Luck of the ☘️Irish☘️ in Vietnam! Meet Paul Cunningham
There’s never been a better time of year to be Irish—let alone an Irish living abroad in Vietnam. Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day as an expat is a rite of passage for many young Irishmen and women. Why? You’re bound to find dozens of your fellow countrymen who want to kick back with a Guinness with you (helping to keep your homesickness in check), and it’s a time of surging national pride, even if it is for an event as admittedly silly as lucky shamrocks and leprechauns and pots of gold.
But there’s more to life abroad than developing a sense of pride in your own home country. It’s a time of challenge, of growth, and in Paul’s case… of phở. Read on to learn about this Irishman’s experience in Vietnam!
You’re in Vietnam! Amazing. Tell us your three favorite parts of living in Asia, as well as your three favorite parts of being a teacher abroad.
The cost of living in Vietnam is by far its greatest asset compared to other places. I was surprised by what you can get for around €1-2. I remember telling someone back home that if you are paying more than €10 for a meal, you are doing it wrong. Pho, Bun Cha and Banh Mi are all delicious and cost peanuts. It also applies to rent, which I keep hearing about back home unfortunately. You can get beautiful apartments and a moped to get around for a reasonable price relative to your salary. Worth considering for those looking for long term teaching gigs here.
For the tourist, being based in Hanoi there are a wealth of sights to see, as well as a lot of beautiful areas less than a few hours outside the city. Ha Long bay, Sapa, Cat Ba island, Ninh Bình and the Perfume Pagoda are all close by. Weekends after classes are the best time to go.
And for the Irish out there it is a haven for those that hated being snowed in recently. Temperatures tend to be over 20 degrees, though it’s meant to get far hotter later…
As for teaching, I enjoy living with like minded types in the same position. We can swap lesson plans and teaching tricks. If I never heard of some class control methods or games I would be very lost indeed! The Vietnamese students are very excited to see you. It’s always satisfying to see them shout out the answers and converse between each other in English. They earn the games they want to play. Never underestimate their creativity when you let them tell whatever stories they like. Many assistants give you tips on improving your teaching methods as you go on. Every Wednesday morning I have an assistant that draws up diagrams and better board layouts for the next week. It helps immensely over time.
St. Patricks Day is soon. Feeling homesick? What are your plans?
I love sending letters back home to family and friends whenever I travel, but in Vietnam, post offices tend to close whenever they like, so I have been finding it hard to buy stamps. I miss a proper fry and wearing a silly leprechaun hat, but the closest thing here is a Banh Mi—egg in a roll with spicy sauce and beansprouts.
One of the impulse buys I made at Dublin airport before leaving was a tin whistle. I have learned the national anthem and the Wild Rover for the day to show off to the many others from England, Scotland and North America. The Vietnamese also love My Heart Will Go On, so I will try and play that too! While many things from home are absent in Vietnam, the 6 Nations and GAA clubs are still around if you look, so I will be watching the Ireland v England match in one of the sports bars. No shortage of dedicated Irish fans here.
Are you going to keep teaching abroad in Vietnam? What are your future TEFL-related plans and why?
My sister and some friends have both looked at plans to visit SE Asia this summer so I would love to remain and do private tuition to stick around and show them some sights along the way. If there are summer school opportunities elsewhere in SE Asia I will go for it. I really feel that I haven’t seen it all after 2 months.
2019 may also be a chance to teach in Tokyo or Hong Kong if I keep it up for a longer career in TEFL. Both cities have been on my travel list and I would love to see a new corner of Asia.
In your opinion, what has been the most unexpected thing about the Vietnamese culture and why?
The Vietnamese stay calm in a traffic scene that the rest of the world would charitably describe as chaos. No road rage, even when mopeds bump the side of your car, or when others hit your bonnet. Lanes flow more like a river, regardless of traffic signs or if the lights are red. If you thought Dublin’s college green was a mess, you have seen nothing yet! This also applies to timing. Things just happen when they happen and not on a strict schedule. Taxi pickups for classes are a nightmare because you arrive properly on time, only for BME (my employer) to get a taxi ready 20 mins after you appear.
What makes teaching abroad an attractive pursuit for you? Can you tell us about it and how it motivates your work?
I joke to others here that I worked in a potato factory to keep up the Irish stereotype! But a truth behind it is there that finding skilled work in my field in Ireland was just not materialising, and I decided to take a career break. As it turns out, a few others are in a similar boat, taking in a different type of worldview to our own. Teaching is a great pursuit if you want to escape the dull routine and get a greater sense of the world at large while you think about what you want to do. As a standalone career choice it lets you move around, and with a lot of positions available it’s not too hard to find the right place to teach after a bit of research.
A student throws a pencil across the room. What do you do?
Take points off their team for bad behaviour, walk down, and take it off them (it tends to be a lego toy or pokemon cards). The worst was a student that was playing cards. I demanded them off him and instead he shuffled them into my hand. I got my teaching assistant down. They are fond with meter sticks when things don’t go to plan.
Would you describe yourself as a “tough” teacher or an “understanding” teacher? Explain.
Understanding. I know a few tough teachers here that get students to stay outside the class until they say so, or write their names on the board so that other Vietnamese teachers can see that some students have been bad. Compared to my own experience in school, the students are less out to get you and just like to be kids sometimes. They love you outside the classroom and playing rock, paper, scissors. So I like rewarding them when they complete classroom activities.
How do you feel about team-teaching? Is this commonly used in your Vietnamese classroom?
It depends on your Vietnamese assistant. Some are great and join in to help with class activities, which really helps with getting students excited about lessons. Others tend to prefer sitting on their desk with phone out. Luck of the draw really.
Any last words of advice for our future TEFLers out there?
Despite sounding daunting, a fully-assisted TEFL job can work even with online qualifications. Don’t be afraid to try something different if you can see only repetition in your current career. You never know who you may meet and give you handy advice on how to succeed, be it teaching or elsewhere.
Drink a cup of Vietnamese coffee for us! ☕️🇻🇳💛