For those of you who have worked abroad, or even at home, you will know that once the excitement of a new job calms down and you settle in then that’a what it is. A job. Even if you love it, it’s just a routine you are in and nothing out of the ordinary.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am loving it here. I really am. All the staff are lovely and have been really welcoming to me. The kids are great, and absolutely adorable. When I got here and was a new face around the school they all say hello and wave as you walk past. I’ve been here exactly a month now and nothing has changed. Even the teachers say hello to you.
It’s a much smaller and friendlier school than the massive school I was placed in in Thailand, where there was about 3,500 in the school. Here it’s much smaller and closer-knit, there are 250 in the whole school, that is ages 2-12.
Daily life is good here. I get up just after 7 most mornings in time for a shower and then teach at 8. One benefit of living in the school is that you don’t have to travel to work in the morning and if you stay in bed until 10 minutes before the class (which i haven’t done – yet!) then you will still be there on time. I teach 3 classes in the morning, and another three in the afternoon, finishing lessons at 4.30. I have time between classes to plan lessons for the next day and often I plan in the evenings as well. I’m not only teaching English, but science and maths too. Don’t worry, for those of you who know how terrible I am at maths it’s only to Grade 1, so it’s pretty much within my level! No sign of me getting to do any art curriculum stuff. I’ve asked what exactly they want, what classes, how many times a week etc and they said that it will happen later in the year, so who knows, but I’m here so not going to complain about that.
The situation with the boarding is fine and actually works within my routine elsewhere in the school. Tuesday and Thursday I teach an evening class from half 5 to half 7, which means that I don’t get my tea till after but it’s left out for me anyway. The boarding kids (10 of them now, all ages 10-12, 5 boys and 5 girls) arrive monday morning in time for school (which starts at 7am), and leave saturday afternoon after school. They can be trying sometimes but mostly are great kids. The school seem to have someone staying with them most nights now so I’m not really needed. I need to talk to them about that really, as there’s no point having my name on a timetable to do something then having someone else do it!
I did the ice bucket challenge with kids from the school. Lizzie and I did it at the end of school between lessons and out evening classes (we have an hour gap). The principle filmed it on our phones and the kids poured the water. It was actually really nice and refreshing having that freezing cold water poured over me. I’d do it again no doubt! Maybe I’m mad. Yes, I donated. I donated to a children’s charity in Vietnam that uses donations to provide emergency aid during disasters to children living in Vietnam, and help provide health care, medical attention and education to remote areas. (You can see the video on my instagram… see the link in the side bar to the right.)
I’m just back from a long weekend. We had Monday Tuesday off on top of the weekend as it was Vietnam National Day. Apparently there are celebrations in the big cities but I wasn’t anywhere that had anything like that. Just lots of shops etc were shut on tuesday for it but I spent the whole day on a bus (more on that later).
I decided to go to Hoi An, which is a beautiful old town near the coast about 13 hours bus journey from here. I’d been there before during my travels last year and loved it enough to go back. I had planned to fly (an hour compared to the 13 on a bus) but there weren’t any flights left for the days I wanted as it was the holiday. The other foreign teachers at school weren’t really committed to anything and I wanted to go away so I booked to go on my own. One of them stayed here and the other went to Hanoi.
I finished teaching at 4.30pm on Friday and then had a meeting which took an hour, about observations we had had during that week among other things. Mine didn’t go well. I feel that my classes are improving and I’m really enjoying it but possibly the worst lesson I’ve ever taught was (of course) the one which was being observed this week. It does worry me a wee bit since I haven’t signed anything yet they can just brush me off if I don’t work well. Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually good at anything!! I know where I went wrong in that lesson and will hopefully be able to impress them next time they observe me. I also think that being observed puts me on edge and makes me very self conscious of my lesson. Anyway, next time it’ll be better. It has to be.
My bus was at 7pm and the lady at school who helped me book the ticket was going to call me to let me know when the bus was due to arrive (it’s a long distance bus so travels from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City), or half an hour before so that I had time to walk up to the bus station. Well, I called her at ten to seven and she said the bus would be there at 8.30, which I suppose was fine because I hadn’t had a chance to eat anything since lunch and I had said I’d eat at the canteen anyway so there was a meal waiting for me when I went up there.
