast Asia. Emma discusses some of the cultural complexities that transform you into an especially strong traveler. In addition, she points out how you’ll learn new languages, the many different foods you’ll encounter, and how to get out of your comfort zone and discover a new one. 

The Multifaceted Effects of Coronavirus in Our Education System

children being creative

Bebe Bakhtiar is a teacher who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic. She takes a moment to shed some light and share her concerns about the impact of the virus in addition to what its impact will have on our international education system. This article covers the positive and negative effects of the Coronavirus on students and teachers. In this powerful piece, Bebe urges all community leaders to fight harder for our education system and its teachers. 

Arriving in Mexico City

Arriving in Mexico City

Tyler Black read about Leesa Truesdell’s trip to Mexico City and decided he wanted to also visit, too. Upon arrival, he talks about the view from the plane and how large the city is. He arrives in Mexico City and discusses the first day of his itinerary. Tyler certainly enjoys tasting the local food, touring the downtown city center, and seeing the nightlife. He provides recommendations for a taco and churrería in the city — be sure not to miss this article. Anthony Bourdain ate at the same street taco vendor! 

My Tour of Paris by Night

Moulin Rouge in paris

Leesa Truesdell shares her tour of Paris by night. She talks about the rippling effects of her canceled flight through a series of articles. In this last piece of the series, she spends a very special birthday touring Paris, living a dream she had had for years. This article talks about the different places she explored with her tour guide and the different ways to approach Paris at night (if you are a beginner). If you enjoy reading about Leesa’s solo travel adventures, then this one is a must-read. It has been one of her most popular travel articles. 

Mid-Year 2020 Best Travel Articles

Be on the lookout for our annual review coming in December 2020. You (our readers) decide who makes the top five by reading our content. Each time you read or click on a post, we appreciate it. Thank you so much for reading and being part of our community. If there are other things you would like to know from any of our writers, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment. We will share your feedback with them.

by Leesa Truesdell

Spending a Month Wandering Vietnam

After living abroad in Thailand for a year, teaching English, I took a three-month trip to travel around southeast Asia. I spent the first three weeks of that journey in Vietnam. Going into the trip, I didn’t feel incredibly excited about Vietnam — not that I was bummed, but I just didn’t have high expectations. Looking back, though, it was probably one of my favorite countries.

I was in Vietnam from mid-September to mid-October, and I personally think it was a great time to go. It was hot — but Vietnam will always be hot. I visited right on the brink of tourist season. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and it also wasn’t monsooning anymore.

I didn’t go into Vietnam with a set plan at all. I had a plane ticket into the country and a plane ticket out three weeks later. My “plan” included traveling to a city, hanging out for a couple of days, then figuring out where to go next and how to get there. At times, it was stressful, but it was ultimately a great decision. I’m really glad I did it that way. It allowed for a lot of flexibility and exploration.

Good Eats All Around Vietnam

My plan was to start in Hanoi, Vietnam (north) and work my way down through the country, ending in Ho Chi Minh City. On my first day, I got into Hanoi around 7 pm after a long travel day. I was starving and exhausted. Luckily, I was staying right in the middle of Old Town and there was food — literally — on every corner. I sat down at the first street stall I could find and ate a life-changing bowl of chicken noodle soup. 

Bowl of chicken noodle soup

Vietnamese food is amazing and I’m sure most people have enjoyed a westernized version of it at home. But the thing that makes Vietnamese food great is the simplicity of it. My chicken noodle soup was literally chicken broth, chicken, noodles, and herbs, made right there on the sidewalk. And it was spectacular. Vietnamese cuisine is founded on the ideas of fresh and easy, and since the cuisine’s main ingredients are water and rice, it’s one of the healthiest in the world.

Favorite Dishes

Some other amazing dishes I had in northern Vietnam were beef pho with chili (pho bo), fish soup with lemon and dill (bun cha), spring rolls, and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich on baguette). Probably my favorite meal I had was a meal called banh xeo. Banh xeo is a rice flour and egg pancake, stuffed with meat and vegetables. My personal favorite is shrimp, diced onion, bean sprouts, topped with a little sweet chili sauce. It’s like an egg taco and it’s fantastic.

Banh xeo vegetables

Hanoi was probably my favorite city in Vietnam, and I just got lucky that it was also my first. Hanoi is the epitome of Vietnam, with absurd traffic, coffee shops everywhere, and life happening outside and all at once. It’s loud, chaotic, and charming. Moving south through the country, the lifestyle might relax a little, but the Vietnamese chaos never disappears.

