How to teach abroad in Vietnam
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
While I originally planned on teaching abroad in Hungary this school year, due to COVID, I ended up staying in Vietnam to teach instead. This was my first experience teaching outside of volunteering in my mom's pre-k classroom, and it has been quite an adventure. If you've been considering teaching abroad, you should 100% go for it! You'll make some great memories and some great friends, and it's just such a good experience to have overall.
Southeast Asia is one of the most popular places to come travel and teach as the pay to cost of living is very good. Places like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia are your best bets for looking for a teaching job in SE Asia. If that's not your cup of tea, you can also find jobs in almost every other part of the world. Other popular destinations for English teachers are China, South Korea, Latin America, Spain, and Eastern Europe.
What you need to teach abroad:
Countries are getting much stricter on this requirement. It used to be much easier to show up in a country and get a teaching job with no real qualifications, especially as a native English speaker. Now, most countries require a bachelor's degree (in any field) in order to process your work visa.
This is super easy to do online as you’re finishing up your bachelor’s degree or to fit in around your current job. Generally, these courses will be around $200-300, and you can complete them over the span of around 6 months. It’s a pretty self-explanatory course that’s not too hard but does really help prep you for teaching here. Just google the best online TEFL courses, and there are a bunch out there. You can also find cheaper courses - I can't vouch for the reputability of these, although you're welcome to try your luck! I did my course through i-to-i. They're very reputable and can help you find a job after you're certified. I really procrastinated on the course, but it still only took me about 2 months to complete it.
You can also find TEFL courses in person in your home country through local universities or other TEFL certification companies, or you can really immerse yourself and do one abroad. I originally came to Vietnam to do my TEFL certification in person in Hanoi. This option was more expensive, but I learn better in a classroom environment than online. However, this course was canceled due to COVID, so I ended up doing my course online anyway.
Vietnam specific requirements
You will need to get your degree and your TEFL certificate authenticated in the US before coming to Asia. These are needed for obtaining legal working permits. Pre-COVID, many people would just work on a tourist visa and leave the country and come back every three months with a new tourist visa. Since COVID, Vietnam has kept the borders closed and we can’t leave the country for a visa run. There have been workarounds to obtaining a work permit without authenticated versions of your degrees. However, this is much more expensive - about $650 vs $50 with the authenticated documents. Post-COVID, I think Vietnam is planning on making working regulations stricter, and they won’t allow you to get a work permit without your physical degrees here.
Teaching in Vietnam - the experience
Jobs here (at least pre and during COVID) are pretty easy to come by, as long as you have your degree and TEFL certificate. To find a job in Vietnam, you have two options - the first is to find a reputable company online, do a Skype interview with them, and wait to come to Asia until you have a job offer. The other option is to come to Vietnam, base yourself in one of the two major cities - Hanoi in the north or Ho Chi Minh City in the south; and go to in-person interviews until you find a company you want to work for. Even if you don’t want to teach in one of the big cities, it’s easier to base yourself there for the hiring process. Many companies have openings in more rural areas or smaller cities that you can ask about. Pay for teaching here is around $1500-2200 per month after taxes, which is way more than enough to live comfortably and still save a large portion of your money. Depending on your spending habits, it’s quite reasonable to expect to save between $500-1000 per month. You're probably not going to get rich, but this is great for paying off student loans or saving for future travels.
Where to teach - village or city?
Teaching jobs in the cities are definitely easier to come by, but there is more competition for these jobs. The pros of teaching in Hanoi or HCMC are a big group of expats - it’s quite easy to gain a social circle, and access to all the amenities and comforts Americans are used to - shopping malls with stores that we also have back home, a huge variety of western food and a good nightlife scene. The cons are the cities of Vietnam suffer from high levels of air pollution, which can be hard especially for people with asthma or other breathing-related health issues, and that everything in the city is going to be more expensive. You might make more money, but you’ll also spend more on nights out with friends, going out to eat, and shopping.
Teaching in a smaller town or village is nice because the air is fresh and all of the beautiful nature of Vietnam is right on your doorstep. In my opinion, the cities of Vietnam are kind of ‘meh’ and the true beauty of Vietnam is in the countryside. Here you will get to experience authentic Vietnamese culture and food. You will also be able to save a large portion of your money because there is less access to Western comforts and food - this lack of access can be hard for some people though. In some of these towns, you could be the only foreign person and only one of a handful of English speakers - something else to consider depending on your personal comfort level.