I headed up to the bus station for 8.30pm. On the way up there the heavens opened and a full on tropical downpour started. No, I didn’t have anything waterproof with me, just a small rucksack and a bag with my passport, money and phone in. ALL soaked. To make things worse I couldn’t find the right office at the bus station for the company my bus was booked through so I went back and forward and back again asking people, who had no idea what I was trying to ask until I showed my ticket. They would then point their hand in some vague direction and I would head off in that vague direction. Eventually, I found it. The woman behind the desk knew I was coming as the lady from school had told her to look out for a foreigner. Yup, that’s how many white folk there are round here. So I sat in the office for a few minutes, until well after 8.30, and eventually asked her using sign language and soggy watch what time the bus was coming. 10pm. Excelent. I was in two minds by that point about whether or not to just go back to school and wait there where I was comfy until the bus was due. But I waited, counting the number of rats than ran across the small dimly lit courtyard that the office was in, to use time. A bit like counting sheep I suppose!
The bus arrived. The drivers of these buses are all complete dicks and are rude and unhelpful even if you try and be patient with them. I showed my ticket and the driver pushed me out of the way. Then started driving. I said and gestured “Where do you want me to go?” someone eventually showed me the bed which I was standing right next to. I only had to climb over three people sleeping on the ground and two boxes then up a ladder into my bunk, which was at the front so about two thirds the length of the rest, because your feet go under the person in front’s head usually. So i had a very hot, bumpy (they seem to be resurfacing half the distance from Vinh to Hoi An, and they don’t have road works, you just drive over/through it), noisy (they LOVE the horn in Vietnam, and press it for every single vehicle in front of them) and uncomfortable journey. I woke up at about 6am after not much sleep at all, and not long after stopped at a road side place for a bowl of pho and a pee. Da Nang was another two or three hours at least from that point. THEN I had to get to Hoi An from Da Nang, and I was totally scammed. Idiot. I spent about £15 on a 40 minute taxi ride when I should have spent no more than ten. Not much to argue over, but when my 14 hour bus journey had cost less than the taxi ride I felt pretty stupid.
I had a shower once at my home stay, and chatted to some people in the dorm I was in. I was early for check in but it didn’t seem to matter they let me up to the room and check in. A home stay is where a family open their house and basically turn it into a hostel/hotel and then cram themselves into one tiny room at the back (it seems) but it feels a lot more genuine and homely then yet another backpackers full of stinky travellers (I class myself among those a lot of the time, but right now I am LIVING here and not travelling, so I’m not manky just yet!)
I headed into town to find a tailor to make me a pair of shorts. Hoi An is bursting at the seams of tailors (‘scuse the pun) and has become famous for them among backpackers, and no doubt other tourists too. You can pretty much ANYTHING made for you. Last year, when I was there during my travels I had two dresses and a winter jacket made. The jacket is probably the most I have ever loved an item of clothing. I just love it. Anyway, going back to what I’d started to say. i went to find a tailor to make me some shorts. $15 USD they quoted me. Cheap! Less then a pair would cost at home from a shop and then there is a big chance they won’t fit you. So, of course I let them measure me etc. I don’t know why I chose that one. It wasn’t the place I went the last time. Just a random pick of about 10 of them on a road about 100 metres long (at a push), but there are apparently anywhere between 300-500 tailors in operation at any one time in Hoi An which is a pretty small place, for THAT many. I decided that I’d get shorts, and if they were good I would consider getting more from them. I also got my feet measure to have a pair of sandals for work made at one of the many shoe places in the market.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around, drinking LOTS of coffee (I’ve said it in previous posts and I’m saying it again – Vietnamese coffee is amazing), taking pictures, sheltering from occasional rain showers and taking lots of pictures. Late afternoon the sun came out and there was a really lovely light down on the river. Fishermen bringing their catch in, families wandering along the river, tourists posing for pictures on the bridge, boats taking locals and their motorbikes to an island downstream.
One of the teachers at school had recommended a restaurant to me called Morning Glory (a green veggie here in Asia). I headed there for an early dinner, and it was lucky I did because it’s really popular and usually you need a reservation. I hadn’t made one but it was still early so I got a table, on the balcony over looking the old town. I sat there and watched it get dark while I enjoyed my meal of pork belly and coconut sticky rice. Really really nice!
After my meal I had another walk around. Hoi An is beautiful by night, lots of lanterns strung between buildings and they reflect in the water too. I went back down to the river to get some night time photos and there were street sellers selling water lanterns to float on the river. A girl about 10 years old was telling me about how they are good luck for your friends and family, and to make a wish when I put it into the water. She was really sweet and was chatting away with good english. She took some photos for me while I lowered the candle in its lantern into the river on a pole. I went away from there feeling a bit emotional thinking about friends and family back home. Not sure why particularly then, but I’ve been away for a month now so could have something to do with it.
I headed back to the hostel not long after that, feeling pretty tired having been on the go all day around Hoi An and not having slept at all after a very minimal sleep on the night bus. There was a guy who I’d chatted to in my dorm earlier on, and him and a few others were heading out for some drinks. I was going to join them but was so tired that I knew that within the next hour I was going to lose ability of conversation so I heard to bed and was asleep by about half nine.