The Gorgeous Sides of Vietnam

The next two cities on the itinerary were Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. They’re both very similar, geographically, except there’s an inland one and an island one surrounded by water. Otherwise, the mountains and limestone features of both cities are the same. The food, the people, and the culture are also very similar. And while these cities are much smaller and less crowded than Hanoi, they have so much to see.

Vietnam Ha Long Bay

Halong is famous. If you’ve ever looked into traveling to Vietnam you’ve probably seen boat tours around the bay. People know it for its beautiful and plentiful limestone islands that pop up in the water. Some are small islands while others are big mountains where you can dock and look around. During the boat tour, I saw a beautiful cave and got to lounge on a gorgeous beach. Just simply sailing through the bay was spectacular.

Ninh Binh

A little to the south, Ninh Binh also has the beautiful limestone hills and mountains – they’re just on land. The city is really cool to drive through because while the ground is very flat, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of mountains. I hiked up one of the mountains, Mua Cave, and it was amazing. It was so cool to see all of the peaks and valleys from so high up. More than just mountains, Ninh Binh also has rivers and beautiful lotus gardens.

Scratch the Surface

Vietnam doesn’t only offer natural beauty, though. Hue was my next stop, a city located in central Vietnam. Hue is an ancient, imperial city, and one that has been around since at least 1789. The city’s citadel is now preserved and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Literally worlds of history attached themselves to this beautiful town.

Hue Vietnam

Some people don’t know that Hue and Vietnam have a very artistic culture as well. An old, abandoned water park turned tourist must-see and a local hang out became one of the coolest things I saw the whole trip. Over the years, graffiti and age caught up to it a little. Nonetheless, it seemed like a great representation of the art and history that many know Vietnam for. It was beautiful, secular, and bursting with history. And Hue is like that everywhere — even coffee shops and bike taxis are creative and fun to look at.

Vietnam coffee shop

The thing that stands out most to me about Hue, though, is the culture. Yes, Vietnam can be loud and chaotic, but at its heart is compassion and kindness. The host I had for my Airbnb in Hue was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He showed me around the city, cooked for me, and offered tons of help. I wouldn’t have gotten half the experience I did without him. And this is just how Vietnamese people are: helpful and warm-hearted.

Getting Around 

From Hue, I made the journey to Da Nang. When I bought the bus ticket, someone told me it would be about a three-and-a-half-hour journey. But, it ended up being much longer than that — a common theme among my entire trip. What was supposed to be an easy and fun bus ride, became a full-day event. We would make stops often — to pick up people, to pick up packages, once to even pick up a motorbike. And this is just how it works in Vietnam. Nobody is in a rush, and nobody is bothered with efficiency.  

Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-biggest city and is very similar to any metropolitan area. It has a lot of cool attractions, like the city, a beach, and a few mountains. So maybe a lot cooler than your average city. Very close by was Hoi An, another ancient city preserved. To get to Hoi An, you could either take an expensive taxi or drive motorbikes. After living in Thailand for a year, I felt confident in my moped-driving skills and made the hour’s journey to Hoi An. Motorbike riding is very common in Asia, and you can rent a motorbike in most cities. I could write a whole article about motorbikes and parking, but to keep from boring you I’ll sum it up: be careful.

After getting too close for comfort in traffic and almost getting scammed for parking in Hoi An, I finally made it to the ancient city. I grabbed coconut coffee and walked around a bit. These cities have really become gentrified and a lot of the culture has been replaced by tourist stops and shops. Most old buildings now sell counterfeit purses or the same “authentic” souvenir magnets. My favorite tourist scams include the completely overpriced tours of rice paddy fields.

Bang for Your Buck. . . or Dong

One of the biggest draws to SEAsia, for a lot of people, is the cost. SEAsia, and Vietnam particularly, is crazy cheap. If you’ve heard anything about Vietnam it’s probably about the 5 cent beers and 50cent banh mis. And it’s true — everything is ridiculously cheap. And that is especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. The conversion rate in Vietnam is 1USD to about 23,000 Vietnamese dong, so math could get a little tricky at times. It was absolutely worth it, though!

After leaving Da Nang, I made my way south to the capital city. Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam, with more than a million people. It’s also huge and has many different neighborhoods like most large cities. And like most cities, each neighborhood has its own personality and signature. There is District 1 for backpackers, Little India, Phu Nhuan, Chinatown — and so many more. The best thing about each of these is that they are all different versions of Vietnam. And even though Saigon is a huge city, you can get all of these perspectives of the country at really cheap prices. You get a modern-city-feel for a fraction of a modern-city-price.

