We write this post as we sit on the balcony of our new home in Saigon, overlooking our pool (which we couldn’t be more delighted about) and watching the sun set over this bustling city. Our six wonderful weeks of travelling had finally come to an end and it was back to the daily grind of teaching English in a new city. With a mixture of sadness and excitement, we were thrust back into a life of routine, wearing deodorant and normal eating patterns. Hooray for not living out of a backpack!
As we touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as and also still referred to as Saigon, it brought back familiar feelings to our arrival to Hanoi back in September. It was a strange feeling watching this unfamiliar city flash by us through the taxi windows, knowing we would be calling it home for the next three months. The prospect of teaching again made us a little uneasy, as we felt slightly rusty after 6 weeks of relaxation. We would have to brush up on our bank of hello/goodbye songs. The idea of settling into a new place and building a repertoire of cheap and tasty coffee/food spots from scratch was also a bit intimidating, but we were equally buzzing with excitement at the sheer abundance of new places to explore. It definitely felt like a good decision to move on from Hanoi to get a flavour of living in the largest city in Vietnam.
We’d heard mixed reviews about HCMC in the lead up to our arrival. Whenever it came up in conversation, everyone had some form of opinion about it, both positive and negative. There were conflicting views about whether it was more expensive than Hanoi, friendlier, or had more things to do than the capital up North. We had also been warned about the notorious phone and bag snatchers, but like any big city, the good also comes with the bad. It will still take us some time to form a well-rounded and fair judgment of the place, but we already have very good vibes about it in spite of some of the harsh reviews. From our fist impressions we can say Saigon feels like a bigger, louder, even more chaotic version of Hanoi but with many similarities. HCMC does feel like the trendier younger sibling to Hanoi, with more fashionable food and drink spots and an urban atmosphere, with plenty to keep us busy for more than a few months. However, as a consequence it doesn’t have the same charm as the traditional Old Quarter up North.
Our first week in Ho Chi Minh City was a mixture of drifting around in a state of limbo and then all go, full throttle errand-running, while acclimatising to the suffocating tropical climate. We stayed in various Airbnbs upon arrival until we met with our new employers to work out which schools we would be located at. Unfortunately ILA told us we wouldn’t know our permanent schedules until a couple of weeks in so we went ahead and began the flat hunt with the aim of being as close to the ILA Language Centre as possible (all of the public schools are within a 10 minute radius of this location). We viewed a handful of shared flats but the stand out winner was an apartment in Botanic Towers, a 15-minute drive south from the ILA Centre (in Go Vap) and about 15 minutes north of District 1. There are 12 districts in HCMC (it’s like living in the Hunger Games) and our block of flats is situated in Phu Nhuan, neatly nestled in the middle of everything (see map below).
We decided to opt for shared accommodation this time round, as the cost of renting is significantly cheaper. We’re paying a grand total of £116 each for our spacious room and communal living space including balcony. Botanic Towers also boasts a swimming pool, which was the icing on the cake for us. We’re sharing our flat with two other girls; Angela, a fellow English teacher from America, and Anna, a fashion intern from Scotland. All of us have busy schedules but there’s a nice balance of being able to mingle in the evenings but not step on one another’s toes, so we get the benefits of sharing without compromising privacy. The surrounding lanes have plenty of cheap Vietnamese street food spots and strong coffees for us to try out. We were surprised by how cheap the food is here and often eat out for £1 per meal, which trumps Hanoi’s street food scene.
It took about 2 weeks before we were actually standing in front of the menacing primary kids again but this gave us some time to get our bearings. Our free time also happened to coincide with Ben and Eden’s trip to HCMC, so we had a leisurely weekend exploring the sights with them. Even though Saigon is a modern city, it’s not without its colonial charm. One of our first tourist spots was the Notre Dam Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Both of these buildings sit side by side in downtown Saigon. Both have Gothic Renaissance and French influences and the Central Post Office was constructed by Gustave Eiffel himself. We also spoilt ourselves with some of the more upmarket restaurants recommended by the Lonely Planet and enjoyed some long overdue IPA beers at Pasteur Street Brewing Company. Using American hops, European Malt and exotic Vietnamese ingredients, PSBC creates award-winning beer and it has an extensive menu that we will definitely be sampling again.
But the highlights had to be the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The Reunification Palace, also known as the Independence Palace, is a landmark in HCMC. It was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and was the site of the end of this war in 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates. It took us a good chunk of the day to walk through the eerie, now deserted halls and enjoy the 1960s architecture. There are a variety of meetings rooms on display, in addition to a cinema, rooftop nightclub and helipad. There’s also a basement with a telecommunication centre, war room and warren of tunnels. Just a short walk away, the War Remnants Museum was one of the best museums we’d been to that depicted the effects of war on Vietnam’s civilian victims so powerfully. The harrowing photography displays were the most striking (including graphic images of the consequences of Agent Orange) but the museum also features US armored vehicles, artillery pieces and bombs. We actually paid to go back the following day, as we didn’t get round the whole museum in time before it closed at 5pm.
After Ben and Eden deserted us and jetted off to a nearby beach resort for the week, it was back to reality. The schools in HCMC begin at the sickly hour of 7am so it meant an early night for us prior to our first day. But we can see the reason behind the early starts as the oppressive heat of the sun had not yet burnt it’s way through the sky as we scooted our way bleary eyed to our first classes.
ILA had been fairly laid back in the lead up to our first day of teaching, as they knew we’d gone through the motions before in Hanoi and perhaps sensed our eagerness to get stuck in, but they gave us all the support we needed. ILA is a much bigger company than The Washington Language Centre in Hanoi, with a total of 30 centres within Vietnam. Our centre in Go Vap (centre 12) employs 60+ teachers, so there’s always someone to cover classes, so in theory there’s less pressure on teachers and we’re generally looked after a lot better and get to enjoy flexible holidays. The centre has plenty of resources (from stickers, and puppets to fly swatters), free printing and an extensive well organised website with example lesson plans and suggested games. It felt like we’d been upgraded from economy to business class.
We had been eased in during our first week, only working on Wednesday and Thursday. Although the lead up to stepping back in the classroom was nerve wracking, we found once we were up on stage and performing (it really does feel like we’re faking confidence being teachers at times!) everything came back to us and the lesson fell naturally into place. We enjoyed the familiar buzz as we left hoards of high fiving, smiling children knowing we’d pocketed $20 for an hour of dancing around like fools. We felt like celebrities once again. And it was straight back to our Botanic Tower pad for a dip in the pool to top off a jam packed first two weeks in the big city.