The following morning the group from the hostel were heading to the beach, but some girls were going to a tailor to get pick stuff up. They’d used a tailor recommended by the hostel/ homestay which I hadn’t know about, if I had I would maybe have tried there. Anyway I had to be back at my tailors for a fitting at 11 to see how the shorts were so I didn’t got to the beach, but went instead with the girls into town then headed down to my tailors with one of the girls to get my shorts. They are linen and a dark grey/blue colour. Really comfy. A little short on the inside leg but not drastically. So I chose to get a skirt made and a top and a dress AND some linen trousers. The girls who worked in there were really lovely and chatty and made you feel at ease and were really helpful too.
That afternoon I was going to head to the beach. I thought I’d ask some others from the hostel to see if they were interested before heading off. As is always the way, the more people involved the longer it takes, and by the time we had headed off on our bikes that we hired from the home stay it was about half three/ four, long after I’d planned on heading off. Anyway I appreciated the company and it was a nice cycle to the beach even though the road we took wasn’t exactly the one we had planned we got there eventually and had a nice swim in the crazy sea.
I remembered from the last time I was there that the sea is wild and before you realise it while playing in the waves you can be a lot further out than you realise. We lay on the beach for maybe half an hour until the sky got really dark and the it was very windy. We were pretty sure that we’d be caught in the storm so much ran back to where we’d put the bikes and cycled as fast as we could back in the direction that we’d came. but we decided not to go the route we came and to go back the main route into town and cut across to our road further into town rather than navigating the paddy fields as we had done earlier. We cycled for ages and actually cycled past the end of our road but didn’t recognise that end of it so kept cycling. The girls kept going but I thought we were going the wrong way. I thought they said that they were going to find shelter (turns out one of them said MAYBE we should), while I just wanted to get back to the home stay. I turned round a cycled back the way we came, and I must’ve been so close to the end of the road again but I took a different road thinking it would cut through to the right part of town. Nope. It came out into the countryside and once again I was surrounded by paddy fields on either side. I didn’t recognise where I was and something felt funny about my bike. Then I couldn’t peddle. So, I was lost, out of town, the chain was off my bike and I couldn’t get it back on, it was almost dark, and it was pouring with rain. Good job Ruth. I got to a junction and chose a direction, which of course turned out to be the wrong one. I was pushing my bike, in the rain and in the dark. People were zipping past me on their motorbiked and I felt bloody miserable! Eventually, some kind lady stopped and using a stick managed to unjam the chain and get it back on. I thank you thank you thank you-ed her and headed off in the direction which she pointed when I showed her the card for the home stay. I cycled for maybe 10 minutes and then stopped and asked someone else. They were like “No no no” and pointed back the way I came. Someone else stopped and said just to ask anyone, that everyone would be happy to help me. He said to go until they were digging the road up and then take the turning. Well, i got to where they were digging the road up and cycled through the mess and mud of the roadworks until I saw a turning. It was a crossroads. Jesus by this point I was desperate and wondered if I’s ever see the light of day or the home stay again!! I shouted to a man who was sitting in a veranda and he came over and helped me, then he rang some one and told me that his friend had a chain of very nice home stays and I could stay there. I thanked him but explained I needed to go to Sac Lo (my home stay), so he rang her but still didn’t know the direction until I produced my phone. Luckily, phone data costs next to nothing out here so I have 3G all day and use it more than I use wifi and seem to never run out. I showed him the map and where we were and then he realised and said go this way (pointing) for 500km. KILOMETRES. I said that too. “Kilometres????” “Oh, so sorry. Metres.” Phew.
So, after being lost, in the paddy fields, in the dark, in the rain, in my beach stuff and a sarong, with the chain off my bike, I did kind of wish that I’d just stuck with the girls from the hostel. When I eventually got back about an hour and a half later, they had got back about 5 minutes after I’d left them. Idiot.
After the trauma of my near death in the darkness experience I decided with one of the girls who was home and dry long before I was that we would go for a massage. I had a ridiculous cramp in my leg so they spent forever trying to get it out. when we left the massage place it was torrential rain (as it had been when we went in, times by ten) so we waited a bit then cycled up the road. I was glad to be inside and off a bike and dry!!
The next morning I went on a cooking course. It started with a trip round the market getting all the ingredients that we would need for cooking. Then we (people on the course) went on a boat up to the estuary of the river that Hoi An sits on to a palm forest, where we transferred from one boat to a smaller boat in the middle of the water as it got too shallow, and we were paddled through the palm forest to a landing point. We walked into a village and were shown how to make rice milk by first soaking rice for 2 hours and then grinding it under a millstone, then pouring the result back in and grinding again, and again until it is thick and creamy milk.