Ho Chi Minh

Staying in Ho Chi Minh

I stayed in an Airbnb in between the Japanese district and business district. I was walking distance to all of the tourist stops, right next to tons of restaurants, but still right in the heart of a local neighborhood. It was $12 a night (Twelve). All of my meals were cheap and delicious. And while you usually expect to see tourist spots with outrageous prices, places like the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace were fairly reasonable. They were well worth it, too. It was really cool to learn about the Vietnam/American War from Vietnam’s point of view.

Independence Palace

By this point in my trip, I had two and a half weeks of laundry to do. So after some searching, I found a place doing a kilogram of laundry for 75 cents (USD) — washed, folded, delivered. Sounded fantastic to me! I dropped off a huge backpack of laundry. It was returned the next day for less than $5. These hard-to-believe costs are all over Asia and especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. It’s one of the reasons I recommend Vietnam to anyone who asks. Not only is a great city — but it’s a great city for a great price.

A Month in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the coolest countries I’ve ever visited. Even a month might not be enough to fully take advantage of just how awesome it is. You’ll eat some of the best food you’ve ever eaten, while bouncing around to any landscape or city imaginable. There’s plenty of history and culture to see. You’ll get all kinds of comfort-zone-pushing experiences, while being able to stay under budget. Vietnam is truly a fantastic place and I can’t recommend it enough.

 

I have written a lot more about my trip to Vietnam and Asia on my own personal blog. If traveling to Asia is something you’re interested in, or if you just like to read about other cultures I’d love for you to check it out!

 

experience vietnam

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

by Edmond Gagnon

Michael CarterIn the first part of Michael Carter’s interview, he told us how and why he chose Cambodia as his new home. He targeted Southeast Asia but did not have a particular country when he first decided to come. Then, he visited a friend he’d made from Germany who was living in Cambodia. Seeing Cambodia’s gorgeous atmosphere and rich culture, he immediately applied for a job there and the rest is history. 

Here is the second part of his interview teaching English in Cambodia.

What is a typical day at your school like? 

“A typical teaching day for me begins at 7:40 a.m. and finishes at 4:10 p.m. Many schools run early evening classes as well, but not where I currently work. There is a long gap between morning and afternoon classes, between 10:30 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.). This is mainly to coincide with typical hours of Khmer schools. Most students study for a half-day at Khmer school. Students from wealthy families who can afford English schools spend the other half of their day there.”

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

The place I work employs a lot of people for various duties. There are probably about fifty to sixty teachers on staff. The day is divided into six classes — three before and three after midday. I teach anywhere from four to six classes a day, which adds up to twenty-four teaching hours per week. Most schools here use a twenty to thirty hour teaching week as a base. Notably, the afternoon classes do not have the same students as the morning.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

Teaching English in Cambodia“I tend to work independently most of the time. This is partly because I am the only one teaching the courses I do teach (i.e. sociology and psychology). But for other subjects, there are typically three teachers teaching the same thing and they often share ideas and materials. We also have a computer database where teachers can store and access lesson plans or worksheets that have been shared.”

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

 “Quitting time — 4:10 p.m. Reasons are obvious I would think.”

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

“I think most schools are looking for similar teaching styles, but I certainly would say it’s student-centered. We are meant to keep the TTT (Teacher Talking Time) to an absolute minimum. Group work and pair work are preferable to independent studying. Encourage learner interaction and incorporate critical thinking into the activities whenever possible. I create a lot of supplementary material and often look for short video segments on YouTube which may add another dimension to the lesson.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

One of many city temples“You can’t always stick to a lesson plan to the last detail, but you should have something planned anyway. Sometimes the timing can be tricky, but you don’t want to have flat or inactive moments.”

I always plan some type of warmer (five to ten minutes) to bring the learners on board. This doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the material in the lesson. It could simply be a short competition of some kind. The purpose is to grab the attention of your ‘audience’. Think of watching a film at the cinema — or reading a story. The first few minutes of a film are crucial to catch the interest of the viewer, just as a writer needs a ‘hook’ to make the reader want to continue. Teaching isn’t any different. Get their attention, wind them up, and then let them go.

After the warmer, give brief but clear instructions for the class activities. This is your time to teach any new material… but don’t ramble on for too long.

The rest, and longest part of the class must allow students to interact/practice etc. Depending on what you have taught, give a short (five minute) recap/review of the lesson’s key points at the end and assign extra practice (homework) from time-to-time.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes at the school? Describe the ways English is being implemented. 