Overall, the countryside is great for fresh air, saving money and an authentic experience, and the cities are great for meeting people, having lots of food options, and more things to do.
Language Centers vs Public Schools
You have two main options when it comes to where to teach, public schools and language centers. When teaching in public schools, classes are around 50 children, and class periods are 35 minutes for primary (elementary) school and 45 minutes for middle and high school. I know this number sounds daunting, but it’s not actually that overwhelming when you’re actually in the classroom. I really love teaching at my public primary school here. When teaching at a public school, you receive a syllabus and the coursebook but are expected to make your own lesson plans. Your schedule at public school is generally from 7am-5pm, with a two-hour lunch break in the middle.
Language centers operate in the evenings and on weekends, generally from 5-9 pm weeknights, and flexible times on the weekends (could be mornings, afternoons, or both.) Classes at language centers are a lot smaller. I taught at a smaller center and classes there averaged around 10 students; although I would say that 20 students in a class is more typical. Some language centers will provide you with a curriculum, so no need to make lesson plans. Other centers will still require you to plan your own lessons. I do feel like there is much more freedom to be creative and plan crafts and games at language centers. Classes at language centers are generally around one hour.
Overall, this comes down to personal preference. I like public schools more because of the schedule - I like having weekends and evenings free. I also know some people who would rather have the whole day off and only work evenings.
My experience teaching in Vietnam
I've only taught in Ho Chi Minh City, so I can only talk about the experience of teaching in a city. I have taught at both language centers and public schools and enjoyed teaching at a public school more. My classes at my public school were great and they were only 35 minutes as opposed to 1 hour at the language center. The language center also changed my schedule around quite a bit so I felt like I didn't get as much of a chance to bond with the kids.
The curriculum at the public schools is easy to follow and lesson planning was pretty straightforward. My primary school lessons were a mix of games, bookwork, and workbook time. They want you to focus mainly on helping the students learn natural-sounding speaking and pronunciation, as well as improving their listening skills. I didn't have to teach grammar - that was all taught by the Vietnamese English teacher.
That being said, teaching here doesn't come without its challenges. It may have been a little harder for me because I never went to public school growing up - any other past homeschoolers out there? The average class size in the US is around 20-25 kids, and here the average class can range from 40-50 students. There are obviously outliers to this - I taught at one school where the classes were about 32-35 students, and the school that J teaches at has some classes of 60 kids.
In general, the students are really well behaved. They love their English classes and the foreign English teachers. I couldn't walk through without students coming up to me giving me hugs and high fives. The kids really are adorable and easily the best part of the teaching experience. You almost feel a bit like a celebrity - I had a Grade 3 class that loved me and would always draw pictures and write little notes for me.
You will also have times where the class gets completely out of control and you feel like ripping your hair out. A lot of this depends on your personal classroom control style - you want your students to respect you but not be afraid of you. Your TA can also help make or break your classroom experience. The TA is either the Vietnamese English teacher at the school who sits in on your classes to help with any problems that might arise or a TA provided by your company. These TAs have varying levels of strictness and involvement.
I had one TA who would stand in front of the class and scream at the students if one of them misbehaved - she was definitely my least favorite TA to work with. She was also the only TA I had who would hit the students with a ruler or make them stand at the back of the classroom when they weren't listening. It was something that was totally new to me - I can't imagine being allowed to or wanting to hit seven-year-olds as a form of punishment. This used to be super common in Vietnam even as recent as 10-15 years ago. I think they're trying to lessen or eliminate this, but it does still happen. Teaching classes with that TA were always super challenging for me, but luckily she was the only TA I had problems with.
Overall, I've really enjoyed my time teaching here in Vietnam so far. While there have been struggles, teaching English abroad is something I've always wanted to try and I'm glad I've gotten the experience. I'm not teaching for the rest of the school year due to maternity leave, I'm excited to get back in the classroom part-time in the autumn!
Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly if you have any other questions about teaching abroad, both in Vietnam or elsewhere, and I'll do my best to help!