Then we went to the cooking class. It was really good, fun and well organised. They made it easy, though I bet if I tried to make the things again at home I wouldn’t be able to. Just like when I tried to make Cambodian food at home after my last trip. Complete failure! I felt really proud of what I’d cooked and it tasted just as good as it looked too.
I went back to the tailors after for another fitting. Every time I decided something was finished and didn’t need any more altering I added more things to my list. At this visit I added yet another top, dress and pair of shorts. Enough, for this visit!! It’s not like I can get clothes in Vinh as I’m not exactly skinny and you can’t get “larger” sizes here, even if it is just a size 12. So my total list after that trip to the tailor was: 2 tops, 2 dresses, 2 pairs of shorts, a pair of linen trousers, and a skirt. And it didn’t even come to £60. Pretty good! I hung around town people watching until my fitting of the clothes that I had just added to my list. It’s crazy how fast they can work. Some things needed a little bit changed still. I headed back to the hostel for an hour then headed back for hopefully one last time to pick my things up. Everything was fine. Not all perfect, but some of them! I thanked the girls there. The one who I had first spoken to was pregnant and she was telling me her baby is due in January. Really sweet lady. I had a last wee cycle round the old town and a look at the lanterns.
Back at the hostel I packed my bags and then played cards with the others.
The next morning I headed back to Da Nang, in a car, for my bus. I was dreading the bus. The long distance buses have the funny beds like I said earlier. And this one was the same. They didn’t seem to want me to put my bag under the bus in the luggage bit but eventually they understood. They kept saying it’s ok you can take it on. My point was that there’d be no space for my legs. I tired to demonstrate this by holding my knee up to my chest and they just laughed. The language barrier can really be difficult and frustrating at times. The bus stopped every now and then, meals were provided. You sit in a group with others from the bus and they bring out rice and meat and tofu and veg etc to share. The first time it was fine and a girl who had translated for me when I was getting on the bus offered and said it was free. The second time there was no space at any of the tables so I just sat somewhere else. A chinese man asked me “Excuse me, madam, are you hungry? You can buy some food over here” and showed me. Really kind of him, but I was still really annoyed at the bus people. Some were pointing at me, and though I try and ignore most points and stares as it happens day in day out when you’re one of the only foreigners in your city, this time it annoyed me more than ever because they knew I was on their bus and could see I had no food, but didn’t think to come over, or beckon me over or anything. Oh well. Water under the bridge. I got back to my room at school about 14 hours after leaving the home stay in Hoi An.
This week at school has been very quiet as all English classes except for evening classes were cancelled because of the Opening Ceremony. All classes were using this time to practise songs and dances for the show. So two days after I got back I went and picked up my Ao Dai (the traditional dress for vietnamese woman, I had been and got measured the day before I went to Hoi An) with another teacher in the morning and in the afternoon we had a rehearsal, and then blew up about 500 balloons between maybe 20 people.
The next morning we were up and ready, dressed in our Ao Dai. They are really pretty but the material that they were made from was VERY hot. My face was like a river. Actually, forget river, it was more like Niagara Falls. First, we had to sing the school song on stage. Well, mime it. They just like you to lip synch. It was a good show actually and was nice to feel included and to get to wear an Ao Dai even if it was really hot. There was singing and dancing from all the kids and speeches, and some singing from various staff. Afterwards everyone had lunch in the hall together. Lizzie and I did lesson plans for the following week in the afternoon so was in the English office. There was a whole school photo taken and nobody came to get us to tell us, so we are the only people who aren’t in it. That’s a proper shame. I would really have loved to be in that. Never mind though.
Yesterday I spent the day with Lizzie, we had a very productive day, compared to most Saturdays. First we went to a huge warehouse out of Vinh a bit to do a food shop. It had so much more stuff than the place we normally go but I think I still like where we usually go better as it’s more organised and more supermarkety. We came back to school then in the afternoon we went to the cinema. Doesn’t sound that exciting? Well, the whole website is in Vietnamese and so working out film times etc was a bit of a mission but we picked a film (‘Lucy’) and headed along to get tickets. We had a coffee while we waited in a garden cafe next door. The cinema was great, and made me feel a lot more normal. It was such a treat too. The whole thing: the ticket, the popcorn and a drink cost less than £3. Wish it was that cheap at home!! For those who are wandering, the film was in English with Vietnamese subtitles. After the film, we went and found a shop that sold craft supplies so I can start making things with the kids who board in school. AND after that we stopped for tea on the way back and I tried BBQ’d chicken’s feet. There’s not much on them to eat but they are very tasty!