“Our school is strictly English only. We don’t simply teach English, we teach subjects in English. Of course, they learn their basics of the language there as well. However, they study social sciences, history, geography, computer, sports, etc. — all in English.

There are other schools which do just teach English language as a class, though. These places usually have early evening classes that cater to young adults after work.

Our school operates a Khmer language school as well and some students study half a day at each.”

What are the standards classroom teachers use to measure the performance of their students?

“Testing mainly. I personally think students are tested too often but this is what the Cambodian parents want and expect. We also make a part of their score based on speaking from day-to-day class activities. Once a month they are given a project or assignment connected to what they’ve been studying. A mark is given for this as well.

At the beginner levels, we stress fluency. Once they’ve attained that, the higher levels base their scores on both fluency and accuracy.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

Stone Masons at work

I’ve probably touched upon these already, but in a nutshell:
  • Critical thinking skills. Students need to be able to both think and express their ideas and opinions. It isn’t about simply remembering a lot of facts and formulas.
  • Social skills. Cambodians tend to have tightly-knit families. Unlike in most western countries, teenagers do not go out or just hang out with friends. They almost always go out as a family unit. Group work at school affords them an opportunity to interact with non-family members. Social media is perhaps changing things a bit, but not necessarily in a positive way.
  • Confidence. Unlike some schools, we do not automatically pass everybody in order to continue collecting their money. Pushing a student to a higher level when they are not ready is wrong. Students will soon realize their skills are inferior to others and this will kill their desire to participate. Getting good grades is something wonderful for younger learners to show their parents. Giving some verbal praise from time-to-time can do wonders, especially for older, less confident students.

Looking back at the first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself since first being in the classroom this year?

“I have been teaching for around twenty years and for about the first fifteen of those years, I didn’t teach anyone younger than the age of about seventeen or eighteen. It was almost exclusively young adults under thirty. This was both in Indonesia and Cambodia. I now teach kids as young as eleven and twelve and up to the age of seventeen or eighteen. One thing I’ve had to adjust to was having patience dealing with young, wandering attention spans. My partner is Cambodian and we have three young children together so I have become used to this fairly naturally.

Something I’ve known all along but continue to practice is changing up the way I conduct my lessons. Yes, I could replay what I’ve done in the past, though I would find that boring. Keeping things fresh is a key to retaining job interest. Nobody likes a mundane job.”

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

As you are reading this, Michael is seeking shelter from the 37°C temperatures that don’t normally come until at least a month from now. If you have any questions about teaching English in Cambodia, or the country itself, please don’t hesitate to ask.

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

Harold Michael Carter(Harold) Michael Carter was born and raised in Stratford, Ontario. He studied journalism and discovered at an early age his affliction of wanderlust. Michael furthered his education in life by backpacking his way through Europe. The most important thing he learned from traveling was that he needed to do more of it. 

I met Michael through extended family, when we visited Stratford, home of the Shakespeare Theatre. When he wasn’t working as a manager or bartender in town, he shared photographs and stories of his travels abroad. We bonded over beer, wine, good food and tales of far away places.  

He left Canada for Cambodia in January, 2000, using Phnom Penh as a base from which he could explore Southeast Asia. In 2005 he left for Indonesia, where there was plenty of work back then. He managed to travel and visit home in 2006 and then returned to Cambodia in 2007. He still resides, teaches, and travels from Cambodia today. 

I interviewed Michael Carter to offer an insight into how traveling and teaching abroad can turn into a life lived abroad. 

 

Why did you choose to teach in Cambodia?

“I didn’t choose this country in particular, but I did target Southeast Asia. The main reason was that I wanted a base for traveling in this part of the world. I had previously visited Thailand and initially considered moving there. However, I came to Cambodia to visit a German friend who was living here at the time. I applied for a job just for the hell of it and the rest is history.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?

“This was my first teaching job abroad. After roaming the globe for many years, I decided I wanted to base myself some place other than Canada. I was inspired by a writer from Montréal whom I met in the Czech Republic. He was writing and teaching in Prague. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I want to do — write and travel and be able to financially support this lifestyle.” I had recently severed a relationship and no longer felt ‘tied down.’ I returned to Canada to work for a few months and by the end of the year I was Asia-bound.”

What did you think teaching would be like? Where are you teaching now?

“I thought teaching would be an ideal venue to interact with local people. It was a new venture and was somewhat exciting in the early days. I probably followed the script in the beginning but soon developed my own style. I am currently teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I reside with my family.”

Carter Family

How did you prepare for your teaching job? What steps did you take?

“I knew I would need some sort of certification and so I bunked with a friend in Toronto and took an evening and weekend TESOL course. If giving advice on the matter, today I would suggest taking a month-long CELTA course. TEFL is accepted in Cambodia but the best schools are now looking for CELTA certification.”  

What are your perceptions of Cambodia during your time there?

“Cambodia is an interesting country as it is evolving so rapidly. While many things have improved, many aspects of the country endeared me more when I first set foot here twenty years ago. To be honest, if I just arrived for the first time today, I doubt I would choose to live here. I now have established a family here and so now I will always have one foot here at least. Where would I choose instead of Cambodia? I suppose if I were single and starting over with Southeast Asia in mind, I would choose Vietnam.”

Angkor Wat Cambodia

What are your goals while you are abroad?

“Life long goals continually change. Travel opportunities would have been my initial answer to this. I now have a Cambodian partner and we have three children together. My goal now is to establish a reasonably secure base for them before I retire. At that time, I hope to pick up with my travels again. (With Cambodia as my base — health permitting). I have taught here and in Indonesia and was a whisker away from taking a job in Azerbaijan. However, I no longer have the desire to take a job in another country.”

What has been your most difficult time there?

“Tough question. I really haven’t experienced too many difficulties. I suppose becoming a financial prisoner is the main issue. Teaching pays well in some countries (such as South Korea & Japan), but the cost of living can be high in those countries. The cost of living is relatively low in Cambodia but the average rate of pay for teachers coincides with that. Most teachers can live here comfortably so long as they don’t expect to have any money left over to move on. It’s sort of like collecting a welfare cheque — it pays the bills with not much leftover. The other issue that could become a difficulty is health care. Cambodia is lagging behind other countries in the region in this department. This is not the place to be if one has health problems.”

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia

What has been your best experience?

“Although I might not have thought so at the time, I suppose it was when I took on the task of being an adviser to a Cambodian senator who was overseeing the ASEAN conference his country was hosting. That is my best memory from a professional point of view.

From a personal point of view, I would have to say that collectively I have met a lot of interesting people here. This experience has shaped and reshaped my ideas over the years.”

How do you feel about the culture there? Do you feel you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“Cultural differences and cultural sensitivity will always be an interesting, yet sometimes challenging part of the relocation. I lived in Indonesia for a little more than a year and seemed to fit right in. In Cambodia, I found it more perplexing in the beginning. I suppose I will never fully be immersed in this culture because differences always come up with child-rearing strategies for example. My partner and I are often at odds as to how to raise our children. Essentially we have the best interest of the kids in mind but we have very opposing tactics as to how to achieve this. Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist nation and Buddhism allows for tolerance. It is pretty much live and let live here — even though my ways may seem curious to others and vice-versa.”

Mekong River Phnom Penh

What advice would you give to other participants about their first year? What are some of the things they must do, and things they absolutely must not do?

Bousra Waterfall Cambodia

“My advice may differ from some you might hear, but here goes. Try to find out information about the schools first and then try for a job at the BEST possible school. (Not necessarily best paying, but one with a good reputation and proven record of longevity). Some people might suggest going for any job and making rookie mistakes at a lesser institute and using that as a stepping stone. Bull to that. All you will do is acquire bad habits. Work with the best or don’t work at all.

Arrive with enough money to sustain yourself for at least two to three months. Schools usually pay once or twice a month. Even if you land a job immediately, you won’t see money for at least a month and you will have initial expenses to deal with.

Finding a School

Most reputable schools are not interested in fly-by-nights. Get a place to live as soon as possible — not just a guesthouse address. Many new arrivals have the attitude they will stay in a cheap guesthouse until they find work. My advice is to look like you are serious about staying and provide an address for your potential employer. If you are only looking for a six-month stop-over to collect some travel cash then you could do better looking at a lesser operation with a guesthouse address. But if you seriously want to spend some time in the country, then present yourself as someone who might stick around. No reputable place of employment wants a high turnover rate of employees.

I’ve taught in two countries in Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Cambodia. In both countries, local transportation is relatively cheap but distances between potential employers are often far and quite spread out and transportation costs while job searching will add up quickly. If you have money, consider getting a small motorbike. If not (as was my case), pick up a cheap, used bicycle. You can get one in Phnom Penh for around $35 US. If you’re old school like me, sling a briefcase over your shoulder with your CVs and go from place to place.”

Stay tuned for Edmond Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter on how he traveled to teach in Cambodia. They will be sharing more great adventures with his experiences at his school. To find out more about Edmond Gagnon, visit his website.

by Edmond Gagnon